The documentary presents a simplistic account of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of the American volunteers who fought on the side of the democratically-elected government. Sticking to the facts as presented by the filmmakers, Spain in 1936 was a turbulent democracy governed by a coalition of leftist political parties. The aristocrats, industrialists, Catholic Church, and military officers feared the growing power of the peasants and unionists. In July of that year, fascist general Francisco Franco launched a coup. Expecting a quick victory, Franco was surprised by the fervent resistance of the working class who managed to hold off the rebels while a proper defense was organized.
Franco was assisted by the fascist governments of Germany and Italy, while the Republic was aided by the USSR and Mexico. The western democracies embargoed both sides. Defying the will of their governments, volunteers from around the world began making their way to Spain to fight against the fascist rebels. In all, nearly 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries, including 3200 Americans, fought for the Republic. The Americans, organized as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, participated in many bloody battles and ultimately suffered casualties topping 50%. Despite aid from the Soviet Union and the heroic efforts of the foreign volunteers, the Republic was outgunned by the German and Italian-backed rebels. As defeat loomed in the fall of 1938, the Republic sent the volunteers home. Five months later, the last pockets of Republican resistance collapsed. The fascist victory in Spain is widely considered to be the prelude to the wider conflagration in Europe resulting in World War II.
Despite eventually being proven right in their conviction that fascism was a peril that could not be appeased indefinitely, the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade were labeled "premature anti-fascists" by their government, and many were denied jobs and kept on government watch lists throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and then forgotten. Though many countries around the world have since acknowledged the heroism of their citizens who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, the United States still has not done so.
During President Ronald Reagan's first term, American filmmakers Noel Bruckner, Mary Dore and Sam Sills decided to make a film commemorating the heroism of the international volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic. To bring the film down to a reasonable runtime, the filmmakers restricted the film's focus to the American volunteers who fought in the Lincoln Brigade and left out much of the political wrangling that undermined the Republican war effort. Consequently, one could quibble with the picture that the filmmakers paint. However, the essential story of young men and women courageously risking their lives, against the will of their own government, for a cause they believed in is true, and it's very well told here.
More than forty years after the fall of the Spanish Republic, the filmmakers interviewed eleven American veterans of the Spanish Civil War. The group comprised of men and women, blacks and whites, were from disparate backgrounds but were united in their opposition to fascism. Supported by archival footage, and narration by Studs Terkel, their vivid stories of the hardships faced and the friendships forged are engrossing and moving, and the bawdy songs of the vets cannot be beat.
Also included are eight deleted scenes with Lincoln Brigade vet Bill Bailey. The decision not to include these scenes in the film was well taken as they are not essential to the story, but they're still enjoyable.
A featurette entitled, Homage with Pete Seeger, has the folksinger performing in concert the ballad La Pasionaria (the passion flower) about Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, a passionate communist leader within the Spanish Republic. Seeger is accompanied on stage by Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets. The featurette also includes images of some of the many monuments to the international brigades around the world including Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, Holland, Poland, and especially Spain.
The final extra, entitled Commemoration of Those Who Served, is a list of all the Americans known to have served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, with a notation of those killed in action. The list is searchable by first letter of last name or can be played through in about 15 minutes.