The Spanish Earth
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Hardly had Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens walked down the gangplank of the ship that brought him to America in February, 1936, than he found himself immersed in a fast-breaking film project. In July, 1936, the five-month-old elected Republican government of Spain was attacked by rebel right-wing generals soon to be led by Francisco Franco. Thus began the bloody, divisive Spanish Civil War that raged until 1939, when Franco's professional soldiers finally overcame democracy's amateurs and the foreign volunteers that rushed to their aid, including, from America, the Lincoln Brigade.
In an effort to generate support for the Loyalists, as the Republican side was known, the American Popular Front, whose ranks were swelled by artists of anti-fascist conviction, launched a film project to propagandize for the Republican cause. Ivens, a militant Communist who had made films in the Soviet Union and the depressed Belgian mining area known as the Borinage, was to direct it. The Republican sympathizers' efforts first resulted in a film called Spain in Flames. Consisting of footage from various sources, with most of the newsreel material pro-Franco, augmented by Soviet footage of the front lines, it was problematic. Said Ivens: "I remarked that it would be cheaper and more satisfactory in every respect to make a documentary film on the spot." And so he did, financed to the tune of $18,000 by writers Archibald Macleish, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and others.
The resulting film, The Spanish Earth (1937), is a double documentary, depicting up close and personal the war's death and destruction, and the Spanish people's efforts to turn seized lands into communities, but also epitomizing the openly engaged convictions of the American left with the immediacy and urgency of a front-line dispatch from a war zone when the documentary form had begun flexing its muscles and finding out what it could do. Ivens had the good sense to let the film evolve as conditions demanded, abandoning large portions of an original scenario by himself, Macleish, Dos Passos and Hellman featuring re-enactments, dramatized narration and semi-fictional characterizations. Thematically, the finished film shows peasant soldiers against a counterpoint of civilians collectively growing food on their newly acquired lands confiscated from feudal landlords in the village of Fuenteduena to feed the men on the front lines.
The original idea of presenting the film as the acted-out political education of a village soon gave way to stronger and far more compelling material. Ivens reunited with his European cameraman, John Ferno, to shoot the Spanish footage, which he kept sending back to New York to be edited by his longtime Dutch colleague, Helen van Dongen. Enter Ernest Hemingway - in several important capacities. Veteran war correspondent Hemingway knew battle conditions, and soon found himself advising Ferno where to place the cameras for minimum risk. He also carried equipment around and wrote the narrative commentary. After Orson Welles, originally designated to speak it, was deemed too theatrical-sounding, Hemingway spoke it as well (TCM is airing the version narrated by Orson Welles).
The words, and the way Hemingway speaks them, add fullness and dimension to The Spanish Earth. His flat, sometimes raw intoning of his own words gives them an urgency a slicker-sounding narrator would have undermined. "This Spanish Earth is dry and hard," are the first words we hear him speak. This is Hemingway before he became Hemingway the litterateur, before his clipped style became imitated into parody. Each word seems a polished stone, a piece of the human condition taken to an irreducible minimum. And it is Hemingway who sums up in a sentence the reason Ivens had to scrap his original filming blueprint and give himself and the film over to the very thing that makes it the powerful human experience it is: "Men cannot act in front of the camera in the presence of death."
Those words, spoken with conviction, are the key to the film's enduring power. Many a documentary maker has been tripped up by asking people to portray themselves for the camera. Many times, the minute they do, they lose their authenticity. Not here. As often as the film shows us soldiers stumbling into battle in squads of six - then, as Hemingway reminds us, five, then four, then three - we see them in small human moments, reading newspapers off-duty, getting haircuts, taking a cigarette break. Not for The Spanish Earth the overwhelming robotic symmetries of rank after rank of Nazi troops in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), the polar opposite in agitprop of The Spanish Earth, with its dehumanized masses right out of Metropolis (1927). These Spanish soldiers always seem local boys temporarily uprooted from their homes, but essentially individual village lads joined in a cause, fighting against heavy odds.
