A movie is usually in trouble when its screenplay does not take a side in a particular argument it is attempting to illustrate. Pro or con – one should always stand for something. But Richard Fleischer’s Che! (1969) is a doubly hampered affair; first and foremost, in its choice of biographical subject matter: Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (played with miraculous sincerity by Omar Sharif) and Fidel Castro (ferreted with uncharacteristic restraint by Jack Palance); a pair of Marxist revolutionaries perceived by the American power structure as a subversive threat to the democratic way of life. It’s an uneasy détente, Hollywood vs. the U.S. embargo on Cuba, attempting to tap into the 1960’s youth counterculture of free love, good drugs and pseudo-insurrectionary fervor sweeping the nation. As they say, ‘freedom’ is not free; the Michael Wilson/Sy Bartlett screenplay struggling to straddle an impossible chasm, dividing the audience right down the middle with its nonpartisan slush, reporting to be about two ambitious men of vision; one contented to exploit another’s doctrines for personal gain, the other a true liberator turned asunder by the betrayal of his own principles, and ultimately undone in the end by the will of the people he earnestly believes he is fighting to liberate.
In the movie’s penultimate realization, the ever-spouting platitude-driven Che Guevara is confronted by a lonely goatherd (Frank Silvera) only to be cruelly informed he is mistaken in the solemnity of his revolutionary quest. The old man wants freedom – but preferably leans toward a return to normalcy and a time when his goats were unaccustomed to the chronic echo of gunfire; enough to stop them from producing the necessary milk he needs to feed his family. Made just two years after the real Guevara’s assassination at the hands of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, Che! might have been a fairly ballsy stab at retelling the circumstances of this polarizing figure in both Latin America and abroad. Instead, the film almost immediately degenerates into the sort of grasping pseudo-biographical claptrap on alas expects from Hollywood, mostly contented to remain episodic and fanciful in its marginal deification/peripheral condemnation of this man, the legend and his already fermenting legacy as a true savior of the people.
At 96 minutes, the real story of Che Guevara cannot – and arguably, is not – told; Fleischer forced to cleanse his story of its grittier details through a series of ineffectual flashbacks; the timeline jumping all over the place, but always from an outsider’s perspective, the audience decidedly kept at a distance. The real Che Guevara was, of course, far more complex than his filmic counterpart; Omar Sharif frequently teetering on the brink of leaden political diatribes; flashing us his superior intellect, peppered in some brilliant military strategies. Alas, Che just cannot seem to reach his congregation with the right message to rise up and take a stand for their invested future. Guevara was, in fact, a devout Argentinian Marxist; educated as a physician and renown as the author of an intimate textbook on how to start and maintain a revolution; ultimate driven to rebellion by what he perceived as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America. There is, of course, little to doubt Guevara as one of the integral architects of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, his stylized visage has long since become the ubiquitous logo for that counteroffensive victory against the seemingly insurmountable forces of the United States.
What exactly turned this seemingly proud academic into a radicalized freedom fighter…ah, these circumstances are never explored in Che!; nor do we get any of his back story to buttress either our admiration or contempt for this man as presented to us by Fleischer and Omar Sharif as something of a wounded animal; pitiable and physically drained from bouts of crippling asthma. It is a grotesque mistake to recall Guevara as the injured loose cannon he is depicted as in Che! The movie never recovers from this misfire because Guevara was, in fact, a trusted cultural attaché to Guatemala’s progressive President Jacobo Árbenz; eventually overthrown by CIA-assisted rebels at the behest of the United Fruit Company.
The movie also makes virtually no reference to Guevara’s initial introduction to Raúl (Paul Bertoya) and Fidel Castro. Instead, within the context of the Wilson/Bartlett screenplay, Guevara emerges a grimy mess, fully formed in his khakis and beret, a wild thing stumbling out of the jungle, breathing heavily and taken under Castro’s wing as something of charity case. Nevertheless, the film’s Guevara eventually distinguishes himself by assassinating Hector (Paul Picerni), the first traitor to their cause. It’s the movie’s rather clumsy way of expediting years of pent-up frustrations and cue the audience that Che Guevara is a man to be reckoned with; someone who lives by - and is willing to die for - a certain fundamental set of principles he expects everyone else to ascribe…or else. Again, Fleischer cautiously brokers an opinion that is virtually noncommittal about Guevara’s politics. We get none of the intrigues that helped Castro and Guevara topple the corrupt, U.S. backed, Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista from power. In fact, Batista isn’t even in this movie. What?!?
