Orson Welles Narrates the Russian Revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World (1967)

“St. Peters­burg, cap­i­tal of Rus­sia. Octo­ber the 25th, 1917. The time: twen­ty-one min­utes to ten in the evening. At anchor in the riv­er Neva, the cruis­er Auro­ra waits to take her place in his­to­ry. In pre­cise­ly one min­ute’s time, the crew, led by Bol­she­viks, will fire a shot to sig­nal the attack on the win­ter palace.” So begins Ten Days That Shook the World — not John Reed’s 1919 book of reportage on the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, nor Sergei Eisen­stein’s 1928 film based on it, but a 1967 doc­u­men­tary by Grana­da Tele­vi­sion. And who speaks those words? You won’t have to hear any­thing more than “St. Peters­burg” to rec­og­nize the voice of the one and only Orson Welles.

Welles could tell the sto­ry of any­thing, of course, and he does the expect­ed good job recount­ing that of the fall of Nico­las II, the Keren­sky regime, the Bol­she­vik takeover, and the Rus­sia that rose there­after, work­ing from a script by the Sovi­et film­mak­er Grig­ori Alexsan­drov, who co-direct­ed Eisen­stein’s film. As we lis­ten to Welles speak, we see imagery drawn from a vari­ety of sources: pho­tographs and news­pa­per clip­pings, inter­view footage, con­tem­po­rary news­reels, and even scenes from his­tor­i­cal fea­ture films about the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, espe­cial­ly Eisen­stein and Alexan­drov’s pic­ture.

I like to think that Welles appre­ci­at­ed this method of doc­u­men­tary con­struc­tion, which com­bines an over­all adher­ence to fact with occa­sion­al visu­al depar­tures from it — though the pro­duc­tion tight­ly inte­grates the “fic­tion­al” footage with the “fac­tu­al” footage, and the for­mer has in many cas­es shaped our col­lec­tive men­tal image of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion more than the lat­ter has. He would step deep into this are­na him­self less than a decade lat­er with F for Fake, his final, sui gener­is piece of film­mak­ing osten­si­bly about art forgery but real­ly, in both its form and sub­stance, about the line between the true and the false.

Watch­ing Ten Days That Shook the World here almost a half-cen­tu­ry into 1967’s future — itself a half-cen­tu­ry into 1917’s future — makes it impos­si­ble not to think about the con­tin­u­um of his­to­ry, and the shift­ing ways in which we’ve told and retold the sto­ries of those who came before us all along it. “Who dare say where the road they began to trav­el in 1917 will final­ly lead them,” asks Orson Welles of the Rus­sians at the doc­u­men­tary’s end, “and us?” The ques­tion holds up today just as it did fifty years ago — or indeed a hun­dred.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Red Men­ace: A Strik­ing Gallery of Anti-Com­mu­nist Posters, Ads, Com­ic Books, Mag­a­zines & Films

War & Peace: An Epic of Sovi­et Cin­e­ma

F for Fake: Orson Welles’ Short Film & Trail­er That Was Nev­er Released in Amer­i­ca

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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