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Resurrecting History through Film

Resurrecting History through Film

Filmmakers produce remarkable films to shed light on some neglected historical facts. Movie accounts of historical events intend to bring history vividly to life and make it more meaningful to the modern viewers. One such occurrence is the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that had an impact not only on the Spanish people but also on the entire world. Examples of films that reexamine a distorted historical period during the Spanish Civil War include The Good Fight directed by Noel Buckner, Mary Dore, and Sam Sills and Land and Freedom directed by Ken Loach. The two films give an insight into a deep and long-lasting wound in the hearts of all those that have encountered the major event albeit in different ways. Whereas The Good Fight recreates the historical view of the Spanish Civil War through the veterans’ experiences, Land and Freedom goes further to explore the complexity of ideological commitments and the internal betrayals surrounding the historical event.

An Overview of the Events

 As The Good Fight begins, the narrator gives a brief insight into some historical facts, including the attack of Manchuria by Japan in 1931, Hitler’s ascendance to power in 1933, and Italy’s assault on Ethiopia in 1934. During the 1930s, the Communist Party was on a steady rise in America and Europe, and the members felt that they had the duty to engage in conscious political actions that would end Fascism – the ideology that threatened democracy. The films shed light on the overthrowing of the government in Spain and the takeover by Franco, an army general. Franco and his mob were the followers of  fascist ideology, and they enjoyed the full support of Hitler and Mussolini. The two dictatorial leaders sent their troops, tanks, and air forces to help Franco win the war. Despite all the happenings in Spain, the western governments were indifferent. Only the USSR and Mexico offered the Spanish government some support, but it was barely enough. Thus, volunteers decided to show solidarity with Spain by standing up to Fascism through affiliating with different associations including the International Brigade and the POUM that were on the government side.

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Variations between the Two Films

The films differ in the manner of delivering their narrations. On the one hand, Loach has employed drama to focus on the story of one individual (David Carr) as a reflection of the experiences of the many British men and women who left their comfortable homes and went to participate in the Spanish war. The narration of Land and Freedom is done through the flashback mode. Thus, soon after David’s death, his granddaughter reads the souvenirs that he has left, including the magazines of the period, snapshots, and letters that take the viewer on his journey into the Spanish Civil War. The viewer learns that David leaves his country and goes to Spain when he sees the suffering of the Spanish people arising from the fascist ideology imposed by the Franco regime. Upon reaching Spain, David joins the Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista, which translates into Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militia and becomes intertwined with the complexity of the Spanish War. By choosing to narrate the story in such a way, the director turns David into a one-dimensional spokesperson for most of the facts and the viewer does not get a glimpse into the point of view of another participant.

 On the other hand, The Good Fight is an oral history documentary. The film builds its foundation on the personal experiences of eleven Abraham Lincoln Brigade Spanish War veterans, consisting of eight men and three women. The survivors include Bill McCarthy, Dave Thompson, Bill Bailey, Abe Osheroff, Evelyn Hutchins, Tom Paige, Ed Balchowsky, Milt Wolf, Salaria Kea, Ruth Davidow and John Houseman. The film recounts how 3,200 American men and women left America to fight in the Spanish War alongside 37,000 other volunteers from different nations. The Good Fight uses archival footage such as newsreels, newspaper clippings, film excerpts, photographs, and survivor interviews to explore the context of the Spanish Civil War narrated by Studs Terkel. The advantage of using the oral history documentary approach is to convey accurate, factual information as recounted by the survivors. The movie is an emotionally stirring and compelling account of a historical event told in a sobering no-nonsense view of the human suffering in war. The fact that the film merges the perspectives of different survivors gives it a believability factor or accuracy that is absent in Land and Freedom.

Furthermore, Land and Freedom illustrates a shift in the characters’ ideological and aesthetic commitment. Unlike the veterans in The Good Fight, who show the same degree of engagement to the International Brigades from the beginning to the end of the war, the participants in Land and Freedom show a wavering commitment. David temporarily joins the International Brigades but realizes that there is a fracture along the Republican ideological lines since most units lack a sentimental value. The film attributes the failure of the Republicans to their anti-socialism or anti-revolutionary approach that was characteristic of  Stalinism. In a twist of events, there emerge opposing forces in the Republican Movement during the May Days in 1937. Confrontations emerge as the International Brigades and other Republican units, including the CNT and the PSUC, turn against the POUM. During the confrontation, the film highlights a case of a revolution within a revolution. Thus, David realized that the POUM’s true revolution was under the threat of the Stalinists’ need for compromise and respectability from the western powers. POUM had radical policies as part of the Popular Front government, but they faced massive resistance and accusations of being fascists by the Communists, which caused the clashes between the supporters. The internal conflict within the Republican movement is evident, and ultimately, David realizes that not all the Republican groups hold the true light of the revolution since most of them sway in their political commitment.

Consequently, David feels that his companions are merely full of slogans and empty talk. Land and Freedom highlights the differences in the institutionalization of power between the Leftist and the Rightist. The nationalists seemed to have an advantage from the beginning since they appeared united and their authority was evident. However, the Republicans faced conflicts between their military and political interests. Furthermore, disagreements were rife among the different political and trade unions factions supporting the Republicans since all of them wanted to take advantage of the war and carry out their revolutions. Betrayal becomes the norm as comrades turn against comrades, and this turns the war efforts into disarray with the outlaw of the POUM and the arrest of its leaders. Therefore, Land and Freedom tries to dispel the notion held by the veterans in The Good Fight that the Republicans lost the war because they did not have the Western support. In fact, they lost because of their selfish endeavors and conflicts in the power structures.

