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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Cuban Story


Cuban Story
All Day Entertainment
1959 / b&w/ 1:37 / 50 min.
Starring Errol Flynn, Fidel Castro, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
Cinematography ?
Film Editor ?
Original Music ?
Written, Produced and Directed by Victor Pahlen and ?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the oddest pieces of film to come down in the pike in a while is this 'found object' from the film vault of Victor Pahlen, the producer of a handful of European features. It purports to be a documentary about Errol Flynn's journey across Cuba before the revolution, to meet with Fidel Castro himself. The story behind the film is as weird as the film itself.

Synopsis:

In a set consisting of a desk, a map, and a globe (to show where Cuba is), Errol Flynn boozily pontificates about 'powerful and important freedom fighter' Fidel Castro. Film clips contrast dictator Fulgencio Batista's cronies and generals as they review troops, against visuals of poor campesinos. The story of Castro's failed coup attempt, the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, show soldiers standing cruelly over the bodies of Fidel's 'massacred' fighters. Travelling East, we see revolutionary troops in the hills, and the destruction wrought by Batista's army in a town. Then follow images around the time of Fidel's final entry into Havana on New Year's Day. Fidel and his aides are shown at various public appearances, including a congratulatory trip to Venezuela. The inept narration presents Fidel Castro as a great leader coming to power over a grateful nation.

All Day's really done it this time. Apparently, while helping Arriane Ulmer Cipes track down prints of her famous father's movies (an entire series of which have been released on All Day discs), David Kalat made contact with the heirs of the producer of one of Ulmer's films, Victor Pahlen. That has led to the All Day release of two of Pahlen's as yet unreleased-in-the-USA efforts, Gunman in the Streets, and this strange collage of Cuban docu material. The confusing liner notes tell a story that's too unbelievable not to be at least partially true.

Living out his last drunken days enjoying the night life in Havana, along with his buddy-producer Victor Pahlen, Errol Flynn loaned his name and time to this proposed documentary about Fidel Castro. The docu as shown here is a collage of almost unrelated scenes, sloppily introduced by a very drunk-looking Flynn. It's impossible to tell if he's a major creator of the movie, or was talked into doing the introduction on a moment's notice for a lark.

The actual title on the film is the illiterate The Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution, and it has almost no credits. According to Victor Pahlen's daughter, the film was shown once in Moscow, and then put away until now. She says that when the Cuban film archives saw it, they told her it contained footage of Castro even they didn't have.

Basically, the film is a mystery not entirely explained by the liner notes. Flynn is described as a supporter of the Batista regime, which is believable, although the charge that he was a 'lifelong fascist sympathizer' (stemming from one muckraking book from the late 70s  2) isn't universally accepted. The footage claims to be an account of Flynn's trek across Cuba to find Castro before the revolution, but there's no evidence of that on-screen. There is no live-action film of the two together, only some stills, and we cannot tell when or where they were taken. The only film footage of Flynn in Cuban Story shows him escorting some women into a casino. The Batista footage was obviously shot with the dictator's blessing, and there's plenty of 'library' footage of Cuba from earlier in the '50s.

Unless I'm missing something here, it looks as if Flynn and Pahlen, sensing that Batista would fall, got the idea for a pro-Castro docu. Being first out with real footage of the new liberator of Cuba might net them a fast buck. They did meet with Castro, as we see very convincing photos of Fidel and Flynn together - but we have no idea if that was in 1958, before the turnover in power, or afterwards. Pahlen shot the intro with Flynn, but we have no hard evidence that Flynn had anything more to do with it. Flynn eventually split for Vancouver, where he died, on the 14th of October, 1959. Pahlen cobbled the film together, arranging the bookended intros with Flynn and writing narration to give the idea that this was Flynn's personal 'diary' footage, even though all of it appears to come from Castro's archives.

The assumption, that the liner notes do not make very clear, is that Pahlen (or Pahlen and Flynn) made some deal with Castro to create a pro-Fidel docu using revolutionary newsreels. There are a couple of reels of interesting footage shot in the hills with the insurgent revolutionaries, plus large-scale documentation (some shot from helicopters) of mass rallies ... but none of it shows Flynn or any indication that Pahlen shot it. The docu also uses some sensitive film footage that Batista's henchmen left behind. We see military festivities and what looks like police-shot footage showing really scary-looking thug cops in action. One very tough captain appears in more than one shot; the camera lingers on a trio of young men shot and rolling in agony on the sidewalk while the cops watch nonchalantly.

A lot more of the footage, particularly around the jubilant entry into Havana, is so ragged that it could be the home movies of a Castro associate. Many shots are obviously staged, almost like family gatherings. Che Guevara is shown several times, in his beret and maintaining a macho radical cool. All of the revolutionaries wear military garb and carry arms, no matter what they're doing.

The narration is worse than useless, talking about details (people's names, etc.), without giving us obviously relevant information or context - where the heck are we? What's going on? The liner notes identify the narrator as Errol Flynn, but it sounds like a totally different voice. To Savant, this looks like some kind of botch job where Flynn could be corralled only long enough to put in an hour's effort, and then went back to his usual dissolution. If guessing is permitted, I have further visions of Victor Pahlen, on his own, needing a finished product to justify his funding from Castro, and feverishly jamming this mess together without help from anyone.  1 The artistic object was probably to finish a showable reel, and scram before Castro realized he'd been had. Since the film remained in Pahlen's possession all these years, it's credible that he accompanied it personally to the U.S.S.R.. As Pamela Tiffen said, "That's short for Russia."

All Day's DVD of Cuban Story is an okay presentation of what amounts to some invaluable raw film footage marred by the producer's highly dubious 'documentary' format. Since the narration is less than useless for credible facts, what's really needed is some Castro-Cuba expert to interpret the footage on another track, the way a professor did for Synapse's Triumph of the Will. We easily recognize Che. but who are the rest of Castro's inner circle who cluster around him? Are any of the women his famous lovers?

For once, All Day has given Cuban Story an excellent cover design, one that might gain some attention on the DVD racks. There's a disclaimer on the back about a sometimes substandard quality to the disc, but except for a few blacks that fill with digital grain (a fault with some other All Day titles that Savant doesn't correlate with bad source material) the quality is fine. Much of the soundtrack consists of a needle-drop of a chorus singing Fidel's revolutionary song, a jaunty ditty whose lyrics are comprised of zingers like:

"Adelante Cubanos, que Cuba premiará vuestro heroismo, porque somos soldados que venimos a la patria a liberar".  3

Kyra Pahlen took out a copyright on the title in 1996; perhaps the confusion in the liner notes was a compromise to suit her personal take on her inherited film. All Day has followed through as best it could with its own view of the circumstances of the filming.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cuban Story rates:
Movie: Fair, but very good as raw historical footage
Video: Okay
Sound: Okay
Supplements: Short introduction by Kyra Pahlen.
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: May 12, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Frankly, it looks exactly like what a producer who fancies himself a writer would come up with, working without an editor. (That's editorial humor.)
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2. The book was by Charles Higham, but it's not listed with Amazon.com. 'Woggly' has graciously found a reference to it, here .
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3. "Forward, Cubans, Cuba will reward your heroism. Because we're soldiers who come to liberate the fatherland!" (Gracías a Marycita.)
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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