It’s a little disheartening to embrace Che! as a testament to Guevara’s prowess as a military strategist and dedicated reformist, perhaps even more so because we tend to get Omar Sharif’s performance incrementally; told retroactively from the point of his consecration as a Latin American folk hero after his death. This status is, predictably, downgraded to that of a ‘common gangster’ in the movie’s penultimate candlelight vigil; Guevara misrepresented as a thinly veiled misanthrope who, perhaps, ventured toward his golden panacea with gusto but went about the liberation in the wrong way. Those knowing nothing of history are left to grapple with the movie’s reconstituted perceptions of Guevara as an embittered, emotionally distraught and disenchanted martyr, physically depleted to the point where he would willingly welcome death in front of a firing squad, rather than struggle for the principles that, by the end of Che! have been obscenely diluted into platitudes not even he believes in any more.
Where is Guevara, the tolerant, prolific writer on guerilla warfare (he practically wrote the ‘how to’ manual) and diarist of agrarian land reforms; who helped spearhead a national literacy campaign, diligently served as president of Cuba’s national bank and became the much admired instructional director of the nation’s exceptionally well-informed Armed Forces? Where is Guevara, the leading proponent for advanced socialism as a viable option to the ensconced capitalist model, viewed as having a decidedly Imperialist stranglehold of Cuba’s economic stability? Fair enough, Che! presents Castro as something of a blind-sided fop, knowing just enough to realize he doesn’t know it all – or, at least, enough to launch his revolution and run a country successfully without Guevara’s behind-the-scenes guidance and expertise. But we lose any impression of Guevara as Castro’s much trusted and as feared diviner of Cuba’s militia forces; the same troop that effectively ambushed and repelled J.F.K.’s disastrous blunder into the Bay of Pigs, precipitating the even more harried standoff between the U.S. and Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
No, Che! is far more interested in perpetuating a counter-mythology to the real legend; one founded on the oft overused cliché of a good man losing himself to his principles, perennially thrust into die-hard anti-neocolonialist fervor that become counterintuitive not only to his cause célèbre, but also flies in the face of the will of the people he is supposedly fighting to liberate with every fiber of his being. Even without this rewrite to Guevara’s decidedly more altruistic ideologies, Che! is a tough sell as a motion picture for even more obvious reasons that have nothing to do with its’ politics; the visual medium of movies never quite able to convincingly capture the inner workings of the human mind; particularly one attuned to embrace proletarian internationalism as the new world revolution.
Guevara’s departure from the Cuban theater to foment his particular brand of insurgency abroad remains a stumbling block for the movie: first because it was an out and out failure in both Congo-Kinshasa and Bolivia, and second, because his mutiny ultimately led to his capture and assassination by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces. Ergo, if Guevara is our hero, then who is the villain of this piece? Hmmmm. How best to promote an historic figure, summarily deified by half the world and equally as abhorred by the other half? The movie never takes a side. Neither does it represent enough of the facts to allow the audience to make up their own minds. In place of subjectivity or even a vague stab at analysis, we instead get star power thrown at the screen; Omar Sharif at the tail end of that decade-long obsession for this sexy Egyptian with the dark and flashing eyes, who dazzled the world in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and continued to procure female admiration with solid performances in such megahits as Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Funny Girl (1968).
Sharif really is more at home in these aforementioned glamor pieces then he is in his scruffy goatee and jet-black unkempt mane. Uncannily, he occasionally looks the part with the necessary severity captured in those hard-boiled orbs. However, either out of respect for his subject or concern to be judged too much like the man himself, Sharif veers on the side of caution in resurrecting Guevara’s magnetic persona for the camera. Sharif all but shrinks from view, becoming the invisible man when forced to espouse the movie’s reconstituted doctrines. These ought to have stirred us to our essential core. Instead, they devolve into hapless prosaicisms about the futility of life and the brutal banalities of war.