Unlike The Good Fight, which portrays a unified Republican Movement, Land and Freedom illustrates the discord among the individuals. The international dimension of the struggle includes the participation of all international volunteers from such countries as Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, the USA, and Spain. Instead of unifying the Republicans, the cultural diversity exhibited by the different supporters of the Republican Movement resulted in the divisions among them. In one long scene in the film, it becomes apparent that culture and politics are inseparable even in the Spanish context. An argument arises among the locals on how they should divide Don Juan’s land that they have just reclaimed. Some of the people suggest that they should collectively work on the land, while others feel that each deserves their own portion to decide what to do with it. However, David reminds the people not to lose focus of the situation at hand, and despite their different reasoning, they should show a sentimental attachment to the revolutionary cause.

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Unlike David, who feels let down by the Republican loss, the veterans in The Good Fight share a common pride in their sacrifices. Although their contribution and participation in the Spanish Civil War mostly remain unappreciated, the volunteers stand proud because they believe that their efforts had not been in vain. Regardless of the imminent loss to the Nationals, the veterans in The Good Fight convey emotional and aesthetic understandings of their participation in the war. For example, Tom Page and Ed Balchowsky, who has lost his right arm in the struggle, affirm that the survivors’ desire to win and secure Spain’s freedom has made them persist in the harsh conditions, which left 70% of the Lincoln Brigades dead or missing. However, through it all, they had vowed not to yield to Franco’s Fascists even if they lost their lives. October of 1938 saw the imminent defeat of the Republican Movement; although the veterans did not win, they felt fulfilled, and throughout the film, they referred to the war as the good fight that they had lost. However, their tribulations continued at home, and their reception by the government was unpleasant. The veterans disclosed that they became targets for arrests, harassment, spying, and they were termed as premature antifascists; hence, they could not participate in World War Two. The veterans asserted that the sorrow of losing a war had never gone away, but they saw the ultimate vindication at the end of World War II when the United States engaged in the War against the anti-fascist sentiments.

Similarities between the Films

Despite their differences, the two films illustrate a common objective for participating in the war. For example, both films show that the decision to take part in the Spanish War arises from the desire to curb the ideology of Fascism from spreading across the world. The two films depict young men and women who leave their homelands and go to Spain with the intention to engage in the war and liberate Spain from the rebels. For instance, Land and Freedom depicts its protagonist David Carr, an unemployed solitary and rugged teenager from Liverpool, as a reflection the other members of the POUM who leave their different countries and through much hardship go to Spain to engage in the war. Likewise, the eleven nonfiction protagonists in The Good Fight are urban, working class citizens of diverse ethnicities, and they represent the Americans who have left their homeland to stand in solidarity with the Spanish in their fight against Fascism. In both accounts, the survivors tell their tales of how they left America at a young age with nothing but the determination to win and bring back freedom and democracy to the people of Spain. The characters were young men and women with no prior military experience, but this did not hinder them from striving to change the cause of Spain’s history.

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The Good Fight and Land and Freedom refuse to romanticize the notions of battle heroics. The Lincoln Brigade’s motivation came more from their political consciousness. The members of the Lincoln Brigade were poor as well as rich; they were men and women held together by a conviction that Fascism was the greatest threat to the evolution of the global political consciousness. One of the veterans pointed out that the Lincoln Brigade prided itself as the first integrated fighting force. The veterans’ commitment was evident in the fact that they left their comfortable lives to venture into the unknown. The veterans contributed to the war by fighting on the frontline and providing nursing care. In The Good Fight, various characters, including Abe Osheroff, describe the survivors’ constant fear of death and injury. Such accounts bring to light the fact that regardless of the political or ideological fever, the reality is that nobody is ever ready to face death. Bill Bailey asserts that one would be traumatized by seeing the mutilated bodies strewn all over the battlefield. Moreover, the film sheds light on the volunteers’ disillusionment due to the hardships that they have encountered before and after reaching Spain, including the limited `training, heavy responsibilities imposed upon them, the material deprivations, malnutrition, and a large number of casualties that are the expected outcomes of war.

Likewise, Loach’s film manages to desist from romanticizing the war. The film highlights all the aspects of war, such as the loss of friends, sacrifice, fear and bravery, and the motivations for fighting through the truthful lens of humanity without condemnation or glamorization. For example, various sub-plots, such as scenes of combat, captures some improvised fighting that appears chaotic but convincing. Thus, there is scene where a rifle explodes in David’s hand because he is an amateur and he cannot tell that it is in a bad condition, and this incident highlights the volunteers’ inexperience. Another outstanding scene is the execution of a priest suspected to be a Fascist informer, and the event looks so real and convincing that one shudders while watching it. The hostility inflicted upon the priest represents the social and political reaction of people who are against Fascist ideology. Moreover, Land and Freedom takes an honest-seeming approach when just before the film’s final scenes, Blanca meets her sudden and unceremonious death, yet the viewer anticipates that she and David would eventually live happily ever after the war, but that anticipation does not materialize. The scene highlights the betrayal that David has suspected all along and the fact that Blanca tries to stop a massacre from happening in that particular scene shows that the POUM were not Fascists’ supporters that the Republicans thought they were. By desisting from war romanticisms, both films advance the ideals of solidarity, selflessness, and collective action that have formed the basis of their involvement in the war.

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Overall, The Good Fight and Land and Freedom recreate the historical views of the Spanish Civil War from different perspectives. The two films may be made over a decade apart, but they agree that the participants’ objectives for engaging in the war were to end the rampant spread of Fascism that posed a threat to the democracy in the world. The two films complement each other because the viewer gets to reenact some of the veterans’ experiences in The Good Fight through the characters in Land and Freedom. It is only honorable to appreciate that so much has happened behind the scenes, but thanks to the film industry, the contemporary viewer can get a glimpse into the historical event and make a personal judgment on what to believe and what to question.