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I hadn't seen co-producer / director Richard Fleischer's Che! since age seventeen. It's still a pretty terrible movie, yet one I highly recommend. It isn't government propaganda but an honest attempt by Hollywood filmmakers to profile a man demonized by much of America. One must applaud Fox for casting Omar Sharif as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, as he looks very much like him. Jack Palance's Fidel Castro looks exactly like Jack Palance with a new nose glued on. From that point forward nothing works in this incredibly superficial picture. I'm fairly sure that no movie about Che made in 1969 by a big American movie studio could ever have worked.
The Michael Wilson-Sy Bartlett screenplay struggles to find a structure that reflects Guevara's status. In 1968 he was already a legend at the center of the Cuban Revolution, which America considered a major threat to world peace. The Western Hemisphere's most romantic revolutionary died in an ill-advised attempt to extend the Castro revolution to Bolivia. The screenplay presumes to offer us the severely wounded guerilla's personal thoughts as he is evacuated out of the mountains by helicopter. The voice of a Bolivian officer tells us that the C.I.A. had nothing to do with his capture.
The helicopter trip through the mountains comes back as a
The attempt to portray the intimate conversations of Che and Fidel results in some of the most shallow, trite scenes since The Oscar. The writers impose judgments that insult the audience. Caught in an army ambush, Che must choose between recovering his first aid bag, or a box of ammunition. It's clearly a 'moment of decision.' Che and Fidel's scenes are no less laughable. Palance's Castro comes off as a doofus who requires Che's guidance to strategize the fight in the mountains. Whenever Che advises his boss politically, Fidel agrees and names Che to take charge. Che singlehandedly forces a Battista barracks to surrender, even though his rebels are out of ammunition. Helluva fighter, that Che.
The story rushes from critical point to critical point. Che is slandered as a bloodthirsty killer; after Havana is taken we see his execution squads mowing down scores of clean-cut Battista officers. Fidel luxuriates in a Havana hotel while Che plays the ascetic and broods in his chamber in the harbor fortress. We aren't told that it was formerly a center of torture and executions, where Battista's degenerates fed living victims to the sharks. 1
The scenes between Che and Fidel are just offensive. The two bicker like a married couple: Che: "You held this meeting and purposely kept me uninformed!" Fidel: "Let's talk about this when we're alone." According to this movie, Che is the one insisting that Fidel come out of the political closet and declare himself a Marxist. Che also brainstorms the idea of inviting the Russians to put nuclear missiles on the island to threaten the United States. Then they both wax sinister as they anticipate having the power to strike deeply into the United States. There is NO mention of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and NO mention of their trips to the U.N.. The Russians decide to yank the missiles, and Che is furious that Fidel won't simply seize them. When Che decides to go his own way, the scene plays like the breakup of petulant lovers. Che just has to go off and do his thing, spreading revolution throughout the hemisphere. Casto is content with his cigars.
In addition to the occasional flash-forwards to Che Guevara's final helicopter ride, the movie interjects faux-interviews with former Che associates. A Miami taxi driver calls him a monster and a Cuban schoolteacher says Che taught him to read. This conflict of opinions proves that the authors are neutral in their politics, see? Some revolutionary fighters (Woody Strode among them) may disagree with Che's ruthless methods but they all 'respect' him. If only the movie did.
The Bolivian section is less offensive, mainly because there is some truth that Che foolishly ruined his own revolution. The movie insists that he was too arrogant to deal with the Bolivian communists, which is believable if one-sided. In the patronizing ending, the wounded, about-to-be-murdered Che is lectured by a simple goatherd (Frank Silvera, in feeble peasant mode). Doesn't Che realize that his terrible revolution isn't welcome, because ordinary peons just want to be left alone? The movie's pretense of neutrality becomes an unequivocal thumbs-down for the Man from Argentina... but had the movie been any more honest, what would Fox's stockholders say? 2
The movie gives brief roles to a stack of Hollywood actors -- Albert Paulsen, Robert Loggia, Perry Lopez, Paul Picerni. Barbara Luna has a brief stint as Che's medical assistant. Ms. Luna may have thought her role would correspond to Julie Christie's in Dr. Zhivago, but we all know that revolutionary Marxists don't have sex lives. Low-rung genre actor Sig Haig gets in a good bit as a fighter who quits and gives Che a piece of his mind.
At least a third of the movie is given over to repetitive action scenes, with soldiers and rebels running about and shooting. It eventually comes off as padding to run out the clock. The film remains safely superficial. When Castro is shown making a speech, Che has the volume turned down: "I know what he's saying, anyway". Actually, the filmmakers have no intention of letting Fidel and Che explain what they see in this wicked revolution business.
I do have to hand it to Richard Fleisher and Omar Sharif -- their shots of Che dead on the stretcher look awfully true to the real photos.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Che! is beautiful encoding of what has come to be regarded as the most embarrassing political biography ever to come out of Hollywood. The fascinating show is enhanced by a transfer from film elements in perfect condition, with a clear soundtrack to flatter Lalo Schifrin's music score, which is also listen-able on Twilight Time's Isolated Score Track.
We also get an original featurette, TV spot and trailer that set Che Guevara up as a modern-day Al Capone as well as the revolutionary boogeyman responsible for all those bad kids protesting the war in Vietnam. Che! condemns Guevara's harsh methods? Six months after its release, the My Lai Massacre became news.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes steer toward the film's less offensive angles and remind us that Che Guevara is now a capitalist phenomenon due to big merchandising. She rightly praises Jack Palance's restrained performance. Julie mentions the interesting The Motorcycle Diaries, which has to some degree redirected Che's legacy from a silkscreen poster back to a human being. No mention is made of Steve Soderbergh's monumentally unappreciated Che, Parts One and Two, which doesn't rewrite history into an insulting sitcom.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Che! Blu-ray rates:
1. This reminds me of an entertainment interview I read a couple of years back about a Cuban-American singer, who is sad because she never got to see Cuba, and her father suffered in the revolution. What did he do in Cuba before the revolution? Oh, he was the Police Chief of Havana, she chirps back.
2. I tell you, everything about Che! is hilarious on at least one level, even in its solemn final scene. When the goatherd enters the room where Guevara is being held, one of his herd tries to squeeze through the door with him. A stern guard puts an firm end to that idea, with the immortal line, "No, the goats stay outside!" Pure genius.
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T'was Ever Thus.