Guerra Civil: The Spanish Civil War on Film

civil warFrom 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.


I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

25 thoughts on “Guerra Civil: The Spanish Civil War on Film

  1. I found the Spirit of the Beehive the most mesmerizing (and ‘accurate’) portrayal of childhood I’ve ever seen: it managed to capture all the mystery of it, the wonder, the playfulness, the inexplicability. Children’s reactions before death; an absent father; an emotionally distant mother, and so on. The Civil War veiled references remained marginal to me, and in the end not at all important for understanding the film. I would even see it as an allegory of the wonders of cinema itself, rather than a political allegory.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Nandia. I agree that the post Civil War setting may not be that important to the overall power of this great film. However, it is generally accepted that Erice was making political points about the period, and that much of the atmosphere would not have been so intense, were it not for the recent conflict having such an impact on the inhabitants of the town. Hence my inclusion in this article, as a film set just after the Civil War, with references to it.
      It stands alone nonetheless, and the viewer does not have to have any knowledge of that war, or interest in it, to enjoy the film for its own merits.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

      • I had the privilege to see the movie presented by its director and I was surprised by how ambiguous and unwilling he was to attach a specific meaning to his film (I had also read, prior to viewing it, the political interpretations). It makes sense that an artist would not want to predetermine the responses of viewers to his work. All in all, a very powerful film, and one that should get more exposure, so I’m very glad you included it in your list!

        • Thank you Nandia. Seeing the film in the presence of the director, and discussing his motives and ideas behind it, certainly caps anything that I may have seen and read about it.
          I am jealous now!
          Best wishes as always, Pete.

    • Thanks for your comment. I hope that you are inspired to watch some others about the period. If you liked ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, I think you would like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ too, as it has a haunting theme, in both senses.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  2. Very interesting piece. Years ago, I saw For Whom the Bell Tolls and enjoyed it, but I absolutely loved Pan’s Labyrinth. (I am a person who likes all things weird.) After a few minutes, I didn’t even notice the subtitles. It was that good–in my opinion.
    Love reading your insights in all things. Keep ‘me coming.

    • Thanks Kathy, glad you liked it. If you can forget subtitles, (something I have strangely always been able to do) then there is a feast of entertainment and thought-provoking film making in this small selection.
      Your kind comments are very much appreciated.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

  3. A fascinating list, which has reminded me how much I love Land and Freedom. I’ve been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War since I first read about it as a teenager, and for me that film encapsulates the complexities, stupidities and horrors that ensure when politics turns to violence. As you say, Loach doesn’t avoid the awkward issues, and that makes it a powerful and moving piece.

    • Thanks Andrew. It is good to encounter someone else with a fascination for this tragic war. I remember thinking, as a teenager, if it had happened in the 1960’s, would I have had the courage to go? Probably not, as by that time, we had all seen a lot more about the realities of combat. It was an inspirational cause though.
      Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  4. Pete, back in the 1980’s I had a large lithograph of the Guernica hanging on the wall. My knowledge of literature is mostly limited to French literature, so although I have read, for example, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” I have never read “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” In other words, I’m fairly ignorant of the Spanish Civil War. So I do appreciate your mention of these films, and I enjoyed watching the film clips. To be honest, I have, on several occasions, considered purchasing “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a film that Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed between his two “Hellboy” films (which I do have on DVD). But it seems I should not only buy “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but also seriously consider these other films (with the possible exception of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” as your review was not favorable). By the way, I once spent a week camping in Spain (1992) in a small coastal resort town (Llançà), but also visited Figueres (Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dalí) and Barcelona ( Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família). So I really have no excuse for having such a blatant lack of knowledge of Spanish history! Thank you for this excellent introduction to films on the subject!

    • Hi David. You are not alone in your confessed ignorance of The Spanish Civil War, though as you have visited Figueres and Barcelona, you have trod in the footsteps of some fierce fighting. This war had such significance for the future, with the German Condor Legion trying out their bombing on Guernica, and other cities, and the country being used as a practice ground for the war that followed, I find it amazing that history seems to have neglected it so much. There were Americans fighting there too, as volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigade. I hope you get to see some of the films, and yes, you should definitely buy ‘Pan’s labyrinth’!
      Regards as always, Pete.

  5. Great stuff, Pete. Also an admirer of Loach but “Land and Freedom” has escaped my notice, will have to check it out. Agreed that all serious film fans should see “Spirit of the Beehive.” Right from those beautiful opening credits you realize your seeing something special.

    • Thanks Rick, I can unreservedly recommend ‘Land and Freedom’. Though it is wordy stuff, it is completely worth the effort. Glad you agree on ‘Beehive’ too.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  6. Thanks Pete. Great list. Are you familiar with The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca? I’ve never seen it, and it got mixed reviews back in the late ’90s, but it looks very interesting to me.

    • I did see that film around the time it came out Jon, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was that great. Certainly interesting, but not really on a par with so many others that I could have included here. I had to stop at five, or I would be sending in an article twice as long! Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Sean. I did give ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ a mention in passing, but did not want the piece to be too long, so I had to make a hard decision there! Regards, and thanks for the comment. Pete.

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  8. Pete, Thank you for another inspired concept article. I have never seen Land and Freedom, which now goes to the top of my list.Loach is one of my favorite directors, but his films can be difficult to see. The only one I havebeen able to seesince The Wind that Shakes the Barley was Route Irish, which was the only movie out of the more than 70 I saw at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival that was worth a damn. It made me so ashamed to be a human being that I couldnt even look anybody in the eye while leaving the cinema.

    • It has a similar feel to ‘Wind That Shakes The Barley’ Bill, and feels very much like a Loach film, despite the subject. I hope you get to see it, and that you enjoy it too. Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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