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One of the very few Hollywood feature films to depict the Spanish-American War, A Message to Garcia (1936) should definitely not be looked to for historical accuracy, but rather as an entertaining, vigorous melodrama. After all, any film that casts Barbara Stanwyck as a Cuban patriot, with perfect hair, lipstick and clothes in the middle of the Cuban jungle, is definitely one to be taken lightly.
John Boles stars as U.S. Army Lt. Andrew Rowan, who is sent by President William McKinley in 1898 to Cuba to deliver an important message to General Calixto Garcia, leader of the Cuban revolutionaries fighting the Spanish. The United States has been provoked into the war by Spain, and McKinley wants to enlist the help of Garcia's men. With the message sealed in wax and strapped to his body, Rowan makes his way to Cuba where he must deal with murderous Spaniards, a crocodile-infested jungle, and medieval-style torture (doled out by Alan Hale, no less!), while also finding time for romance before he finally locates the general.
In reality, Rowan did exist and he did deliver a message to Garcia, but the message was verbal, and none of the melodramatics happened, though he did run the genuine risk of being captured as a spy. McKinley also ordered Rowan to report back on Spanish manpower and weaponry on the island, which he did, successfully. Later, Rowan commanded a troop of American soldiers in the war and received the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1899, writer Elbert Hubbard wrote a brief essay called A Message to Garcia, which was not about Rowan's feat per se, but rather used Rowan's story as an example to illustrate the kind of reliability, competence and initiative that Elbert found all too lacking in most American workers. Rowan didn't ask questions once he was given his assignment, Hubbard explained, he just went off and figured out how to accomplish it efficiently. "Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals," wrote Hubbard, "the man who can 'Carry A Message to Garcia.'"
Hubbard's essay was eventually published in pamphlet form and translated into three dozen languages, selling many millions of copies. (The essay can easily be found online.) It entered the public consciousness to such a degree that the phrase "carry a message to Garcia" became a popular expression, basically meaning "just get on with it without making a fuss."
A Message to Garcia was first made as a silent film in 1916 by Thomas Edison. For the 1936 version, additional source material included Rowan's own memoir, but again, accuracy was not really a concern.
Critics of the day were savage, blasting the film for its fictionalizing of a famous and beloved wartime event. The New York Times, for instance, labeled the screenplay "ridiculous" and called the overall film "historical claptrap... almost silly enough to pass for burlesque. Neither badly stated fact nor well-handled fiction, it stands forth nakedly as an absurd and trivial melodrama which is made all the more annoying because Twentieth Century-Fox would have you believe it was partly true."
Trade paper Variety was a bit more willing to judge the film on its own terms. While acknowledging the script gave "no thought of fidelity to the historical incident upon which this picture is based," it praised the film for its "robust" melodrama and "first-rate production." Even Variety, however, had a tough time accepting Barbara Stanwyck in this one, calling her badly miscast as "a Cuban girlie who speaks her native language with an English accent and English with no accent at all." On the other hand, several critics agreed that Boles was excellent as Rowan, and that co-star Wallace Beery practically stole the picture as a soldier of fortune.
A Message to Garcia was produced by 20th Century Pictures and distributed by the newly formed 20th Century-Fox -- one of the first titles to bear that new logo. Seen today, audiences can enjoy it for what it is: a melodrama that uses the "message to Garcia" story as a starting point for an amusing adventure with an eclectic cast.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan (book); Elbert Hubbard (essay); Gene Fowler, Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, W.P. Lipscomb
Cinematography: Rudolph Mat
Art Direction: William S. Darling, Rudolph Sternad
Film Editing: Herbert Levy
Cast: Wallace Beery (Sgt. Dory), Barbara Stanwyck (Raphaelita Maderos), John Boles (Lt. Andrew Rowan), Alan Hale (Dr. Ivan Krug), Herbert Mundin (Henry Piper), Mona Barrie (Spanish Spy), Enrique Acosta (General Calixto Garca), Juan Torena (Lus Maderos), Martin Garralaga (Rodrguez), Blanca Vischer (Chiquita)
by Jeremy Arnold
Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia
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