Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 23. September 24, 1969
Films — Revolutionaries:
Not even the moguls of Hollywood remain unaffected by the large-scale campus revolt among those who make up over 50 per cent of today's cinema audiences. But cashing in on the Che Guevara martyr cult is probably the extreme in an industry which has hitherto classed material for young audiences into the sex and violence categories finding expression in films ranging from beach bikini bonanzas to finding happiness in a hot rod.
Mind you, the political aspirations of Che! (20th Century-Fox) will be shunned by all self-respecting socialists, though few will not gain from seeing it. The style and structure of the film is built around the now-common documentary-fiction type which characterised Privilege. From behind-the-credits shots of demonstrations it cuts to Guevara's bullet-ridden corpse, to a Cuban emigre in Miami saying what a good thing it is that he is dead, to a young Cuban schoolteacher in Cuba who praises Che because he is grateful to him for being able to read and to pass that skill on to the younger generation. Thus at the outset two contradictory views of Che are weaved in and out of the overall narrative. Background narration is given by various characters who either knew Che intimately or who came up against him, depending on their positions. We see brief scenes of the two-year struggle in the Sierra Mastra from the near-elimination of the guerilla band which arrived on a Cuban shoreline in the Granma and its gradual growth into a revolutionary army. Throughout this period Che is pictured as an outsider (he was Argentinian) whose obvious talents are recognised and he becomes a commander along with Fidel Castro. But here one of the film's many intrepretative faults intervenes. Che is built up so much that Castro is seen as being in Che's pocket. It was Che who suggests and criticises Castro's ideas, yet when these are finally acted upon Castro gets all the credit. The film is forced, through its shortness, to compress to the point of incomprehensibility in terms of thematic development. Highlights only are chosen and though this is the only way to make a dramatic point, the drama is too heavily emphasised for the sake of effect and superficial impact rather than exploring motives. The 1964 missile crisis is glossed over almost as an excuse to get Che out in the jungle again so that more action can take place. No real depth of political analysis is bothered about, though this is hardly to be expected. But once out in the jungle again things pick up, at least visually. The Bolivian campaign section takes a fairly critical look at what happened, using, I suspect, the severe criticisms Che himself made but did not intend for public knowledge. Thus it is fairly certain that peasants in Bolivia were pretty backward and would not know a revolutionary if they fell over one, but on the other hand the Moscow-oriented Communist Party is painted black because it placed country first and revolution second. The film clearly points out what effect the Moscow sabotage had on Che's forces and the restrictive nationalistic views of the local politics. Bolivia, after all, was chosen primarily not for its inherent revolutionary potential but because it was centrally situated in South America and had the terrain which would suit a mobile guerilla army.
The eventual capture and execution of Che's forces is done with a degree of diplomacy. A Bolivian army officer, with a clear American accent, absolves the CIA at the same time admits that CIA-trained forces make up the vanguard of the anti-guerrilla forces. There is a bit of muttering about studying Che's book on guerilla warfare, but this is a snide and subtle criticism of the Americans' being impressed by working from books. They seem to think that if you read Che's books (or Mao's for that matter) and study them in political science you know all about how peasants are tricked into naughty communist revolutions. Cunning indeed. Che underlines this incomprehensibility gap just before he is shot.
From this brief synopsis it can probably be seen that the faults in Che! lie mainly in its brevity and the need to highlight rather than develop a level narrative. It is perhaps notable that other Hollywood epics of revolutionary figures of ancient and modern times (Spartacus, Barrabas, Zapata) were full-length studies. Che! is, however, done on the cheap. Many of the same actors repeatedly appear in different guises, and there are few large scale set pieces. It lacks the wide scope and potential given to the blockbusters, concentrating more on the more close and sometimes more sordid aspects. There is nothing of the Russian-type massive lifting of the spirit evident in all the films on the 1917 Revolution where inaccurate millions are involved, creating a surge of reaction in the audience. In other words the Che cult is given lip-service but the emphasis is on personal weakness and by implication those who adulate him. This is of course a more sensible path than corny hagiography, but it also seems to smack of knocking something for the sake of it.
Technically the direction (by Richard Fleischer of Boston Strangler fame), photography and music (Lalo Schifrin) is up to scratch and, surprisingly, the acting is good. Omar Sharif, contrary to impressions from his latest stuff that he is a complete dead loss, is vindicated and Jack Palance is tolerable as Castro. And if only the scriptwriters (Michael Wilson, who ought to know better, and Sy Bartlett) had known better than to include the two most embarrassing sequences (the Russian ambassador-Che-Castro confrontation and the old peasant at the end) it could have been that much better.