Movies on the Spanish Civil War: A List

Spirit of the Beehive

When I think of movies on the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom comes to mind. And Pan’s Labyrinth. And the abominable There Be Dragons. I was surprised to see that there are quite a lot and some of them seem to be well-worth watching. 

Do you have a favourite?

I might be watching one of these soon


47 thoughts on “Movies on the Spanish Civil War: A List

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I’ve only seen about half of these. I checked some of the titles I hadn’t seen and can’t find most of them for sale. Of the ones I’ve seen, I’d have to say that Land and Freedom is my favourite as it shows how complex the war was from an outsider’s view. Plus I’m a Ken Loach fan.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I’ll add that I saw Pa Negre (2010) Black Bread a few months ago set in the post war years and it was chilling.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I’ve seen:
    Land and Freedom, Pan’s Labyrinth, There be Dragons. Ay Carmela, For Whom the Bells Toll, Behold a Pale Horse, Belle Epoque, The Fallen Sparrow, Broken Silence, Carol’s Journey, Libertarias, The Devil’s Backbone & The Anarchist’s Wife which wasn’t worth the trouble.

  4. nem baj says:

    Very nice list. Joris Iven’s film is a documentary, though.

    In the oldies department, may I suggest Espoir (1938-1945) by André Malraux & Boris Peskine, with its world-famous rabbit shot? And on a lighter note, though surprisingly dark for Mitchell Leisen, Arise, My Love (1940)?

    • Very good, thanks. I’ll add them when I get the time.
      Overall the quality of movies based on the Spanish Civil War are rather above average it seems. I wouldn’t mind wathcing most of them. Only some a hard to get.

      • nem baj says:

        Nevertheless, most may prove disappointing for regular “war movies” aficionados – but that’s the case for most civil wars I’m afraid: not only are the lines blurred during the conflict, but people have to live with it together afterwards. So, symbolism often takes precedence over clear-cut ‘action’ (notwithstanding the facts that in this case, the winners ruled for 40 years – and that Hollywood dropped the ball because of the Cold War).

        There’s a huge list here, including documentaries:

      • Thanks so much. Really interesting. I’ll have to have a closer look later on.
        It wasn’t a “popular” war from a Hollywood perspective.

      • nem baj says:

        Sure. Hollywood was never comfortable with this war. From the start there were no “good guys” as not only were the atrocities on both sides known to the public, but also neither Communism/Anarchism nor Nationalism/Fascism could be presented in a favorable light – hence the politics had to be brushed away from the scripts; and to paint the Spanish War without politics, well…

        By the way, the Eastern Block wasn’t comfortable with it either, even after Stalin’s death. A couple of Latvian films, the East-German movie you listed (plus in the eighties the TV series Front ohne Gnade)… There’s one though I’d like to see subtitled: Pseudonym: Lukacs (Manos Zaharias, RU 1977), about the Hungarian-born communist Maté Zalka, warrior and novelist who fought in Spain as “General Lukács”.

      • As if Hollywood wasn’t capable of just inventing black/white parties wether that’s how it was or not. 🙂
        I guess it’s like with all the wars that do not directly concern the US – there will never be a lot of popular movies on the subject.

      • nem baj says:

        Sure, yet… between 1937 and 1945 the studios produced six films about it (there’s also Love under fire and The Last Train from Madrid), and four of them were A movies… I don’t think the subject was considered minor. But there’s one constant: never are both parties identified politically. The early ones don’t label any side at all. Then, during WW2 only one side is named. For Whom The Bell Tolls for instance was seriously expunged: the Nationalists are designated as ‘fascists’, but the guerilleros are never defined by any leftist ideology.

        There was one rather emblematic character though: the American International Brigade veteran; Bogart is one in Casablanca, Welles another in The Lady From Shanghai. But even that one would vanish with the Cold War, until the sixties.

  5. the war movie buff says:

    Nice list, but I have to admit I have almost no interest in this war. I do have Pan’s Labyrinth in my DVR queue and am looking forward to watching it, but I can’t see myself watching many of the others. How about telling me which one other movie you would want me to watch and I will see that one too?

  6. nem baj says:

    My tuppence worth about two Hollywood films…

    The Angel Wore Red is not convincing at all. The director doesn’t seem up to the possibilities of a very dense material. He shuns, instead of giving up to, the strange mix of passion and disillusion it contains. And he resorts to contrived 1940s narrative recipes where the imagery itself should have taken over.

    Come on, a hunted (ex-) priest falling for a resigning prostitute in the midst of a ruthless conflict, their fate suspended to a relic containing the blood of St John! It could have made for a great baroque movie, a Black Narcissus or Johnny Guitar> of the Spanish Civil War. Alas… Fortunately, there are some great actors (Gardner, Bogarde, Fabrizzi) and a pleasant musical score by Kaper.