Jack Palance doesn’t fare much better as the cigar-chomping Fidel Castro; too broadly painted as the enfant terrible of the piece; grown quite fat when comfortably ensconced in his Cuban penthouse with the ever-present Anita Marquez (Barbara Luna) stroking and stoking his ego. Hence, director Richard Fleischer manages an almost unfathomable misfire in Che!: taking two of the most widely talked about political figures of the 20th century and turning each from their enigmatic and emblematic larger-than-life personalities into abject milquetoasts. If Che! does have a singular flaw – and it does – it remains this complete lack of spark. Neither actor is capable of transcending his performance into art. But it remains Fleischer’s inability to give us Guevara or Castro as anything better than two sides of a similarly occupied Janus-faced coin: commi #1 versus the commi-light.
Che! is basically a character piece, begun with the death of its title character, laid out on a slab in a remote hut; Omar Sharif’s voice over providing the first inroad into the series of intermittent flashbacks. In tandem we are introduced to Capt. Vasquez (Albert Paulsen), Guillermo (Woody Strode) and Felipe Muñoz (Tom Troupe); disillusioned relics from the failed and fading revolutionary fervor, quietly bitter, but ever so slightly more apologetic about their own involvement in the events being depicted. Fleischer gives us a snapshot of the deplorable conditions in Latin America; the Wilson/Bartlett screenplay ever so careful not to suggest revolution as the answer – nee solution to Cuba’s socio-economic problems. The no brainer of a plot devolves almost immediately as we slip into the jungle terrain, always the proving ground for real men; Batista’s forces chronically on the heels of Castro’s insurgency, fighting from both land and the air; the rebels enduring mounting casualties that only strengthens the resolve of these stubborn survivors.
Our first glimpse of a living/breathing Che Guevara is as a dirty, little asthmatic, stumbling up a path toward Castro’s makeshift camp; Castro employing Guevara as his personal physician and dentist. Soon, however, Guevara proves his metal, particularly after he shows no mercy towards the traitor, Hector; putting a bullet between his eyes where it is suggested Castro might have contemplated letting the defector live, albeit in captivity. Nothing says guts like splaying somebody else’s all over the nice clean jungle foliage. In short order, Guevara – not Castro – is commanding the rebel army; his edicts of ‘fight or die’ becoming impenetrable doctrines punishable by death. Castro is decidedly impressed with Guevara. The same, however, cannot be said of Guevara with Castro. Increasingly, Guevara becomes disenchanted, particularly after Castro backs down after the Bay of Pigs. To Guevara, it appears Castro has already begun to sell out. He is not a man of revolutionary principles for reform, but rather just a variation on the oppressors Guevara seeks to overthrow en route to his own Latin American Shangri-La; a people’s republic by, of and for the half-starved and intellectually stifled common populace. These wretches, so we are led to believe, know nothing of freedom and are even less inclined to embrace it as an alternative to their miserably impoverished lives.
Departing Cuba for Bolivia, Guevara quickly realizes his monstrous misfire; his inability to convert more than a handful of defiant rebels to his cause leading to considerable frustrations that gradually strip away his façade as a benevolent man of the people. In essence, Fleischer is endeavoring to show us a Guevara less prone to establishing freedom for freedom’s sake than freedom for his own, or even, as a viable alternative to the currently ensconced government he seeks to remove from power. The movie’s Guevara is a man struggling from within and unable to impart his dreams to the simple-minded peasantry in any sort of meaningful way. Herein, Fleischer really deadheads the impetus of the Che Guevara mystique. After all, who would follow this bush man mercenary into battle when not even he can promise he believes in its fermentation – much less, it’s success?
