Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, released in 1925, tells the story of a Russian naval mutiny and the political massacre that follows. For 90 years, it has been referenced in numerous films; some of the recreations may have even gone unnoticed. From The Godfather and The Untouchables to 28 Weeks Later and even Woody Allen’s Bananas, Eisenstein’s film has been immortalized through directors of the present. Without these references today, the famous scene on the Odessa Steps or the old woman who was shot in the eye may have both been lost over time.
There is the counter-argument that some may call it ‘stealing;’ that writers and directors who take from films before them are being unoriginal. I believe the act of paying homage lies in the intention of the filmmaker, artist, or even more broadly, creator. A creator who respects and is inspired by the work in which he or she is paying tribute is more just in their actions. A creator who blatantly steals the work of others, by not acknowledging it, is of ill intent, especially if they claim it as their own original idea.
But why does one pay homage? Is it because we are emotionally moved by a scene that we would like to continue its existence in our own form? Is it because the scene was well-received by the masses and parodies of it are inevitable? Or are we being unoriginal burglars? Whatever the reason, we cannot deny the fact that some of the most memorable scenes in film history have been tributes to films before their time. The climax of The Godfather where Moe Green is shot in the eye and Barzini falls down the steps are both references to Battleship Potemkin. The robbery method by Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction is a reference to The Great Train Robbery from 1903. Films such as Battleship Potemkin and The Great Train Robbery are held in such a high regard in the history of film that they have not lost their influence on our culture.
Of course, there are aspects of more recent films that have been referenced in other movies and cartoons of today: the slow-motion fighting from The Matrix, running up steps in a tracksuit from ‘Rocky,’ and “Here’s Johnny!” from The Shining. These are just a few examples of scenes that have been parodied to no end. Paying homage and parodying can be two different types of reference, though.
There can be a familiar comfort in seeing the great filmmakers of today referencing the legends throughout the history of film. It is an evolution. And these great filmmakers are the ones who carry on the history, while simultaneously creating their own.