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The war that won't dieThe Spanish Civil War in cinema$

David Archibald

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078088

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078088.001.0001

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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.184) Conclusion
Source:
The war that won't die
Author(s):

Archibald David

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719078088.003.0011

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sums up the book, gathering together the various threads. It argues that, while the memory and meaning of the Spanish Civil War remain hotly contested, the civil war setting will be one to which filmmakers increasingly turn. The chapter outlines how the civil war has, in more recent years, provided rich material for filmmakers to narrativise the conflict in order to both make more general points about the historical process and to propagate contemporary concerns. The book, which has also pointed to the changing nature of representations inside Spain, exploring how filmmakers such as Carlos Saura attempted to circumnavigate government censors under the dictatorship, concludes that the civil war has become a touchstone in the Western political imaginary. Inside Spain, the increased level of debate has provoked wider interest in the conflict.

Keywords:   Spanish Civil War, Spanish filmmakers, government censors, Carlos Saura, civil war, Spain

In exploring representations of the Spanish Civil War, this book has highlighted the elasticity of cinematic depictions of one historical event. Even though the book has focused on fictional films sympathetic to the Republican side, it has shown the extent to which this historical event accommodates varying political positions in numerous cinematic forms, from Hollywood's attempt to support the US's role in the Second World War through its adaptation of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls to, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the assistance given to East Germany's communist leaders in their valorisation of the International Brigades’ role in the conflict in Five Cartridges. While these chapters focused on films that represented the conflict in a manner consistent with their respective dominant national interests, the discussion on Fernando Arrabal's Surrealist-inspired films highlighted cinema's suitability for representing alternative, very personalised responses to traumatic histories, both personal and political. The book also outlines how the civil war has, in more recent years, provided rich material for filmmakers to narrativise the conflict in order both to make more general points about the historical process and to propagate contemporary concerns. This is exemplified by Vacas, which posits history as a cyclical process and invites reflection on the Basque country's ongoing conflict, and also by The Devil's Backbone, which, while not sharing Vacas's Basque setting, does share its determinist, cyclical view of history. In contrast, Land and Freedom, in which the filmmakers revisit revolutionary Spain in an attempt to resurrect socialist ideas, presents a ‘history as class struggle’ approach to historical thinking in keeping with the Marxist view espoused by the filmmakers. The book has also pointed to the changing nature of representations inside Spain, exploring how filmmakers such as (p.185) Carlos Saura attempted to circumnavigate government censors under the dictatorship, producing highly memorable poetic critiques of the civil war's victors, and how Saura and other oppositional filmmakers utilised comic elements in their cinematic depictions of the civil war in the years following the dictatorship's demise. In spite of highlighting this elasticity, however, the book suggests that the past is not as promiscuous as Keith Jenkins and others suggest. This emerges most clearly in the chapter on comedy, which argues that there are referential limits on what histories can be legitimately written or depicted cinematically; thus, at least at the time of writing, there remain no films set during the civil war that conclude happily.

The truth of the past?

Gerard Brenan declined Raymond Carr's invitation to write a volume on Spain in The Oxford History of Europe, stating: ‘You can’t get at the truth by history: you can only get at it through novels.’ (cited in Hopkins, 1998: xiii) Is it possible, then, to establish how much truth about the Spanish Civil War can be accessed through cinema? Perhaps we can only say that the films under discussion here contain their own limited, subjective or poetic truths; thus in the analysis of Soldados de Salamina, this book suggests that the civil war's labyrinthine complexity can be appropriated to problematise the possibility of accessing the truth of the past in its totality. Although fictional cinema is regarded as being in a privileged position to prioritise the affective experience of the past, it also comes up against historiography's referential yardstick. However, to think primarily in terms of fidelity to the historical referent can be limiting and often results in internecine squabbles about historical detail. As I outlined in the discussion of Land and Freedom, it is possible to defend films which depart from the established historical record in order to dramatise what they see as broader political points. The discussion, then, moves from the realm of historiography into the world of politics: whether one regards it as legitimate to criticise For Whom the Bell Tolls for appropriating the civil war to suit wartime America will, perhaps, depend on one's attitude to the war itself.

All of the films in the nine case studies presented here provide a way into thinking about the Spanish Civil War. They may not all contain the central political analyses of the Spanish documentaries of the 1970s, nor be the experimental self-reflexive modernist texts that (p.186) Rosenstone or White promote; however, in their own way, they each have points to make, both about the civil war and about broader political and historical issues. Although I sympathise with Rosenstone and White when they argue that an experimental film practice is best suited to force reflection on the historical process, I do not accept that realism is, as they postulate, an inadequate form of historical representation, as exemplified by my defence of the film form utilised by the filmmakers in Land and Freedom.

That the civil war increasingly attracts cinematic attention suggests unease over a past that has not been settled. In One Hundred Years of Solitude the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez describes the deteriorating condition of an amnesiac: ‘the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people, and even the awareness of his own being, until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past’. (1970: 50) The cinematic depictions of the Spanish Civil War discussed here have helped ensure that the event has continued to provoke discussion and debate inside Spain and beyond its borders, thereby resisting the process of which García Márquez warns. In July 2000 I wrote an article for the Guardian on the history of the Spanish Civil War in cinema (Archibald, 2000) to coincide with the UK release of Butterfly's Tongue. The newspaper's editors headlined the article ‘The war that won’t die’, alluding to the increased number of films dealing with the period. Over a decade on, this process continues apace, congruent with increased levels of open and public debate as Spain struggles to come to terms with the memory of its bloody past. This book has outlined how the Spanish Civil War, despite attempts to prevent its cinematic depiction within Spain during the latter years of the Franco regime and the pacto del olvido, continues to arouse great interest. Writing in 1993, Deveney predicted the death of films about the civil war: ‘as time goes on and as the Cainismo in Spanish society subsides, the theme may disappear from the Spanish screen’. (1993: 297) To add weight to his thesis, he then quotes Almodóvar: ‘I deliberately construct a past that belongs to me. In that past, Franco doesn’t exist.’ Deveney then suggests that ‘In the not too distant future, this will be the case of all Spanish directors, and Cain will at last fade from the screen.’ (1993: 297) Yet, despite Deveney's predictions, cinematic representations of the conflict have grown exponentially in recent years, for reasons both political and commercial. Indeed, perhaps responding to the increased level of debate inside Spain, in 2008 (p.187) Almodóvar himself acquired the film rights to the autobiography of the acclaimed poet Marcos Ana, who was jailed at the end of the civil war for his part in fighting Franco's forces and spent twenty-three years in prison.1

The civil war has become a touchstone in the Western political imaginary, which helps to explain the commercial success of del Toro's work outside Spain. Inside Spain, the increased level of debate has provoked wider interest in the conflict. Rather than witnessing the demise of the Spanish Civil War in cinema, then, we may very well see the opposite; indeed, perhaps the ghosts of the civil war will only be laid to rest when the social antagonisms that created it cease to exist. We may have to wait some time yet for that. Meanwhile, the civil war setting will continue to be one to which filmmakers turn as the battle for Spain's future is partially played out in the cinematically recreated battles of the past.

Notes

(1) Elola, El Pais, 17 February 2008.

Notes:

(1) Elola, El Pais, 17 February 2008.