Battleship Potemkin is a film depicting a run-down mistreated crew aboard a Russian battleship during the Russo-Japanese war. The squalid conditions under which the crew works is revealed to the audience and the sailors through the quality of their food. In the first sequence of the film “Men and Maggots” the men are given a rotting maggot-ridden piece of meat.
“The meat could crawl overboard on it’s own!” the men shout in outrage. After inspection the captain instructs them to eat the meat anyway. The image of the meat crawling with maggots is a very powerful image. The maggots swarm and wriggle through the meat much as the men move about the ship. There are many of them in tight quarters and so they are skilled at maneuvering about packed areas. The contrast of texture between the captain’s smooth clean skin and the raw ragged meat emphasizes the difference in life styles between the commanders and the crew. The captain’s hand is iridescent and plump with perfectly shaped fingernails, not a callous in sight. This is the hand of a healthy man who has not labored a day in his life. Whereas the maggots are lean and pale, the color of sickly skin, crawling along the scraggly surface of the meat. The men are underfed, overworked and live in squalor compared to their commanders.
Through the captain’s eyeglass we can see how he perceives his crew: beneath him, inhuman, undistinguishable. He doesn’t know the crewmembers personally or even know their names. He doesn’t even see the crew as a group of individuals, instead they are one mass that he must direct: one mass of indistinguishable bodies at his bidding. This condescending perception allows him to mistreat the crew without it affecting his conscience.
Ironically, the captain’s perception of the crewmembers as one mass also brings them together in solidarity. When the men refuse to eat the meat the captain summons them all to the deck and singles out a small group for execution. He does not handpick the individuals, he merely condemns the slowest moving of the crew. He seeks to cripple the uncooperative organism that is the crew by killing part of it and reasserting his dominance. The men realize the absurdity of the punishment and shout “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” This is the turning point of the crew’s identity. They realized that they are all in the same situation and have joined in solidarity, a crew with a single consciousness. Much as the maggots took over the crew’s raw meat, the crew swarms the ship and claims control. With their white caps the crew even resembles a swarm of maggots from an aerial view. The imagery of maggots throughout this film plays a crucial role in emphasizing the dehumanization and solidarity of the Potemkin crew.