From 1936 until 1939, Spain was torn apart by a bitter civil war. This almost forgotten conflict was the precursor to the world war that soon followed, and was one of the bitterest, and cruellest civil wars in modern times. You would need to read a book, and there are many to choose from, for a detailed explanation, but here is a short overview. Republican Spain was invaded by Nationalist forces from home and abroad, determined to restore the power of the Right in politics, as well as that of the Catholic Church and the Royal Family. The Republican forces were a mixture of regular army and civilian militias, composed of volunteers from most left-wing parties, trades unions, and anarchists. On the Nationalist side were disgruntled army officers, including Francisco Franco, troops from North Africa, and royalist militias.
The world was soon involved, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy helping the Nationalists, and Russia, together with foreign volunteers called the International Brigades, aiding the Republicans. It was a heartless war, with family against family, and with atrocities committed by both sides.
The war has been featured in many films since, and here is a selection from the many that exist.
For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)
The American writer, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the novel on which this 1943 film was based, had a long fascination with Spain. Made during the Second World War, and starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, the film was nominated for a number of Oscars, and was the most popular film of that year. Concentrating on the efforts of a small group to destroy a supposedly important bridge, like many films of this type, an implausible love interest is provided in the form of Bergman. The settings are often studio-bound, and the script feels stodgy and stilted. The decision to keep the formal language of the book was ill advised and makes the film feel older than it is. Despite much critical acclaim, this film does not do the novel justice, and the wartime production seems suitably intended to reflect anger by proxy against the Germans, who the ‘free world’ was fighting at the time. The Spanish characters are little more than caricatures, and the complexities of the war are never really explained, or even hinted at satisfactorily. It could have been so much better, and I was left wanting a lot more.
Once Franco’s power was waning and Spain was no longer so terrified by dictatorship, a new breed of civil-war film emerged, made by Spaniards or sympathetic foreign directors, and reflecting the years of repression and attendant hatred. Some of these films dealt directly with events in the war, and others had themes that were totally different, but were set during those turbulent times.
Spirit Of The Beehive (1973)
By 1973, with Franco still in power in Spain, film-makers managed to make some more serious films about the war and its aftermath. This marvellous debut from Victor Erice uses allegory delivered emotionally, and seen through the eyes of a young girl after the end of the war in 1940. In a remote village, she sees the film Frankenstein (1931) when it is shown by a travelling cinema. Fascinated by the monster, the girl becomes obsessed with the film, and certain scenes stay in her mind. When she later discovers a fugitive Republican soldier hiding in a farm building, she resolves that he should not meet the same fate, and gives him food and shelter. It ends in tragedy, when the man is discovered and killed by Franco’s police. The girl becomes withdrawn and has visions of the monster. As in the film, she was unable to help the persecuted creature. This film has marvellous use of light, and dramatic settings in the Spanish countryside. It is an enthralling debut, and should be seen by anyone serious about modern cinema.
Ay Carmela (1990)
In 1990, the acclaimed director Carlos Saura made this story about the Civil War. Taking the title from a popular wartime song, he cast the wonderful Carmen Maura in the lead, as part of a travelling troupe of entertainers who are touring the battlefields, presenting their show to Republican troops. In the confusion of war they are captured by Nationalists, and meet soldiers of the International Brigades who have travelled far to fight in the cause of Spain. Carmela is affected by this, and shocked when the prisoners are taken away and shot. The troupe are later told that they must present a show for their Nationalist captors. She reluctantly agrees to take part, but uses the opportunity to ridicule the Nationalists, and celebrate the Republican cause. As a result, she is shot and killed by one of the officers. Once again, the story reflects some of the tragedies and absurdities of this confusing war, and tries to inject humour alongside the pathos. Little known perhaps, but a truly great film from one of Spain’s leading directors.
Land and Freedom (1995)
In 1995, British director Ken Loach made one of the definitive films about the Civil War, and gave Ian Hart his best role to date. Told in flashback, it begins when a family find old letters following the death of their father in Liverpool. They tell the story of how the young unemployed man, a member of the Communist Party, leaves Liverpool to fight in the war as a volunteer. We see him travel to Spain, where by chance he enlists in one of the many militias, the POUM. This was a Trotskyist organisation, and was against the Stalinist ideas of many of its contemporaries. There are echoes of the George Orwell book, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, in which Orwell describes similar experiences during this war. Given Loach’s well-known left agenda, he does not shy away from the political issues. We see priests with guns and the shooting of prisoners. Hart’s character experiences combat at the front, which is shown authentically as sporadic and unglamorous, with the volunteers poorly equipped, and constantly arguing amongst themselves. The centrepiece of the film is a heated debate with farm workers, peasants, villagers, and the militia that has just saved their home from Nationalist occupation. In this long and wordy scene, Loach manages to encapsulate all the issues surrounding this complex war.
The powerful Communist militias and their allies do not agree with the stance of the POUM, and the ultimate sadness is played out on the streets of Barcelona, when International Brigade troops are brought in to suppress the Catalan volunteers, with bloodshed on both sides. Hart’s character finds himself fighting opposite another British volunteer in the ultimate irony. This is a terrific film and arguably Loach’s best work, with convincing performances by the whole cast, many of whom are actual residents of the locations where filming took place.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
In 2006, the Mexican film-maker Guillermo Del Toro made his second film set in and around the Civil War (he had previously made The Devil’s Backbone five years earlier) and he excelled himself, with this classic of modern cinema. Set in 1944, five years after the end of the war, with the fascists in control of Spain, they are still hunting Republican guerrillas who have refused to surrender. The story focuses on the unhappy childhood of young Ofelia, whose mother has married a cruel army captain and is carrying his child. He takes his new family on campaign, determined to hunt down and kill all the remaining Republican sympathisers. The captain tortures captives and kills a doctor who comes to their aid. To escape this cruelty, Ofelia lives in a world of fantasy, where she sees fairies and apparitions of monsters as well as completing imagined tasks to become the princess of the fairies. This leads her to the labyrinth of the title, and though we see it realised, we know it is all in her mind. Or do we? The film ends in tragedy, mirroring the tragic fate of Spain. It is simply a masterpiece, winning three Baftas, three Academy Awards, and receiving numerous other plaudits too. On this occasion, they were well deserved.
There are other great films about this war, but too many to write about here. If you are interested in the subject, seek out Butterfly’s Tongue (1999), Vacas (1992), and Fiesta, a French film, from 1995. I hope that this has inspired you to learn more about this tragic war, and to enjoy the films featured.