    Not in the list: Confidential Agent (1945). A pretty solid Graham Greene adaptation, this noirish, paranoïd wartime spy thriller tells the story of an amateur and unlucky Republican envoy sent to London in 1937 to sign a strategic business deal. Hunted by the other side (for once identified as ‘fascists’, this is a 1945 movie), betrayed by his greedy local support team, the grieving idealist turned clandestine operative finds unexpected help by a crazy young heiress.

    Boyer is superbly weak, Bacall alas at counter-type yet to die for, and there’s even Peter Lorre as a weasel like Esperanto teacher… Of course the “white-hat” Republican thing is too much (it isn’t so clear in the book) but the atmosphere is interestingly transitional, between the anti-fascist thrillers and the anti-communist ones. Shumlin is no Hitchcock, but he’s refreshingly less pompous than Carol Reed (I’ve never been very fond of The Third Man). Enjoyable.

    • Thanks. The latter sounds like a movie up my street.
      I’ll add it to the list later.

    • nem baj says:

      The Last Train from Madrid begins with this title: ‘We neither uphold nor condemn either faction of the Spanish conflict. This is a story of people – not of causes’. I guess the non-interventionism of the film couldn’t be stated more bluntly. It is a series of parallel stories in which the conflict affects everyday feelings, such as love for a father, friendship, old or nascent idyls.

      The evocation of the disruption in the life of the inhabitants of a large European city under bombs, sniper fire, martial law and the threat of an approaching military offensive was certainly new on the screen in 1937. Alas, the film rapidly gets lost in intrigue, which has the unfortunate result of making an adventure out of a supposedly undesirable situation – a recurring ambiguity in Hollywood war movies.

      Blockade is historically significant, but so artificially a-political it is often hilariously bad. Contrary to Last Train, it is a clear call for what is known today as a ‘military intervention on humanitarian grounds’, but the terrain in Hollywood was obviously mined. Not only couldn’t the franquists be named by fear of the Catholic lobbies, but the scriptwriter (a communist, who would be later sentenced to jail and blacklisted) had to hide everything being a Republican could be about (except perhaps the reference to land).

      The result is a movie reminiscent of the ‘yellow press’ propaganda in the 1890s against… Spain (prelude to the U.S invasion of Cuba and the Philippines). Even the spy plot is contrived – though featuring White Russian exiles as fascist auxiliaries is funny, in a twisted way. Luckily, Henry Fonda is extremely handsome.

      For Whom The Bell Tolls is also quite bad. Big American Male goes deep into the jungle; teaches clueless natives how and why to fight; robs the heart of pretty victim child-woman; dies a martyr after a job well done. We may be (unfortunately) used to that formula in colonial movies, but this is particularly painful to watch applied to a European 20th century setting. Not to mention this is a complete betrayal of the source material, both from a political and psychological point of view.

      Moreover, the dialogue and music are corny and there’s little chemistry between Bergman and Cooper (the kind of chemistry that, along with the humour and maestria with which it piles up a hundred clichés, eventually saves Casablanca). That said, it was a big box-office and critical success. Both female characters – the woman who knows she may lose her beloved, the woman who takes charge and contributes to the war – obviously had an echo in wartime America.

      The Fallen Sparrow is a decent noir espionage movie, whose only relationship with Spain lies in its main character’s past – since the bad guys here are nazis. Beyond solid performances by Garfield and Walter Slezak, the film illustrates the reasons why the character of an International Brigade veteran was acceptable in 1943: he’s an American with an experience of violence (in this case, both combat and torture), and he had volunteered early to fight ‘the little guy with a mustache’.

      It also features a circle of shady European exiles of dubious nationalities, exotic interests and shifting allegiances. Their refined and arrogant manners may fool the most naive, but not the savvy and straightforward New Yorker! This vision of decadent continental European socialites, still held by their cultural habits but deprived of any significance, was far from uncommon in Hollywood films period. Clearly, this wasn’t worth fighting for.

      • Thank, you help me rule out a few, which I might otherwise have tried to watch.

      • nem baj says:

        Better without all the boldface…

        Behold a Pale Horse starts as a regular dueling movie between the underdog hero and his nemesis, but ends up as a disillusioned tale about an aging guerillero faithful to a cause long lost. Its background is the little-known fact that anti-franquist raids took place until the early fifties, with France serving as an uncomfortable operational base for the exiled activists. It has excellent actors (Peck, Sharif as a young priest, Quinn who incidentally already played a franquist officer in 1937), though not exempt from overplaying a few hemingway-esque clichés.

