Cuba: Review of ‘CHE – Part 1′ film

Portrayal of principled revolutionary reflects Che’s renewed appeal

See Tony Saunois’ pamphlet Che Guevara – symbol of struggle

Review of ‘CHE – Part 1’ film

The release of the first of Steven Soderbergh’s two part epic film on the life of Che Guevara, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, is attracting wide audiences, of mainly young people. Those who have seen the film, and who are looking for an alternative to capitalism, will undoubtedly have been enthused by it. CWI supporters can organise leafleting and book sales outside cinemas given the audiences it is attracting. Despite being a Hollywood release, the publicity and appeal the film is attracting clearly reflects the growing rejection of neo-liberal capitalism, the reaction against the Bush era and the appeal of Che Guevara as principled, revolutionary fighter. This first part is certainly worth a visit to the cinema to see.

Che, excellently played by Benicio del Toro, is never off screen throughout the two hour movie. He is rightly portrayed as a principled, honest revolutionary fighter who is revered by those who fought alongside him. His compassion for the poor and hope and confidence in humanity also rightly feature as one of his personal characteristics.

The determination of Guevara and the other fighters who took up the struggle with him is graphically projected onto the screen. As his character says in the film on the crossing to Cuba, “Of the eighty two combatants who set out only twelve would survive”. You can almost feel the pain of his constant battle with asthma throughout the long guerrilla campaign in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, as he struggles to march or speak to his troops.

The film begins with Guevara meeting Fidel Castro for the first time, in Mexico, in 1955, and then rapidly moves to the landing by guerrilla fighters who joined them in Cuba, and the war which followed, leading to their conquest of power in January 1959.

As a biography of Guevara, this is possibly one of the film’s weaknesses. His famous ‘motor-bike’ tour of Latin America is omitted and therefore fails to portray the crucial impact this had on him. This experience, and what Che witnessed, drove him to abandon a potential career in medicine to take up revolutionary politics. The grinding poverty and exploitation he saw throughout the continent was also to re-enforce Che’s spirit of internationalism (which does come through in the film). There is no mention of the decisive effect of the military overthrow of the Guatemalan populist regime of Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, which drove Che and others to draw more radical left conclusions.

Differences between Che and Castro

There is no doubt that many young people seeing the film will be motivated by the image of Che and the Cuban revolution. It touches on the main political questions that arose during the military campaign and hints at other important questions that arise from the Cuban revolution and its immediate aftermath. However, perhaps inevitably in a Hollywood production like this, many of these questions are only touched on and hinted at.

One striking example – one of the most important episodes in the film – is a meeting involving the leaders of other opposition groups and forces in the July 27th Movement, who are trying to limit the objectives of a post Batista government. Guevara privately protests to Castro that these groups will “sell Cuba to the US” and that he has no time for them. Castro defends the agreement. In this exchange, there is a hint of differences between Castro and Guevara. What is omitted is that Guevara was looking for the revolution to go much further and he supported the idea of socialism, even if he did not grasp which social class (the working class) needed to be consciously at its head. Throughout the film, Che is only seen arguing for revolution and not socialism, which is a big deficiency.

The question of the role of the movement in the cities and the guerrilla forces is very rapidly skirted over, with Castro saying they support a movement in the cities but that the guerrillas are the leadership. There is a danger that the portrayal of the guerrilla struggle led by a small group can strengthen the illusion amongst some youth that it is possible for a small force, by taking up arms, to “trigger” or “detonate” a change in society. To draw such a conclusion from this film would be a mistake, ignoring the specific conditions which existed in Cuba, at the time, and how events unfolded. These are important and complex questions which one would not normally expect a Hollywood production to address, and this film does not. It does hint at differences between Castro and Guevara, however.

Principled fighter for the oppressed

Throughout the film, the empathy that Che had for the plight of the oppressed and poor is a recurring theme. His concern to ensure that those taking up the struggle can read and write and be educated is portrayed, often in quite a humours way. Similarly, his devotion to revolutionary morality during the struggle and in building a new society is well documented. When one small group of guerrilla fighters abuses its power, robbing and sexually assaulting a local peasant family, Guevara is outraged and agrees to their execution.

Following the fall of Santa Clara, when he encounters a group of fighters who have stolen a car to drive on to Havana, Che reprimands them and makes them return it, ordering them to get a jeep or “walk”, if necessary. “Unbelievable”, pronounces Che as he heads off towards Havana.

The drama of the bloody battle for Santa Clara is one of the highlights of the film and Che’s heroic and decisive role is graphically depicted. Here, the brutal role of the Batista regime is revealed, as the generals ordered the bombing of the poorest areas of the city. The building of barricades and coming out onto the streets of the local population and subsequent collapse of the military and police forces, in the face of the revolutionary onslaught, is dramatically portrayed.

The film alternates between the guerrilla struggle and some events following the revolution, including Che’s visit to New York and his address to delegates at the United Nations. His rebuttals of right-wing reactionary Latin American delegates, who criticised Cuba during these exchanges, are quite devastating, especially his attacks on the Venezuelan and Panamanian secret services and their record on human rights, following attacks these states had made against the revolution. He also lambasts US imperialism for its role. Yet, at the same time, Che is quoted as saying that the revolution is opposed to “The US government and we have nothing against the American people”. In these exchanges, the oppression of the black and Latino population is also raised, as a part of Che’s attacks on US imperialism.

Another revealing incident is shown when he attends a party at which the Democratic Party Senator, Eugene McCarthy, is present. When introduced, Che immediately says he wishes to thank the US. McCarthy, somewhat taken aback, asks why. Che replies, “For the Bay of Pigs invasion”, which he correctly said, allowed the revolution to consolidate its base of support.

Che’s internationalism

As the revolution triumphs, the film also succeeds in drawing out that for Che, this was just the beginning. When one of his fighters asks for permission to go back home now the revolution has won, Che replies, “No. We have won the battle not the war”. Here, we see Guevara’s internationalism again. Returning to his meeting with Castro in Mexico, a revealing exchange between the two is completed. Castro, having asked if, with only a few fighters, no money and not even a boat at that stage to cross to Cuba, Che thought he was a “little crazy”, to which he replied “A little”. Castro then asked if Che would join the expedition, to which Che responded, “With one condition…when we have taken Cuba we will extend the revolution to the rest of Latin America”. Revealingly, Castro retorts, maybe it is you “who is little crazy”.

The production of this film is a comment on the appeal of Che Guevara to a new generation, which is beginning to search for an alternative to capitalism. It will serve to raise awareness of the significance of the Cuban revolution, fifty years ago, and the events which took place and presents a generally positive portrayal of Che Guevara. However, it is not as good as Warren Beattie’s “Reds” movie which was produced in the 1970’s, depicting the Russian Revolution. It should not be expected that a film of this character draws out the lessons of Che Guevara’s struggle for today, or some of his wrong methods and ideas. It is an epic which is still worth seeing, if somewhat lengthy in parts. Indeed, on occasion it feels that some of scenes are being played out in ‘real time’. Events following the revolution, up to Che’s execution in Bolivia, are dealt with in ‘Part 2’, to be released at the end of February.

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January 2009