There are few English-language movies that have the Spanish Civil War/Revolution of 1936-39 as a major backdrop to their narratives. Due to the wide-scale involvement of anarchists in that conflict, the opportunity to see a film that does mainly take place at that time, is naturally of interest to anyone with those politics. It would be nice to say that There Be Dragons lives up to the expectations its rarity of subject matter leads you to hope for. Not only does this movie disappoint in its portrayal of politics, but it fails in most other departments too. So much so, that the only up side to take from it, is that it is just as possible to learn from a negative example as a positive one.
So what are the details of this mess? The movie begins with a brief written synopsis of the Civil War in Spain. In itself this isn’t necessarily a bad strategy for drawing in the casual viewer with no previous knowledge of the subject. The trouble is, it reads more like a poor Year 9 Social Studies essay, complete with a misspelling of Hitler’s first name. Less excusable is that during the next couple of minutes a leading character tells us more or less the same information.
After its opening in Spain in 1982, the movie soon adopts a flashback structure. Although this is a well-worn technique, it is one of the few dimensions of the movie that works, as it is not gratuitous or over-exploited. The story centers on two young friends, Manolo (Wes Bentley) (whose reminiscences partly form the basis for the flashbacks) who is the son of a businessman and Josemaria (Charlie Cox), from a poorer background. They begin as friends, join a seminary together but have a falling out. Josemaria goes on to become a priest with a social conscience and is generally portrayed hagiographically throughout the film1. Manolo on the other hand, is a hard-bitten cynic. He leaves the priesthood to take over the reins of his father’s business, following the latter’s assassination by left-wing workers.
So far so good. In the lead up to the outbreak of the counter-revolutionary uprising, we see Manolo taking a hard-line with striking workers. A brief scene follows in which a few simplistic slogans from a group of army officers, convinces him to work on their behalf as a fascist fifth-columnist. Then he shoots the man supposedly responsible for his father’s death. Simultaneously in voiceover, he tells us that the Civil War is usually portrayed as a straight forward conflict between Fascists and Communists but that in reality it was more complex than that. Very true of course. However, given that movies are a visual medium, you might have hoped that the makers would trust the viewers ability to figure that out for themselves via the pictures we are shown, rather than have the message delivered verbally. Even making allowances for this lazy approach to exposition, the next scenes are risible for contradicting the content of the voice-over. We shift to the early period of revolutionary construction and see Manolo wearing a red and black scarf. He is standing on the running board of a car with the letters CNT emblazoned upon it, with red& black flags being waved by the other occupants. Manolo’s next voice-over tells us that he had wormed his way into a “communist brigadea” a cover for his role as a spy. Ooops!
Next Manolo jumps off the car and bumps into somebody. He looks up, to meet the eyes of Iidiko (Olga Kurylenko) a militia woman. In classic Hollywood fashion, he is transfixed as the syrupy romantic music rises to an ear-splitting crescendo. The music is a feature of the film that is really annoying. It is extremely intrusive, present in just about every scene and simplistically used to signpost events or to tell us how we are supposed to feel. As for the character of Iidiko, it is almost commendable that the film bothers to show that women also participated fully in the revolution, including as fighters on the frontline. In fact, it would have been interesting to see a movie shown from the point of view of this Hungarian anarchist militia woman, who we learn is in the famous Iron Column. What made her go to Spain? What was it like to be on the frontline as a woman and so on? Predictably, we really have no idea, as she is the sole female depicted and is there almost purely as the would-be love interest for Manolo. In soap-opera style, we later learn that Manolo is jealous of a militia leader whom Iidiko favours. This jealousy therefore partly forms the basis of his animus towards the Republican side and confirms his determination to spy for the Nationalists.
While all this is going on, the priest Josemaria is in Madrid. He finds himself repeatedly surrounded by working class thugs, who seem to get pleasure in killing priests for the sake of it. There is no doubt atrocities against priests and nuns took place during the revolutionary period. However the movie completely neglects to put the role of the church into the wider socio-economic context. That is, its overall role of supporting the reactionary elements among the landowning and political class. Spain at the time was heavily under the yoke of these forces but to the uninitiated viewer, the resentment of the people Josemaria encounters, just appears to be the unjustified spite of the ignorant, unwashed masses.
The movie rolls on, with Manolo the scorned lover manqué, doing his best to sabotage the efforts of the anarchist militia. He does this by secret radio transmissions to his masters on the other side. Just how he is able to cart around such a large and cumbersome piece of equipment and regularly access it out in the open countryside, surrounded by dozens of people, is left unexplained. Suspension of disbelief is called for here and perhaps that’s fair enough, to some extent. The fact we know from the outset of the movie that Monolo survives his battlefield experiences, means there is no suspense to be gained from the usual ‘will he or won’t he’ aspect of life during wartime. The focus is more on the how of his escape and survival. Here the movie does offer a couple of interesting developments that give it a few stabs at gravitas. It’s also fair to say that the battlescenes are serviceable if conventionally handled. In addition, the overall mise-en-scene at least has some of the look and feel of what it must have been like to have been in Madrid during the fighting there. Unfortunately, the basic historical inaccuracies, the average (but not really terrible) acting, the ubiquitous bombastic music, the competent but conventional directing and other deficiencies, overwhelm these few bearable elements of the film.
If you are politically sympathetic to those who participated in the Spanish Civil War, you have a critical frame of mind and you can’t immediately find any other movies about it2, There Be Dragons might at least spur you on to seek out more about the subject for yourself. For budding film-makers it is a good lesson in missed opportunities.
1The character is in fact based on a real-life priest who was eventually made into a saint by the Catholic Church.
2If you do want to find other stuff, the work of Ken Loach provides an excellent contrast with There Be Dragons. On Spain, see Land and Freedom (1995) and on the Irish Civil War see his The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006). For a more sophisticated look at the interaction of a politically motivated spy, see Lust, Caution (2007)which is set in 1930’s China.