        It has also a good production design by Trauner and a director well versed in psychological complexity. However, the film is still imprisoned in the aesthetics and narrative conventions of the Hollywood studio system, whereas the human story might have required more freedom in form. You can feel at times both the direction and Peck’s acting wanting to escape, and not only because the film was shot in France in the midst of the Nouvelle Vague. Watchable, but a minor Zinnemann.

      • nem baj says:

        Head in the Clouds is a careful accumulation of wartime romance clichés, which tries so hard to be on the good side of History it’s funny, in spite of its own total lack of humor. A plush example of “darkest moments in our history” exploitation cinema, it has a fine cast (terribly under-employed in the case of Theron & Cruz) and pretty photography à là Elle Decor, but even the supposedly bold period sex is lame. Henry Miller, Georges Bataille, where are you?

        PS: the Spanish Civil War part is much shorter than the French Resistance part.

      • Are you wathicng the whole list at the moment. 🙂
        I’m actually looking forward to this and expect it to be a guilty pleasure, more than an accurate movie. I’m a bit disappointed though that it’s more on the Resistance than Spanish Civil War. I’f it’s Elle Décor like I might at least find it visually appealing. I’m not expectin a Gloomy Sunday – which I still need to review after re-watching it.

      • nem baj says:

        Think Vicky Cristina Barcelona meets Midnight in Paris meets Bananas… Except without the wit, poetry, derision and tenderness. So, yes, it’s watchable, like I’m sure a Harlequin (spicy collection) novel is readable. Theron is very good, too bad the script doesn’t live up to her possibilities especially at the end.

        I had watched a few already, but your list made me look for new ones and rewrite old notes.

      • Glad to be influential. 🙂
        You are full of surprises. I never even knew there is a spicy Harlequin collection. 🙂
        I get you, it sounds like a corny movie.

  7. nem baj says:

    L’Assedio dell’Alcazar isn’t bad at all. Of course, it’s a pro-Franco wet dream distinguished by Mussolini and the propaganda is outrageous, but as a studio ‘siege movie’ this big Cinecitta production is well crafted. The mix of military action and (national-catholic) romance is honestly done, and you really get a sense that all these people, including the military, are fighting among themselves, neighbors, colleagues etc.

    This was obviously serving a post-war propaganda message, yet it is especially interesting as the Hollywood productions of the era, too heavily focused – as often – on a couple of lead characters only, totally failed to show the fratricidal nature of the conflict.

    La lengua de las mariposas was a bit disappointment. The childhood chronicle is charming and the final twist vey good, but I didn’t find that the irruption of the war at the very end made much sense, as the political tensions within this Galician village are only superficially dealt with. The teacher’s retirement scene is emblematic: his speech about freedom falls flat in my view since we haven’t been shown how those people are not ‘free’.

  8. nem baj says:

    Espoir (Sierra de Teruel) is in my view the best fiction for the 1936-1945 period. Shot in Spain during the war but only released after WWII, it’s definitely a war movie focused on Republican fighters and tactics, unencumbered by any secondary plot. This is a depiction of a civil war, with underequipped, mostly amateur volunteers laboriously negotiating with non-combatants for information or material support.

    Stylistically, it’s also quite interesting as obviously following the Russian school it attempts to link documentary-like sequences with strong symbolist vignettes. A bit heavy-handed perhaps, certainly romancing the side it depicts and building a cliché of the leftist adventurer (later, Malraux would end up as De Gaulle’s minister for culture), but very coherent.

    PS: I mentioned a ‘rabbit being shot’ in a comment above – it’s from Renoir’s Rules of the game, my mistake.

  9. nem baj says:

    Soldiers of Salamis (ES, 2003) is about the memory of the Civil War – as wars, other than making good shows on screen, are fought by people who have children and talk to them, in places that we still live in today. It tells the story of a young novelist in the 1990s, conducting an historical and literary enquiry about events that occurred in Catalonia at the very end of the war, when a fascist poet and ideologue miraculously escaped a mass execution by the disbanding Republicans.

    I don’t know how it compares to the best-seller it was adapted from, but the result – though for my taste a tad too classical visually – is a very good movie, which handles gracefully several layers of meaning (factual, autobiographical, social) while being very touching. Obviously, contemporary audiences in Spain (as well of descendants of Spanish exiles) will grasp more than I did – but I only wish such films were made in other countries that have been torn by fratricidal conflicts.

    Since both Viva la muerte and The tree of Guernica are surrealist works, one shouldn’t expect much in terms of conventional narrative or historical accuracy. They’re visually and audibly brilliant as well as naturally outrageous, particularly in their subversion of Catholic imagery. In a sense, they’re not war movies but movies at war – with any militarist or religious social order.