Both sides had foreign help. We see German bombers and artillery in action. We see respectfully photographed corpses of Italian Fascist troops sent to aid the fascist rebels. We see no signs of the Soviet Union's support of the Loyalists (or the sidestepping by France, Britain and the U.S. of what proved to be a dress rehearsal for World War II). Only four brief scenes remain of Ivens' original plan to tell the story through a farm boy, Julien, gone off to war, then returning home to eventually train new recruits. Even the legendarily fiery Communist spokeswoman, La Passionaria, somehow seems more powerful and less canned, not in the newsreel shots of her, with clenched, upraised fist, addressing a crowd, but in her words being blared through a primitive loudspeaker in a field. The idea and images of the land remain the yin to the film's combat yang. The film ends on a note of double triumph - workers put in place the last of a set of hollowed-out logs acting as a conduit for water to irrigate a hitherto parched field in Fuenteduena, and a single Republican rifleman fires the last shot in a successful Loyalist defense of a bridge over the Tagus River, on the Valencia-Madrid Road running through the village.
Like most important films, most films that stay with you, The Spanish Earth is carried by its faces, whether of a village baker (it makes no difference that he looks smilingly into the camera) beaming over loaves of freshly baked bread with union imprints perforating their crusts, or a panicked mother bolting down a street trying to make it to a bomb shelter during the shelling of Madrid. The rawness of the footage - some is even unfocused and blurry - adds to the film's power. The deaths we see in the streets of Madrid - a couple of schoolboys, a corpse in suit and tie being tossed into a wagon collecting the dead bomb victims - are the real thing. How could you stage anything as impactful? Only occasionally are Ivens' lapses into estheticism felt. A religious statue photographed against the sky through a tangle of barbed wire. Farm workers grouped in a ploughed field as Ivens' compatriot, Vincent Van Gogh, might have grouped them during his own time spent in the Borinage. These look authentic, but in a composed way, somewhat at odds with the esthetic of the rest of the film.
Ever since Robert Flaherty staged scenes of Inuit life in Nanook of the North (1922), debate has raged about without resolution about what a documentary is and should be. At the time, Macleish and the film's other left-leaning backers fired back at critics of the film's lack of objectivity by saying that any such objectivity would be spurious, and that committed filmmaking not only is a defensible goal, but is more urgent, more deeply human. Later, cinema verite's filmmakers took heated issue with this stance. Yet repeatedly the realism in the detailing of The Spanish Earth presages cinema verite, right from its start with long shots of fields against picturesque hills against which sounds of shelling and plumes of smoke in the distance seem incongruous. Where you may stand on the cultural and esthetic assumptions behind The Spanish Earth is arguable. But of its you-are-there immediacy and the heroics involved in capturing it there can be no doubt. Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., founded in 1949 by James Card and one of America's four major archives with The Library of Congress, The Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film Archives, contains few more important artifacts among the 25,000-plus titles under its roof.
Producer: Herman Shumlin (producer, uncredited)
Director: Joris Ivens
Screenplay: Lillian Hellman, Archibald Macleish (story, uncredited); Prudencio de Pereda (Spanish adaptation, uncredited); John Dos Passos (English narration, part one); Ernest Hemingway (English narration, part two); Joris Ivens (uncredited)
Cinematography: John Ferno; Joris Ivens (uncredited)
Film Editing: Helen van Dongen
Cast: Manuel Azana (Himself, President of Spain), Jose Diaz (Himself, Parliamentarian), La Pasionaria (Herself), Enrique Lister (Himself, Republican Army), Commander Martinez de Aragon (Himself, Republican Army), Gustav Regler (Himself, German writer), Orson Welles (Narrator (English version - later replaced by Ernest Hemingway, voice), Ernest Hemingway (Narrator, English version) (voice, uncredited), Jean Renoir (Narrator, French version - Recitant (voice, uncredited).
by Jay Carr
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