“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.
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.