Into the Fire is a spirited documentary about a fascinating subject, the 80 American women that joined several thousand male members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and served the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Illustrated by well-edited news footage and hundreds of rare photographs, the docu consists of first-person testimony, live interviews and letters read by actors.
As a record of the Spanish Civil War as experienced by Americans, Into the Fire can't be bettered. Using the resources of a special archive housed at NYU, producer - director Julia Newman communicates the political mindset of the volunteers and records their righteous outrage when the Fascist rebels receive key 'assistance' from Mussolini and Hitler.
The docu recounts the experiences of young American idealists, often motivated by Depression-era politics, happily signing on to serve in a foreign war thousands of miles away. The women did it not for glory but to fight Fascism. We follow the personal diaries of a score of volunteers, all of whom found a cause worth risking their lives for. While most of America ignored news from Europe of crimes against human rights and in particular against Jews, these women threw themselves into harm's way. Among the passionate volunteers is a young black woman who felt that by fighting Fascism she would also be making things better for blacks in America.
Into the Fire fascinates us with its bright young faces seen in period photos and newsreels. Even in casual snapshots these women have an idealistic glint in their eyes, and could be motivated activists of any decade. We wonder how many of them were living independent lives, or if they defied their families to volunteer. In Spain, they become battlefield nurses, assisting overworked doctors in caring for huge numbers of severely wounded soldiers. As in any emergency, they rise to unexpected tasks. Orderlies quickly learn to be supervising nurses, and top nurses take over operations when doctors collapse in exhaustion.
The war is shown in film montages, some of which include field hospital footage. Letters back home plead for aid. Publicity efforts to budge America from its non-interventionist position are depicted; Eleanor Roosevelt is in contact with several of the nurses and works on their behalf. The famous writer Dorothy Parker visits with the nurses and writes eloquently of their commitment. Ernest Hemingway brings Joris Ivens' film The Spanish Earth to New York as a fund-raiser. But the illusion persists that the Loyalists are receiving ample aid from Europe to counter the Fascists. In reality, aid to the Loyalists is reduced to a trickle compared to German and Italian military assistance. The Germans use Spain as a testing lab for their war machinery. The Fascists effectively blockade cities like Barcelona, causing mass starvation. The Loyalist cause is doomed. The letters from the nurses tell the truth, that Spain is the real beginning of WW2.
The last section of the documentary is quite moving. The Loyalists withdraw their foreign troops and nurses, hoping to convince the Fascists to do the same (this sounds naïve in the extreme). The nurses must leave and are given a heroic sendoff. They're mostly ignored back in the States, as if what they had done was irrelevant. Poland was invaded only a few months after Madrid fell, but back home the volunteers were treated with suspicion, as 'premature anti-Fascists.' We see interviews with them as older women; survivors are honored at reunions.
The docu righteously celebrates the American volunteers and condemns the Fascists, but almost completely sidesteps the role of Communism in the Spanish Civil War. The properly elected Loyalist government was a coalition of left-wing political parties dominated by Communists. The Loyalists received substantial aid only from the Soviet Union. It wasn't nearly enough to counter German and Italian assistance to the Fascist rebels, who could count on American and English loathing of Russian-style Bolshevik revolutions.
Generalissimo Franco's Fascists also had the backing of the Catholic Church, as the Communists didn't conceal their intention of reducing the role of the Church in society. With the Church, the landlords, the Germans and the Italians on the Fascist side, the Loyalists were left with little but their idealism. The will of the people could only fight so long against new terror policies like aerial bombardment. Franco's agents successfully spread the lie that the eradication of the Basque town of Guernica was only a rumor. In America, Loyalist sympathizers made pitiful propaganda, like Walter Wanger's unsuccessful film Blockade, in which a young Henry Fonda wails, "Where is the conscience of the world?" To avoid the "ism" arguments, Blockade didn't even identify the sides in the war. Into the Fire acknowledges its heroic women as dedicated to fighting Fascism, but pulls back from identifying the volunteers as supporters of causes still deemed radical and dangerous. Thus popular history continues to discount the contribution of 20th century social activists.
Into the Fire sticks to the personal memoirs of the volunteers, and remains a stirring reminder of what it means to be committed, to put one's life on the line for what one believes. What we remember most are the faces of the women, never too tired to smile for the snapshots.
First Run Features has a winning show in their DVD of Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War. The flat-formatted docu is carefully encoded, and only occasionally do film clips look rough; some of the volunteer interviews are archive material as well and show their age.
A video featurette takes us inside the Archives of activism on the NYU campus in New York. A timeline of the Spanish Civil War is included along with an annotated photo gallery and a biography of director Julia Newman.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War rates:
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