    Both feature a woman as a symbol for Spain, but a different Spain in each. In the former, she’s a Catholic mother who informed on her leftist husband to the Nationalists. In the latter, she’s a free-spirited outcast who leads the fight of her village after her rape by local plutocrats. Viva la muerte is the most obscene but also most powerful, as it links the anarchist feeling not to the ‘innocence’ of childhood, but to its mysteries and cruelties.

    • I have the book, Soldiers of Salamis, so would be interested to watch this eventually.
      I’m not too much into surealist film making. At least not right now.

      • nem baj says:

        Well, the opening credits for Viva… are on YouTube, with deliciously distasteful drawings by Roland Topor and a heady Danish tune. They pretty much set the mood.

        Both Arrabal movies are on, a relatively new service focusing on indie and foreign films. Officially limited to the US and Canada though. But they have an interesting war films selection…

    • nem baj says:

      Las Bicicletas son para el verano is a very enjoyable, un-melodramatic yet touching chronicle of a petit bourgeois family in a Madrid habitation building from spring 1936 to the end of the war. Though none of them are politically committed they certainly welcome the freedom created by the Popular Front. Some of their neighbors obviously don’t, yet they all have to endure the situation. As the war around them grows, clouds gather above their lives until the parenthesis is closed by the nationalist’s victory. It’s very well acted, with often funny dialogue.

      However my guess is the movie, though faithful in many daily details to what ‘civilians’ had lived through in the thirties, was above all a testimony of the state of mind of many urban Spaniards fifty years later. It conveys the idea that a movement towards social change interrupted by the dictatorship could eventually resume its course, this time peacefully. I’m afraid that there was far more anger and hatred on the moment. The choice of keeping all violence off-screen (as much as it was off stage in the original playwright) is quite a breeze, yet it probably was made in a spirit of national reconciliation.

    • nem baj says:

      La Vaquilla is also a ‘reconciliation movie’, but from the conservative side. It takes the form of a satire, in which at the front a group of Republican soldiers attempts to steal a cow from the other side. I have no problem with using comedy to make a point about war – however in this case the point is particularly lame. To demonstrate the absurdity of the conflict, the film constantly attempts to prove that all men were the same in regard to certain subjects.

      Alas, those subjects were often cause for political arguments at the time. Food, marriage, prostitution, homosexuality, the meaning of work etc.: not all Spaniards agreed, far from it. Both sides seriously attempted to challenge and redefine basic social beliefs and practices. Hence, the whole demonstration falls flat and we’re left with a hammy comedy that’s hardly funny.

  10. nem baj says:

    Off-list: Rojo y Negro (1942) is proof that not only ‘anti-fascists’ could make resistance movies – fascists could as well. A young woman and a man have been friends since childhood, but end up on opposite sides when the war starts. She is a phalangist, he is a libertarian communist. Republicans take over the town, and she’s arrested while trying to help other detained fascists…

    It’s a bit slow at times, but quite interesting beyond the propaganda, or somehow because of it. Women played a very important part in the early Phalange movement, something almost all pro-left movies until today tend to erase through the portrayal of Spanish women either as leftist fighters or innocent victims. Also, the ending is more subtle than expected.

    PS: the film was banned soon after its release during the regimes’ own anti-fascist purge, then lost and only re-discovered in 1996.

    • Maybe this is more a movie for cinephile completists of this war. 🙂

      • nem baj says:

        Anyone in mind? 🙂 Honestly, both L’Assedio dell’Alcazar and Rojo y negro are more interesting and relevant than most if not all of the Hollywood period films… Unfortunately, the Republican side didn’t make any fiction film about the war, it seems.

      • nem baj says:

        Ps: except Espoir of course, which I tend to forget because of the ‘Frenchness’ of the director which is stupid because it was entirely shot in Spain and in Spanish… This would be my top 3 for films until 1945.

  11. nem baj says:

    About Spanish fantasy / horror films: the biggest box-office success in Spain in the 40’s was Hitchcock’s Rebecca, whose heroin struggles with the posthumous influence of a deceased and the suspicion her husband may have blood on his hands. The fratricidal nature of the war as well as the regime’s censorship and winners’ propaganda meant that the trauma could only be addressed through back doors until the 1980s. That this tradition is still vivid today never ceases to amaze me…

    The Spirit Of The Beehive is set in the immediate aftermath of the war, and shot in the last years of the dictatorship. It had quite an impact on national audiences and is highly praised. Though I hopefully can grasp how it relates in mood as well as through symbolic indications to a post-war Spain where broken adults lead meaningless lives, and children must discover life in a haunted environment, I have some reservations.

