Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Che Guevara in military fatigues, 2 June 1959
The release of the first of Steven Soderbergh's two-part biopic on Che Guevara coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution. It is attracting wide audiences of mainly young people. Given that many of those seeing the film are looking for an alternative to capitalism, Socialist Party branches are organising leafleting and book sales outside cinemas. TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers' International, looks at how the film deals with the important political questions raised.
Despite being a Hollywood release, Che's publicity and appeal reflect the growing rejection of neoliberal capitalism, the reaction against the Bush era and the appeal of Che Guevara as a revolutionary.
Excellently played by Benicio del Toro, Che is never off screen throughout the two-hour epic. He is portrayed as the principled, honest, revolutionary fighter he was, revered by those who fought alongside him. His compassion for the poor and his hope and confidence in humanity correctly feature among his characteristics.
The determination of Guevara and the other fighters who took up the struggle is graphically projected onto the screen. In the film, Che says of the crossing to Cuba that: "Of the 82 combatants who set out only twelve would survive". At times you can almost feel the pain of his constant battle with asthma through the long guerrilla campaign in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra as he struggles to march or to speak to his troops.
The film begins with Ernesto 'Che' Guevara meeting Fidel Castro for the first time in Mexico in 1955. It then rapidly moves to the landing by the guerrilla fighters who joined them, and to Cuba and the war which followed, leading to the conquest of power in January 1959.
Disappointingly, the portrayal of Che's famous 'motorcycle' tour of Latin America is excluded, and therefore also the trip's crucial impact on his political direction.
As a biography, this omission is certainly one of the film's weaknesses. What he 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 reinforce his spirit of internationalism, which the film shows.
Nor does the film mention the decisive effect of the military overthrow of the populist Guatemalan regime of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 which drove Che and others to draw more radical left conclusions.
There is no doubt that many young people who see this film will be motivated by the image of Che and the Cuban revolution and become politically active to change society. Che touches on the main political questions that arose during the military campaign but, perhaps inevitably in a Hollywood production like this, only hints at other crucial issues that arise from the Cuban revolution and its immediate aftermath.
One of the most important episodes in the film provides a striking example of this. Che joined a group called the 'July 26th movement' which was led in part by Fidel Castro, and had the aim of removing Batista from the government. A meeting took place involving the leaders of other opposition groups and forces in the July 26th movement. Guevara privately protests to Castro that these groups will "sell Cuba to the US" and has no time for them. Castro defends the agreement with the opposition groups.
This exchange hints at the differences between Castro and Guevara. What is absent is Guevara's desire for the revolution to go much further than it did. He supported the idea of socialism even if he did not grasp which social class needed to be consciously at its head, the working class. Throughout Che is only seen arguing for revolution and not socialism, which is a deficiency of the film.
The question of the role of the movement in the cities and the guerrilla forces in the rural areas is very rapidly skirted over. The film shows Castro saying they support a movement in the cities with the guerrillas in the leadership. But there is a danger that this portrayal of the guerrilla struggle can strengthen the illusion among some youth that it is possible for a small group, 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.
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 have the right to be educated is portrayed - often in quite a humorous way.
Similarly Che's devotion to revolutionary morality, both during the struggle for, and in the building of, 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, the last town to be taken from Batista, he encounters a group of fighters who have stolen a car to drive on to Havana. He 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. Che's heroic and decisive role is graphically depicted. The brutal role of the Batista regime is also revealed, as the generals order the bombing of the poorest areas of the city. The building of barricades and coming 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 to right-wing reactionary Latin American delegates who criticised Cuba are quite devastating.
Following attacks made on the revolution by the Venezuelan and Panamanian secret services he attacks their record on human rights at the time. He lambasts US imperialism for its role. At the same time he 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 US black and Latino population is also raised as a part of his attack on US imperialism.
Another revealing incident is shown when Che attends a party at which the US Democratic Party Senator Eugene McCarthy is present. Che immediately says he wishes to thank the US. McCarthy, somewhat taken aback asks why. "For the Bay of Pigs invasion", Che retorts. This, he correctly explains, allowed the revolution to consolidate its base of support.
As the revolution triumphs, the film illustrates how, for Che, this was just the beginning. One of his fighters asks for permission to go back home now the revolution has been won, but Che replies: "No. We have won the battle not the war". Here his internationalism shines.
Returning to his initial meeting with Castro in Mexico, there is a revealing exchange between the two. 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". Che replied: "A little". Castro then asked him if he would join the expedition. To this Che responded: "With one condition....when we have taken Cuba we will extend the revolution to the rest of Latin America". Revealingly, Castro retorts that maybe it is Che "who is a 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 it presents a generally positive portrayal of Che Guevara.
However, Che is not as good as Warren Beatty's Reds which was produced in the 1970s and depicts the Russian Revolution of 1917. It should not be expected that a film of this character draws out all the lessons of Guevara's struggle for today or explains some of his wrong methods and ideas.
It is an epic though which is certainly worth seeing - if a little lengthy in parts. On occasion it seems that some of the scenes are being fought in real time! Events following the revolution up to Che's execution in Bolivia are dealt with in part two which will be released at the end of February.
Che Guevara - symbol of struggle, by Tony Saunois
£5 + 10% p&p, Published 2005. 90 pages paperback
This book, first published in 1997, discusses the life and role of Che as a revolutionary, the ideas of guerrillaism, and the attitude of Marxists to this form of struggle.