Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Spanish Earth

When I watch coverage of the fighting going in Libya, I know who they're talking about when they mention "pro-government forces" and "rebels". It's interesting how quickly such labels as these are assigned to contending sides in a conflict, which make it clear which side we happen to be on. The classic example of this practice was the use of the words "guerrillas" and "commandos" to differentiate Palestinians and Israelis in the 1970s. Is such brazen editorializing out of favor today?

There was another war, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in which it was easy to distinguish the right side from the wrong one, in which the names of the fighting sides were the opposite of those in Libya today. When watching the Joris Ivens documentary The Spanish Earth (1937), it is clear that the "pro-government forces" are the ones we're supposed to root for, and the "rebels" are the villains.

The historical background for the film remains, more than seventy years later, unclear. Basically, a liberal government elected to end the rule of the monarchy and the military in Spain was - eventually - overthrown by an army led by General Franco, a fascist who had the backing of Spanish hacenderos and industrialists as well as fascist Italy and Germany. Based on what he found was being written about the war after he fought in Spain, was wounded and returned to England in 1937, George Orwell was concerned that the actual events of the Spanish Civil War would possibly never be known. "The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and the forces of reaction all over the world. It is doubtful whether more than that will ever be established." ("Looking Back on the Spanish War", 1942)

Ivens was working for Pare Lorenz in the U.S. when the war broke out in Spain. An organization calling itself "Contemporary Historians", made up of a motley group of American writers and movie stars, put up the money for Ivens to make a film about the war on the Republican side. Orson Welles was the original English narrator (Jean Renoir narrated the French version), but his voice was determined by Ivens to be too theatrical. Ernest Hemingway wrote the commentary and was eventually persuaded to read it himself. The words, as usual, are laconic and matter-of-fact:

Spanish earth is dry and hard, and the faces of the men who work that earth are hard and dry from the sun. This worthless land with water would yield much. For 50 years we've wanted to irrigate but they held us back. Now we will bring water to it to raise food for the defenders of Madrid.

The "story" of the film, since Ivens decided to impose a framework on the raw footage he and his photographer, John Ferno, had shot, concerns a small farming village near Madrid, on the Republican side of the front. It opens and closes in this village. But the rest of the film is about the fighting in and around Republican-held Madrid. The government has moved to Valencia to escape the bombing by German and Italian planes. One of the planes is shot down and we are shown its strewn contents, all labelled in German. Hemingway says defiantly, "I don't read German, either."

The foreign participants got out of Spain when it became painfully apparent, as it must have been even while making the film, that their side in the conflict was going to lose. The Spaniards in the film were killed or imprisoned, emigrated to France, or lived out their lives under the rule of a regime that was the enemy of everything they understood was just and true.

Ivens includes some evidently staged scenes, and even a few self-consciously "arty" shots, like the shattered mirror in which a shattered building outside the window is reflected. Hemingway states that "men cannot act before the camera in the presence of death." There is even a trick shot of bombs falling through a plane's bomb bay doors, but in reverse so that it looks like they're coming back at us, falling on us.

When the film was shown back in the States, Ivens was asked to screen it at the White House. Franklin Roosevelt, who was one of the leaders of the Free World who did nothing to stop Franco, told Ivens that he liked the film, but that it needed more propaganda.

The Spanish Earth has had the fate of becoming an important document quite beyond its qualities as a documentary. But because it was so completely obscured by a world war that followed hard upon it, involving tens of millions instead of thousands, it was regarded as a sideshow, a kind of dress rehearsal of what was to come. The people in the film, and the cause they fought for, are all long gone.

There is a beautiful song called "Los Mozos de Monleón" that was composed by Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca (1898-1936) was a brilliant poet who supported the Republican cause in the war. He was singled out by the fascist rebels for assassination. Because he was homosexual, his assassins killed him by shoving a rifle barrel into his rectum and pulling the trigger.

In the song, "The Youths of Monleón", a group of young bloods follow the exploits of their favorite bullfighters. When one of them gets a chance to enter the ring himself, he is mortally wounded by the bull and the song ends with narration by the guitarist of the boy's dying words. The plaintive guitar at the end of the song, which can be found
here, seems to capture the sadness and tragic heroism of the Spanish Civil War.

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