    I find the pace extremely slow, and as much as I can appreciate the cohesiveness of the filmmaking … I’m not really moved. Yet, I guess that if one is moved those moments of boredom will instead prove extremely thrilling.

    Pan’s Labyrinth was also a big commercial and critical success. Del Toro had it easier than Erice, as he could obviously paint the protagonists of the (post-) war without fearing censorship. The fantasy parts are cute in a video game sort of way, but aesthetically they’re far from approaching for instance the quality of Tim Burton’s work.

    Alas, the ‘reality’ parts are even more cartoonish than the fantasy ones, meaning we have two superimposing goody-two-shoes stories to deal with. And the considerable amount of gore doesn’t bring gravitas at all. On top of it, the innocent child goes to heaven in the end… something most franquists would have approved of, hence I wonder if painting them as mere monsters was worth the trouble.

    The Devil’s Backbone is imho a masterpiece, extremely well written and interpreted. Almost none of the relationships between the characters are fixed from the start, and it’s their evolutions that provide most of the thrills. As the film unfolds, the presence of the ongoing war around them grows, becoming more of a menace for the children as well as a catalyst pushing the adults to take risks.

    But the adults prove anything but good at the challenge: none of them finds the resources that so often in war movies miraculously turn an ordinary human being into a commendable hero, or a solid villain. Instead, they are so worn-out by the war – a war from which they tried so hard to protect themselves as well as the children from – that their weaknesses make them all fail. The children pay a hefty price, too, and though we might feel uplifted by the survival of a few there’s obviously no happy end.

  12. nem baj says:

    Libertarias is a very good war movie, focusing on a small group of anarcho-feminist women decided to fight for their dream of freedom, both against the franquists and against the growing ‘military realism’ affecting the male-dominated anarchist militias. The formidable cast (a tad too glamorous perhaps) delivers exhilarating dialogue and situations, a couple of fierce combat scenes, and complex psychological entanglements.

    A testimony to the short-lived utopia of those years, it nevertheless doesn’t avoid the revolutionaries’ dark side. My only regret perhaps is that the director’s visual and narrative style remain quite classic, which certainly helps making the movie enjoyable for most (adult) audiences, but doesn’t allow for wrapping all the film’s dimension in a masterpiece – more anarchy here also could have helped.

    PS: it’s everything the French Secret Agents failed to be. Watch it!

  13. nem baj says:

    Not in the list: The Sleeping Voice (2011, ES) is a grim account of the franquist repression in post-war Madrid. Centered on women jailed – and often executed after show trials – for ‘aiding the rebellion’, it depicts a world where one side’s victory hasn’t brought peace but instead ideologic cleansing and general defiance, even within families.

    The mood, the intention as well as the way it never gives up to melodrama nor suspense reminded me a lot of Wajda’s Katyn. With its clear focus on individual rights it is certainly a post-totalitarian piece, and I guess many European countries could make films like this – or would I rather write, they should. This one is excellent work and the actresses, lead as well as supporting, are amazing.

  14. nem baj says:

    Broken Silence deals with the demise of the post-war guerrilla in a small village during the 1940s. Its questioning the opportunity of pursuing armed struggle at all costs is interesting, unfortunately it is too theatrical – there’s something like one death every five minutes – and self-conscious: all actors seem so depressed in advance one wonders why they don’t give up after the first half hour.

    Pa Negre was mentioned by Guy above. It is basically a crime film with a certain macabre appeal, as the reality of the post-war community it describes appears grittier than the nightmares of its main protagonist (a young boy). The idea of a somewhat noble resistance to franquism is shredded to pieces by greed, fear and miserable village intrigue. Quite well done.
    PS: beware, the ‘international’ version is alas not in Catalan but in Castillan.

  15. nem baj says:

    Ooops… found this one scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    The Anarchist’s Wife is a mixed bag. One one hand, the tough journey of some Republican Spanish families from 1936 to 1950 over two countries (Spain and France, even three including Germany for him) is quite truthful, and I found it moving – several Spanish exiles were living in my home town in France, and as a child in the 70s I remember an aura of largely unspoken tragedy. Indeed, being a war refugee was, and still is, no picnic.

    On the other hand, the script is too well-intentioned and highly unequal. Her transformation from passionate leftist lover to ranting spouse is more than abrupt – while one can see the former employee turned franquist coming from miles away. The gang of anti-franquist exiles seems out of a mediocre French 21st century movie, etc. Perhaps the filmmakers tried to put to many things in it. Or tried to please too much.

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