Che! (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Sy Bartlett; directed by Richard Fleischer; written by Michael Wilson and Bartlett, from a story by Bartlett and David Karp; cinematography by Charles Wheeler; edited by Marion Rothman; art direction by Arthur Lonergan and Jack Martin Smith; set decoration by Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott; music by Lalo Schifrin; starring Omar Sharif, Jack Palance, Cesare Danova, Robert Loggia, Woody Strode, and Barbara Luna. Blu-ray, color, 96 min.,1969. A Twilight Time release,www.screenarchives.com.
I’d like to say that the prospect of normalized relations between the United States and Cuba led me to Che!, an account of the guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara focused largely on his involvement with Fidel Castro. But, really, I wanted to fill in a blank in my viewing of all the movies lambasted in Harry Medved and Randy Lowell’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978), which made a big impression on me as a kid. Thirty-seven years later, scratch Che! off that particular bucket list item—and score one for the book.
It’s a juvenile volume, one that roughs up the likes of Last Year at Marienbad and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films to razz “cultured” cinema. (Medved, the brother of conservative commentator Michael Medved, wasn’t much older than myself when he co-authored it.) Raising the profile of bad cinema, as this and other Medved-penned titles did, was a harbinger of the current culture of snark that we’re stuck in. Yet Che! fully deserves the abuse. Part of it is for the usual reasons the book seizes upon, the poor casting and acting, and the risible dialogue, among them. I’ll throw in the flat lighting and indifferent production design, as airless as a Macy’s showroom, adhering to 20th Century-Fox house style when something less “studio” was warranted. Mostly, though, it’s the insult to a fascinating history it represents, one that a Hollywood studio, two years after the execution of its subject, was ill-prepared to handle.
Conscientious filmmakers were involved. Sy Bartlett had written and produced sturdy war movies including Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Pork Chop Hill (1959);Che! ended his career. It was also the last screenwriting credit for the distinguished Michael Wilson, who talked about his frustration with the film in an interview withTake One magazine published a few months after his death in 1978. “I should have known better than just to think that one could do an honest picture about Guevara in a stronghold like 20th Century-Fox,” he said. “But I was persuaded by a number of my close friends to give it a try, because times were changing.” Not that much, however—displeased with his concept, Wilson’s services were “terminated” on the first day of shooting. He let his name remain on the film when he was allowed to advise on its re-editing, but his recommendations were ignored, and the experience left him “completely ashamed and humiliated.”
The choice of director must have suggested a lowering of tone. While comfortable, even expert, at film noir (1952’s The Narrow Margin), fantasy (1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and true crime stories (1968’s The Boston Strangler preceded Che! on his resume), Richard Fleischer was a company man, one who had soldiered through the musical dud Doctor Dolittle (1967) for Fox chief Richard D. Zanuck. Zanuck, Wilson recalled, was intrigued by Guevara’s appeal to younger audiences, who had abandoned Dolittle and another failed Fox musical, Star! (1968). But the film can’t bring itself to capture the romanticism of the Che posters that decorated campus dorm rooms at that heady time.
The germ of Wilson’s idea, a running colloquy on Guevara as different characters debate his legacy, remains. The point was to let the audience decide if the revolutionary was a saint or a sinner. Fleischer’s artless direction, and a rushed-seeming production of modest scale, work against this from the start—the first unintended chortle comes early, when a taxi driver, a typical man on the Havana street, catcalls, “He should have died the first day he set foot on Cuban soil, bastard!” (The obvious backlot taxi, plunked down on location in Puerto Rico, doesn’t help sell the line or its delivery.) More will follow, as we meet Guevara, portrayed by Omar Sharif, and the Castro of Jack Palance.
In “Why Che?,” the vintage featurette included on the Blu-ray, Fleischer says he cast the two actors based on their strong physical resemblances. Yet it plays like the sort of parody you’d find on the Funny or Die Website. Robbed of his usual suavity, the Egyptian Sharif gives a stiff performance as the Argentine Guevara, who gives Castro the backbone he needs to carry out his revolution. Best known for his black-hatted cowboys, Palance, encased in a putty nose to rival Steve Carell’s inFoxcatcher, chomps on cigars and the available scenery as Castro, who can’t make a move without his beloved Che.
And it is a love story, a doomed one, as a triumphant Castro whoops it up at Havana’s Hotel Riviera once Batista flees and Guevara, sulking in monkish solitude and wheezing from asthma, plots further revolution. “It took two years to reach Havana, and after two days I’m sick of it!” moans Che. “Cuba needs you. I need you!” Castro wails. It’s Guevara who gets Castro to stockpile Russian missiles on Cuban soil, and it’s he who’s most bitterly disappointed when Castro and the Soviets “capitulate” to America once they’re caught out. “You held this meeting and purposely kept me uniformed!” cries Che, when Fidel steps out on him with his Russian friends. “Let’s talk about this when we’re alone,” responds Castro, in a lover’s whisper. But the relationship is beyond fixing. “I’ve got to start more fires than the American fireman can put out,” says Che, as he plans to leave for Bolivia. “You want your own show,” says a defeated Castro, who, sidelined for the last half hour of a short but interminable saga, turns up once more to lament his comrade and smoke another cigar or two. Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) has fewer laughs.
Given Fox’s desire for a “youth movie,” there’s nothing in Che! to hook an audience that would embrace Easy Rider that same year. According to the disc’s fawning liner notes (product to push and all that), Francesco Rosi and Tony Richardson considered films on Guevara, and they might have brought revolutionary technique to match his revolutionary fervor. Other than a split screen or two borrowed from The Boston Strangler, Fleischer just plods through what remained of the original script and conception. Clearly the front office was not in the mood for ambiguity—Castro is a patsy for Guevara, and the movie’s protagonist is an ascetic, humorless taskmaster. Self-defeatingly, Che!’s politics and sentiments are not those of its intended audience but of its silent majority parents, who wouldn’t be caught dead at a movie about Guevara and Castro.
Besides that featurette, where Fleischer muses about Guevara’s “absolute failure,” the handsome-looking Twilight Time Blu-ray includes an isolated score (a workmanlike one, by Lalo Schifrin) and the film’s theatrical trailer (“Superhero to some, villain to others!”). The label produces only 3,000 units of each title it distributes, though I wouldn’t expect a run on this one.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
To purchase Che!, click here.
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