Memorial to Che
When it opened just a few days after Memorial Day commemorations would honor valorous military service in the name of freedom, director Richard Fleischer’s biography in montage Che! (1969), an attempt, as the film’s marketing suggested, to separate the man (who was killed two years before) from the myth, faced an uphill battle for acceptance, even in an era when revolutionary political spirit was in the air. Hollywood moviemaking tradition would create one crucial challenge: could two strongly identifiable actors cast as two strongly identifiable historical icons – Omar Sharif as Che Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro – form the compelling core for an objective portrait of a single-minded insurgent battling to form a Cuban people’s army toward the cause of liberation from dictatorial rule? The film’s structure would also prove daunting, set up as a series of dialogue scenes, reportage tableaux and interview reminiscences of individuals recalling the Che they knew; its fourth-wall-breaking effect struck reviewers and moviegoers as more awkwardly impressionistic than emotionally captivating, something like a greatest-hits highlights parade. It doesn’t stint on production values, with evocative cinematography (by Charles F. Wheeler) of Puerto Rican and Calabasas, CA, locations standing in for Cuba and Bolivia, an eloquent and propulsive Lalo Schifrin score, high-impact spurts of sudden violence, and a supporting cast that includes Cesare Danova, Robert Loggia, Barbara Luna, Woody Strode, Frank Silvera and Albert Paulsen. So what does this checkered-reputation Che! offer viewers 47 years later? Sharif’s committed and driven performance as the asthmatic and unforgiving agitator evokes thoughts of the strategies of provocateur fanaticism seeping into our current election process. (As the goatherd who turns in Che to Bolivian forces says: “To free me? From what? Nobody asked me what I want?”) Palance’s take on Castro is a flamboyant but earnest attempt to foreshadow the enduring leader and world figure he would become. In its own prickly and unexpected way, the movie scores points for humanism, even as its revolutionary credentials are suspect. Explore your own feelings on the case for Che! via Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray.