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The Spanish Civil War remains as one of the longest and bloodiest
conflicts involving a major country, and it's impossible to sum up its
many nuances. You'll get one view of the conflict here with incredible
footage of war and glimpses of rural Spanish life.
This, however, isn't a documentary as much as it is straight Soviet-style propaganda. The style of the film, from the poor farmers bettering themselves with a homemade concrete irrigation system to the election of soldiers to hear impassioned political pep talks from movement leaders, s straight from the Stalnist manual of Lifestyles of the Glorious Peoples. This isn't meant to Red-bait any of the participants -- they truly believed in a "free" Spain, and fascist-backed Francisco Franco's regime wasn't the answer, either -- but the reality was far different and is only now coming to light after 70 years.
The Spanish Civil War was also very much a fascist/Soviet proxy war, and the Soviet Union had a not-so-hidden hand in its direction. Look carefully at the fighting sequences, and you'll see very atypical people in different-style uniforms guiding artillery and directing troops.
As a historical insight -- despite what now appears to be a ham-fisted approach in propaganda -- the film is priceless. And many thanks for TCM and its ever-expanding programming efforts in broadcasting the film in July 2007; hopefully, we'll always have somebody unwilling to slice, dice and crop something and still call it a classic, ala AMC.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I find this documentary film about the Spanish Civil War deeply moving. There are several causes. One is the narrative, which is done by Ernest Hemingway, a personality who for some reason has always appealed strongly to my imagination. And then there is the war itself, which is legendary especially among people with progressive inclinations. It was there and then, that a democratically elected government and a peoples army tried to resist the fascist troops of Franco. The civil war soon obtained international dimensions, when the Italian and German fascists started to support Franco. The peoples army, on the other hand, was reinforced by tens of thousands of international volunteers, united in international brigades. Ernest Hemingway was among these, as well as Joris Ivens. The film narrates of illustrious battle scenes, such as the defense of Madrid, in particular the heroic fight for the Argand bridge over the Jarama river. Just the name awakens in memory the sound of the pertinent Ernst Busch songs, another veteran of the Civil War, giving shivers along the spine. In addition, the time was politically interesting, since for the first time anarchist cooperation methods seemed to work out in a fruitful way. The film succeeds brilliantly in catching the contemporary spirit of hope and heroism. A large part is devoted to realistic (albeit probably partially enacted) battle scenes, where the republican army digs in against the fascist attacks. There is however also plenty of room for rural scenes, of village life at and just behind the front. It was vital to maintain the food supply to the beleaguered city of Madrid. And life in Madrid itself is shown, with the bombardments by the air force of Franco. We also witness the speeches and debates in the Spanish parliament. Of course the film is not neutral or an objective account. The story is clearly romanticized and sometimes dramatized, for instance when we see the farmers son writing letters home, or returning on leave to his family. And although I am not an expert, the democratically elected government actually seems to have been far from ideal. There were many abuses, and the intervention of the communist brigades does not help in increasing its good reputation. Nevertheless, it is still obvious who are the good guys, and who are the crooks. The film contains plenty of movement and action, and it ably addresses our feelings of sympathy. It are films such as Misere au Borinage and this one, which imho makes Joris Ivens a greater film maker than Eisenstein. If you fancy war films or the Spanish Civil War, this film is definitely a must-have.
This jumbled and disjointed documentary by the Republican Government of
Spain against the Nazi backed Fascist revolt by Franco's military has
sufficient civilian carnage and idealism that must have inspired
sideline support in its day. It is also a valuable document of
eyewitness clarity that informs a mostly forgotten era during the rise
of Fascism In Europe. Written and narrated by famed novelists Ernest
Hemingway and John Dos Passos who would later break with each other
over Republican practices the film's primitive construct sometimes acts
as a metaphor for what was truly a chaotic conflict with poorly trained
volunteers manning the front lines with incredible spirit against the
well oiled Nazi backed machine. In its day though it must have served
its purpose being played for sympathetic audiences cheering the
principals and inspiring others to the cause.
Hemingway makes for a weak narrator and the editing and sound is pedestrian obfuscating the flow much of the time but the spirit and determination of this idealistic stand by a group branded as pre-mature anti-Fascists comes thru loud and clear.
The movie makes no conventional attempt to situate viewers at the
outset. Instead we're plunged immediately into a series of images
loosely organized around the theme of hard Spanish earth. However, the
pastoral scenes soon give way to images of fighting men. But in the
absence of explanation, viewers can't be sure if the soldiers are
Republican or Falange (fascist). It's only after about 15-minutes, we
find out these are people supporting the republic. Maybe Ivens or
Hemingway is making a subtle point by withholding information, but the
absence could be confusing to contemporary viewers.
The movie itself has some compelling images; however, I doubt that most go beyond generic war imagery of that time. One does, nonetheless, get a sense of the impact on the civilian population in the areas surrounding Madrid. In no sense is the film a survey of that bloody civil war as a whole. Instead, it's a narrow slice from the loyalist republican pov. But neither is the movie simply Stalinist agitprop, (the Soviets supported the elected government; Hitler and Mussolini the Falangist rebels; while the US and England remained neutral). Rather, a strong subtextual theme appears to liken support for the republic to bringing water to the dry Spanish earth, a not unreasonable pov.
It's also worth noting the anti-fascist side quickly became a cause-célèbre among artists and intellectuals disgusted by the US and England's refusal to aid a fellow democratic government. Thus the movie has a number of illustrious names attached to it. It's likely because of these names that I expected more than the overall result delivers. Nonetheless, the brief documentary remains a snapshot worth watching, even for those unfamiliar with the historical period.
Spanish Earth, The (1937)
*** (out of 4)
Nice documentary from Joris Ivens about the struggles of the Spanish Republic who were trying to save their lives against forces led by Gen. Franco who was being backed by Nazi Germany. Ernest Hemingway narrates this documentary, which lasts just over 53-minutes. At that short of a running time you know not every aspect of this legendary battle is going to be talked about so if you're needing a history lesson then this here probably isn't going to be for you. We really don't learn too much about how this battle got started and of course there's no conclusion but THE Spanish EARTH remains rather interesting simply because of the images and the heart behind the storytelling. There's no question that the production company and director Ivens wanted to stand up against those they felt were doing evil things against human beings only wanting to put food on the table for their children. There are many striking visuals where we see people waiting in line for food, which of course runs out before everyone could be fed. We get images of the young men going off to war to fight and of course with war comes the images of many who lost their lives. The production is rather crude as the cinematography isn't all that impressive and there are many issues with the sound but this really doesn't take away from the film and in many ways it makes it even more raw. What I was most impressed with where the images that really put us in the middle of this battle and one of the most striking happens at a bread line where we see that even bread has been stamped so that the poor knows who it belongs to. Film buffs will notice that Orson Welles gets credited for "narration" but his vocals were dropped and replaced by Hemingway.
Probably more shocking at the time, this dated essay on war documents the good peasants and peoples army vs. the bad professional army and foreign troops. One of the earlier times that a camera was permitted to document the horrors of war, the production attempts to tell the moral message of the righteousness of the Republican cause -- but ultimately the film denounces war itself. Despite its noble crew, the documentary is slow-moving and suffers from what appears to be a voice-over of a silent film. A must see for those who have to see something about the Spanish Civil War or who have to hear Hemingway's voice, but this is not an evening's entertainment. The Why We Fight series done by the US Army during World War II is far superior. The horrors of war were captured for the present generation on their TV screens during the Viet Nam War.
This famous "on the fly" barely-feature-length documentary about the
Spanish Civil War was endorsed by the likes of writers Ernest Hemingway
(who provides the dry narration), John Dos Passos, Lilian Hellman and
actor Orson Welles (whose name also appears on the poster but whose
vocal contributions were eventually dropped). Starting out with the
images of farmers 'testing' for water sources on their lands, it soon
settles down to denoting how the conflict was affecting a besieged
Madrid: from the breadlines offering insufficient stamped supplies to
the clandestine Loyalist meetings to the destruction left in the wake
of the Fascist (read Nazis and Italians) aerial bombings.
Although the Spanish Civil War would be the subject of several Hollywood movies most prestigiously via Hemingway's own epic FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943) and cast an indelible shadow over the careers of future native film-makers (especially Carlos Saura), we know precious little about the conflict itself and, tellingly, we do not learn much here either; indeed, Ivens is merely content to observe panicking villagers mourning their dead and loss of property and report we are told that the bearded Loyalist officer seen here organizing and inspecting his troops will die in the next assault! Perhaps the most striking moment occurs when a bike-riding mailman enters a building and has to literally skip over the corpses of victims still blocking the foyer entrance! Interestingly, the U.S. funded production was selected by the "National Board of Review" as one of the year's Top 10 foreign films!
During the time this documentary was made, Hollywood was rife with Communists. For some reason there were scores of Hollywood types who thought that Socialism was the way to go despite all evidence to the contrary. The production company that made this documentary was made up of a whos-who of Communist sympathizers, Jos Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman, etc. As a result this documentary is completely slanted to one side, the side of the Republicans, which were supplied and supported by the Soviet Union. There is absolutely no attempt to be even handed in the presentation, Republicans=Good, Nationalists-Bad. If you decide to view this documentary go into it with the forewarning that none of what you are seeing is in any way even handed.
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