Ernesto Guevara: the man behind the t-shirt

Che: Part One captures brilliantly the determination of the rebels and the cowardliness of Batista that led to the events of 1959.

Robin Walsh

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The fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution has arrived at a time of change on the island. The accession of Raul Castro to power in Havana, taking over from his ailing brother Fidel, has raised the possibility of economic and political liberalisation. Also, the forthcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as US president has put the lifting of the US-Cuban trade embargo, which has crippled Cuba’s economy for the past 50 years, back on the agenda.

Arriving just in time for all this is the new film Che: Part One, a biopic of the eponymous Argentine guerrilla Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, one of the leading lights of the Cuban revolution and all-round icon of rebellion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring the remarkable Guevara look-alike Benicio Del Toro, the film has provoked a mixed reaction. Ranging from borderline hysteria that anything positive could be said about a ‘Stalin-worshiping, mass-murdering Communist’ (1), to declaring Che ‘a model of the intellectual as man of action’ (2), the film, and the Cuban revolution’s anniversary, has provoked an outbreak of nostalgia, either for the Communist bogeyman of the Cold War or for a radical youth long gone.

The film itself is excellent. Exciting, violently realistic and well acted, it traces Guevara’s journey from his first meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955, to their seizure of power in Havana in 1959. It compellingly conveys the malarial sweatiness of the jungle-based guerrilla fighting that led up to the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s regime, and gives a flavour of the political motivation behind the rebels’ activities.

After the rebels’ journey to Cuba by boat, we rejoin them in the Sierra Maestra mountains, isolated and hunted after being routed by government forces. Employing textbook guerrilla tactics (a book which Guevara in fact went on to write), based on Mao’s peasant revolution in China 10 years earlier, they work to build support among the local peasants, providing them with free medical care and teaching their supporters to read. They avoid confrontation with government troops when necessary, and attack at other times, keeping the initiative despite continual harrying by the US-backed Batista regime.

As they move down from the mountains to the plains, Castro’s 26th July Movement tries to unite the various other rebel bands and urban factions that want to oust Batista. You get a feel for the political complexity of the situation that Guevara and Castro launched themselves into – but unfortunately, this is not explored more than superficially. Despite Guevara’s voiceovers quoting Marx, the film doesn’t make clear that the politics of the 26th July Movement was more populist nationalism than explicitly communist (though Guevara himself was a Marxist at the time). Cuba’s leftward move into the Soviet camp was precipitated mainly by the diplomatic and economic isolation imposed by the US from 1959 onwards.

The film culminates in the battle for the city of Santa Clara, as the guerrillas advance on Havana; there’s a half-hour-long urban clash that has an intensity worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. The tenacity of Guevara’s guerrillas contrasts with the decadence of Batista’s crumbling regime – with privates and generals alike unwilling to put themselves on the line. This internal collapse, which is depicted very well, seems to be the real source of Castro’s victory.

Amidst all the action, we are given grainy black-and-white glimpses into the future, where Guevara is in the United States as a representative of Castro’s government. These sequences dramatise Guevara’s interviews with journalists, and his 1964 address to the United Nations, enabling the historical Guevara to speak in his own words. It is striking that these latter-day scenes are shown in almost blurry black-and-white while the earlier historical period is shown in clear, digital colour: Soderbergh seems to be contrasting the clarity and purposefulness of the Cuban rebellion with the later murkiness of Castro-in-power.

Overall, the film comes across as a little hagiographical – not a single frame would be retouched by a putative Cuban censor. Guevara’s abandonment of his wife and child is implied rather than spelt out, and the people he executes are all thoroughgoing bastards – taking away some of the moral ambiguity of guerrilla violence that has made for engaging and complex drama in other films, from The Battle of Algiers to The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

But in some ways, this partisanship is one of the main strengths of the film. Unlike many other contemporary cinematic ‘heroes’, Guevara’s actions aren’t explained by his emotional needs, but by his political beliefs. He isn’t a flawed character in Soderbergh’s film, trying to exorcise his demons – he is a political actor, trying to reshape a nation and taking considerable risks as he does so. This Guevara is the antithesis of the ‘Che’ who is glorified on a million t-shirts today: the focused determination of Soderbergh’s Che contrasts with the lack of seriousness of many of those who claim and wear his image now, who simply want to make a two-fingered salute to authority. It is this aspect of Del Toro’s Guevara, so out of keeping with contemporary expectations of childishness or vulnerability, that gives the film its oddly propagandistic feel.

It will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do in Che: Part Two, addressing his failed attempt to spread his revolution beyond Cuba. But however that film turns out, and whatever the use and abuse of the legacy of the Cuban revolution for contemporary political ends, the resourcefulness of the guerrillas depicted in Che: Part One speaks for itself, presenting an example for our depoliticised times of people who took politics seriously enough to try change their world.

Robin Walsh works in medical publishing and is co-convenor of the Institute of Ideas Current Affairs Forum.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) There is nothing revolutionary in this radically dull film about Che, Daily Mail, 1 January 2009

(2) Che: Part One, Guardian, 4 January 2009

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