Roland Joffé’s There Be Dragons (2011) A Movie of the Spanish Civil War? or A Propaganda Piece for Opus Dei?

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There Be Dragons is a movie on the Spanish Civil War, focussing heavily on the founder of the Opus Dei José Maria Escrivá. That’s in itself problematic, but the movie has other shortcomings besides reeking of “propaganda”.

There aren’t all that many movies on the Spanish Civil War that’s why I was quite keen on watching this movie. I normally like Dougray Scott and seeing that he’s in this, made me hope it would be good. Unfortunately he’s just a minor character, although the one who gets the ball rolling. Geraldine Chaplin who is also starring in this film has an equally small role.

Roberto Torres (Dougray Scott) is a young journalist researching José Maria Escrivá (Charlie Cox), a priest and founder of the Opus Dei who is a candidate for canonisation. Roberto discovers that his own father from whom he is estranged since years, knew Escrivá. He travels to Madrid, hoping his father will tell him everything he knows about the priest. While Robert’s father Manolo (Wes Bentley) was friends with José Maria when they were kids, they later fought on opposite sides during the war. The movie tells their respective stories in flash backs. They don’t overlap all that often; it’s really the story of José Maria on one side, and the story of Manolo on the other. Only towards the end, they are briefly joined again. A third story line, tied to Manolo, reveals why the relationship between Roberto and Manolo was so difficult. It has something to do with a tragic love story involving Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko).

Due to these different stories, which are only loosely connected, the movie really is a mixed bag. It glorifies the courage and determination of José Maria, his faith, his steadfastness. Although I don’t feel qualified to say much about the Spanish Civil War with which I’m not very familiar and even less about the role of the Catholic Church, I can still say that the depiction was very sentimental and never grabbed me. I was a bit more interested in the frame story between Roberto and Manolo.

Another flaw was the tempo. This was one hell of a slow movie; it never really took off. This is too bad because the cinematography and the score were superior but I felt they were wasted on this film.

I always thought that Roland Joffé was a director who would guarantee a good movie but unfortunately that isn’t the case. I have no clue what drove him to glorify the founder of Opus Dei. Very dubious. I can’t recommend this movie.

I almost forgot to mention that this is another one of those movies in which all the English speaking actors talk in a heavy Spanish accent. Ludicrous.

Have you seen it? Have seen another movie on the Spanish Civil War that you would recommend?

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Regeneration aka Behind the Lines (1997) or Psychiatry, Poetry and Shell Shock during WWI

Based on British novelist Pat Barker´s incredible book Regeneration, the first book in her Regeneration trilogy, this movie has an awful lot to offer. Unfortunately like some other brilliant war movies (e.g. When Trumpets Fade) it never got its due appreciation by the public. This is a bit sad since everybody included in this film, especially the actors, did a brilliant job. Jonathan Pryce´s way of playing the eminent Dr. Rivers in such an understated manner impressed me a lot.

Set in WWI England and the French trenches Regeneration looks into so much more than  just into it´s central theme shell shock. Class and duty, courage and a sense of utter futility coming from the colossal losses of lives are some of many themes.

Another interesting aspect is that Regeneration also looks at the birth of a medical discipline namely psychiatry in its struggle to become a well-respected way to cure people. During the times depicted in the movie however its sole purpose was to restore the ill young men and make them fit to be sent back to the trenches.

A further central theme is the poetry of young poets such as Siegfrid Sassoon and  Wilfred Owen. The people we encounter at the heart of this movie are mostly intellectuals.

The story circles around the poet Sassoon (James Wilby) who is considered to be a war hero. He has written a letter of protest against this war that is still going on despite all better understanding. To avoid court-martial he is sent to the asylum to be treated for shell shock. He does have recurring nightmares but apart from that he seems unharmed.

As mentioned before we also find a thematization of the topic of class. The officers were mostly from the leading upper class. One patient however made it to a higher rank without the usually required background. One more  look from another angle at this complex mess of a war.

There are many other patients in the asylum that have been marked more deeply than Sassoon. Some stammer, some lost their speech altogether, others suffer from hallucinations, delusions or other forms of psychotic reactions. One of them, Billy Prior (Johnny Lee Miller), is a very interesting character, so is Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), the young poet.

Dr. Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) who is also a leading anthropologist is a very gentle psychiatrist (We learn more about him in the novels. The sequels to Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road elaborate these aspects. Being an anthropologist myself I would have liked to see sequels of those movies. As an avid reader it is rare I am truly impressed by books but I was when reading this trilogy. Unbelievably good.). He tries to heal by listening to his patients and help them regain their memory of often unspeakable horrors. Empathy and compassion are Rivers´ trademarks. He cares deeply for his patients and it is tragic when he  ultimately realises that all he does is cure them to send them off to face a certain death.

During the movie we are also shown one other doctor´s techniques at curing mutism originating in shell shock. They are revolting to say the least.

What made this movie so remarkable  is the way it chose to show the scenes in the trenches. Even tough it is a color movie, the use  of color during the trench scenes is attenuated, creating almost black and white sequences. This is convincingly artful. The just middle between the black and white of All Quiet on the Western Front and the corny choice of color in Passchendaele.

Regeneration is one of the best war movies on WWI. It excells in showing the absurdity of war, friendship among men, the birth of a discipline, the power of poetry to convey even the most horrible adequately. Yes, it is a rich movie. Would I want to do it justice, this already long post would be at least three times  longer. Putting  my review in two words: Watch it!

Should you be interested in more background information you should read a first hand account of one the people shown in the movie.  Why not read Robert Graves´ (played by Dougray Scott) autobiography Goodbye to All That?  Graves was Sassoon´s closest friend and responsible for his escaping court-martial. Of course Paul Fussell´s book  The Great War and Modern Memory does also take a closer look at the above mentioned poets. This is dense however not less recommended reading.

Regeneration at amazon.com, amazon.co.uk ,amazon.de