It’s a tough sell indeed, one Guevara hopes to market to Castro with glowing letters of his fabricated victories abroad in the hopes Castro will back him with more supplies and troops. Alas, as Guevara’s numbers dwindle and begin to succumb to physical exhaustion, starvation and sickness they inevitably turn against him and the people; pillaging villages for food and medical supplies and becoming the enemy instead of future liberators. And Guevara, pushed into an impossible corner, is not above turning to violence to get his points across; in effect, becoming a dictator, perhaps worse than the ones already in power. Hence, his capture and penultimate execution is almost a cathartic release for the film; a means for Fleischer to escape having to explain his perspective on Guevara’s legacy as a freedom-fighting nationalist. Guevara’s surrender to the military, emotionally defeated as he willingly delivers himself in front of a firing squad (his brutal assassination taking place off camera) leaves the audience with the distinct impression Che Guevara has had a belated epiphany about the error of his ways; the proverbial light bulb going off too late to save his own life, but perhaps soon enough to suggest to the audience that his way was not the right way to achieve independence.
If you can buy into this denouement, then I suppose Che! functions as a remedial work covered in a thin veneer of grossly immature and only half-realized morality. Frankly, it’s neither; Fleischer and Omar Sharif quite unable to provide us with the essence of the man without betraying their capitalist principles; Hollywood decidedly not yet ready to embrace communism as a viable alternative. That love affair would take another three decades to properly ferment under its more popular and polarizing disguise as liberalism. No, Che! is a fundamentally flawed biopic, too brief and much too undecided in its opinion of the man at the center of its supposed controversy.
Omar Sharif gives us a sad-eyed expatriate; a man out of step even in his own time and quite unable to get the rest of his followers up to speed to make any difference at all. His Guevara is an undecided, caught, instead of leading in the fight against brutality. It’s that disillusionment that ultimately unravels Guevara’s confidence and leaves him at the mercy of the Bolivian government, rife for capture and execution. Movies in general have an impossible hurdle to scale when the hero of the piece fails to meet our expectations.
Alas, Che! was not well received, either in its own time or even today. It’s not all that difficult to pick out the reasons why. Fleischer has Guevara and Castro living in the jungle (the Fox ranch standing in for South America), filling his meager run time with anemic montages dedicated mostly to guerrilla defeats; their victory over the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs skipped over, even depicted as ephemeral wish fulfilment. After all, who in 1969 could have clairvoyantly foreseen a Cuba still dominated by Castro’s reign in 2014! The sing-song approach to the flashbacks is lethal to the film’s storytelling; the central first person addresses from various former rebels, now sufficiently aged and contrite about the error of their ways, providing an apathetic snapshot at best.
Perhaps adopting the more laissez faire ‘change is good’ mantra from the 1960’s might have done something for Fleischer’s lethargic faux epic. Instead, we get half-apologetic critiques of Guevara’s principles, herein distilled into a few key declarative statements that seem more brazenly self-aggrandizing than serving a higher purpose. Again, are we meant to admire or abhor Che Guevara? Fleischer gives us no clue as to the motivations behind his picture. It’s strictly a middle of the line excursion into the action/drama genre, but without the added strength of an actor capable of making us feel anything for this historical figure, except a sort of disappointed apathy. Poor Che; silly revolutionary. Didn’t his mama ever teach him tequila was a man’s drink? That doesn’t really work and Che! dissolves into a minor piece of fictionalized history; a story without much substance and worse – leaving us without even apocryphal empathy for the man of the hour.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is solid if unexceptional, just like the movie. The DeLuxe color palette is occasionally wanting. Scenes photographed outdoors fair better in terms of contrast and overall color saturation. The source material is remarkably free of age-related debris. I don’t suppose Che! was given a lot of playtime after its initial debut and meteoric belly flop at the box office. But Twilight Time’s limited edition disc has been competently rendered. Film grain is a problem; fairly minimal to practically nonexistent throughout most of the movie/thoroughly heavy to downright distracting during a few key sequences and the movie’s penultimate moments leading to Guevara’s assassination. There’s also some sporadic built-in flicker. Nothing terribly distracting, but nevertheless present and to be accounted for without honor, if distinction. The 2.0 DTS lossless audio is surprisingly resilient; Lalo Schifrin’s underscore given its appropriately patriotic due on TT’s isolated score option. Extras are limited to a six-minute vintage featurette, two trailers and a TV spot, plus Julie Kirgo’s liner notes. Bottom line: pass on content. Recommended for transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)