Skip to content

The Last Castille

For a film about one of the most ideologically charged conflicts of the 20th century, The Spanish Earth is curiously devoid of overt ideological messages. A war neutered of ideological content will be especially disorienting for American audiences. Every one of our conflicts has been a crusade for justice and liberty; every one of our opponents a bestial personification of all that is evil. From our shared lifetime of Disneyfied grade school history, 42 minute basic cable specials, and Greatest Generation circle jerks, we have been primed to think that Osama bin Laden, the Communists, the Nazis, and the Japanese had to be obliterated because they hated our American freedoms, and dammit, we expect our war movies to paint them accordingly.

Well, not in Joris Ivens’s cinematic universe. The Dutch director seemingly went out of his way to make this seem like just another civil war. To the extent that Franco’s fascist forces appear at all, they do so only at great distances. They’re in the distant buildings under siege by Republican forces, they’re the unseen aimers of the artillery shells that continuously rain down on Madrid, and they’re the Spanish traitors that are in league with those German and Italian baddies that keep turning up dead along the front line. Indeed, the audience sees more dead Italian soldiers than it does from dead soldiers from Franco’s Spanish forces. This attitude informs Ivens’s depiction of the Republican forces, too. Reading historical accounts of the Spanish Civil War, like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, one gets a picture of a conflict awash in conflicting political philosophies. Republicans, anarchists, social democrats, classical liberals, and communists of every sectarian flavor all banded together to the fight fascists and medieval-minded conservatives of Franco’s forces, and occasionally, each other. But watching The Spanish Earth, this conflict might as well be in any other country in which a rambunctious military tried to grab power from a civilian government. The ideas were what made the stakes of the conflict so high, even in the eyes of contemporary observers, and so Ivens’s choice becomes all the more inexplicable

What he focuses on instead is the stick-to-itedness of regular Spanish people, from a tiny village up to big city Madrid, and similarly, on the aggressive regularity of the Republican army and its leaders. The film begins and ends in the fields of a tiny farming village to the Southwest of Madrid, where, the narrator (Ernest Hemingway, reading commentary he wrote with John Dos Passos) tells us, the locals are working to help feed the city. Their biggest foe is the land itself: harsh, inhospitable, and worst of all, unirrigated. In order to keep Madrid from starving, the villagers must irrigate the land and grow the needed onions and wine (seriously). This elevation of the non-combat elements of the war to equivalent status with the fighting itself may also strike American viewers as strange. Despite his background as a communist, Ivens isn’t channeling the agitprop Soviet tradition here, with its obsessive lionization of work, so much as he is bread-and-butter realism of government-sponsored British documentaries of the 1930s. During the Great Depression, British documentaries and propaganda films embodied the philosophy of the filmmaker and theorist John Grierson. A socialist, he believed that films could educate audiences about the state of politics and their own supposed exploitation. Films should show the working class, and show them in a way that working class audiences might gain insight about their own role in society. More than that, films should show the actual nuts and bolts of work. A Soviet filmmaker may show people working, but the heroes would be shoveling superhuman amounts of coal, defeating bourgeois supervillains and getting the girl to boot. Ivens sides with Grierson here: a movie about the struggle to build an irrigation ditch should actually show the monotonous and unromantic work that goes into such an endeavor, not bombard the audience with a 30 second montage followed by triumphal music and bronzed peasants high-fiving. What may seem like simple, apolitical wartime propaganda about keeping up spirit on the home front actually has a subtler political message which can be discerned in what Ivens shows and how he decides to show it.

The combat sequences are where the film shines, narratively and technically. For a film of the 1930s, the sound editing is superb. The moment early in the film in which scenes of village life are interrupted by the distant chatter of machine gun fire sets the tone for much of what comes after. The sound of gunfire becomes an auditory backdrop to whatever else happens to be taking place, usually complementing but occasionally driving scenes, as in a gripping sequence in which the camera follows Republican troops in a building fighting against Fascist troops ensconced in a blown-out hospital and university complex. My guess is that some of the sound was actually recorded simultaneously during the shooting (a difficult feat considering how bulky the equipment was then), but even if it does come from other sources, it sounds natural and enhances the action, rather than dilute it with obvious falseness. Much like the scenes in the village that humanized the peasants by showing us their mundane daily lives, the combat sequences prominently feature scenes of downtime. The army is also portrayed as a citizen army. One soldier a former stonemason, another a typesetter. A lawyer leading an assault on a Fascist position, who the narrator tells us quit his job to join the Republican army, was apparently killed during the course of the film. The crude filaments of a story even flare up during the combat sequences, as we follow a young soldier named Julian as he writes to his family from a break in building-to-building fighting, and ultimately, as he goes back to his village for a three day leave.

Somewhat out of place for much of the film is the score. Shots of troops mustering and walking to the front are predictably accompanied by uptempo marching band music, but other scenes feature music for no apparent reason. Why does a soldier fiddling with the bolt on his rifle need a clanging soundtrack? Who the hell knows. Perhaps it’s to cover up the lack of onsite recorded sound. Living in post-Eno world of ambient music, it’s easy to forget that filmmakers didn’t used to have moody background music to fill in the awkward silences.

Ivens’s style is more subdued than usual, but his distinctively poetic visuals occasionally seep through, especially near the film’s climax. He celebrates the triumph of Republican troops over a Fascist offensive with shots of trucks loaded with soldiers trundling from one side of the frame to the other. Back in the fields, the villagers finally complete their irrigation canal. The water rushes into the void and sloshes from one side of the frame to the other. This wasn’t just a victory for the military, he’s telling us, but one for the people, too. Both are critical to the war effort, and both struggled equally in their own way. Saccharine, simplistic? Of course. But this is a propaganda movie. Meaning aside, this is just a pleasant sequence of shots. They rhyme visually. It was these poetic juxtapositions that Ivens initially was  known for, and what his first film, Rain, is all about: finding beauty and similarity in completely different moments.

The Spanish Earth is worth watching for more than just its value as a historical curiosity. It’s well paced, even by contemporary standards, and many shots have a considered and thoughtful composition that would let them stand alone as photographs. The combat scenes are distinctive and seem modern; they more than make up for the sometimes boring propagandizing and toil-worship of the village scenes. The narration is something to be enjoyed, too. Following the Republican victory, Hemingway says “This is the moment that all the rest of war prepares for, when six men move forward into death to walk across a stretch of land and by their presence on it prove ‘This Earth is Ours.'” It’s an apolitical observation, in keeping with the film’s larger tone, and a very poignant one.

Around the middle of the film, after Ivens introduces the city of Madrid and its valiant defenders, there’s a brief shot of the cover of the novel Don Quixote. An unseen hand opens up the book and flips through the pages to an illustration of Quijote on horseback, and Ivens then cuts to an actual statue of Quixote somewhere in Madrid. An establishing shot puts the statue of Quijote against the big Spanish sky, his javelin in one hand and a Republican flag planted in the other by a patriotic vandal. Then there’s another shot of the statue from a different angle, and now the viewer sees that he’s flanked by a Sancho Panza statue, some leafless trees, and a low wall of sandbags. It’s a moment that crystallizes the mixture of admiration and regret that modern viewers of the film are likely to feel much more acutely than contemporary ones did. The Republicans lost, and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco that replaced them oppressed and murdered its way into the 1970s before dying with its strongman. We know, going into the film, that this is how it ends. Maybe Ivens saw this coming at the time and put in the scene with Quixote for that reason. The sequence is over before the audience can really process it, and Ivens soon returns to the farmers, politicians and soldiers that populate the main story, but one can’t help but feel that maybe Ivens knew that after all the romance of fighting for ideals and for the motherland, the Republican cause, like all good and romantic causes, was a doomed one.