Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the apostle of guerrilla warfare and world revolution, was killed forty-seven years ago in Bolivia on October 9, 1967 at the age of thirty-nine.
Che was the left’s James Bond, a swashbuckling Twentieth Century Robin Hood and Sir Galahad. To the right, he was a fanatical, bloodthirsty murderer.
The handsome, youthful, cigar-smoking, beret-clad Bohemian-looking revolutionary has become an icon of protest the world over.
At demonstrations around the globe Che’s image—emblazoned on T-shirts, posters, and tchochkes—is displayed more than that of any other defender of the poor and oppressed.
Despite being a guerrilla warrior Che famously said: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
In addition to being charismatic, Che was asthmatic, a condition which presumably gave him insight into human suffering, but did not slow him down. He went on plunging into jungles when he could have rested on his laurels in an air conditioned office as a bureaucrat in Havana instead.
Che has inspired numerous documentaries and features. To remember and honor this indefatigable champion of the wretched of the Earth, here’s a list of the top ten films about Ernesto Che Guevara de la Serna —fallen, but not forgotten.
1. Create One, Two, Three, Many Guevaras: “EL ‘CHE’ GUEVARA” aka “BLOODY CHE GUEVARA”
By the late 1950s, Ernesto Che Guevara began appearing in newsreels, and within less than a year after his death the legendary freedom fighter was spawning cinematic works, depicted by famous actors in fiction films. The Spaniard Francisco “Paco” Rabal, who played Luis Bunuel the 1961 classic “Viridiana”, was the first actor of note to strap on a pair of army boots and play the guerrilla leader.
North American actor John Ireland (who appeared in “Spartacus” and the “Rawhide” TV series) co-starred in this 1968 Italian production. “El ‘Che’ Guevara,” directed by the Roman Paolo Heusch and written by Adriano Bolzoni, whose screen credits included spaghetti westerns “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Mercenary”, co-written by Franco Solinas.
“El ‘Che’” is the first feature to portray Guevara’s failed Bolivian expedition, but was made prior to the release of his famed diary, so the 1968 movie’s accuracy is highly questionable. (Here's a Spanish language version of the entire movie.)
2. Oy Vey: “CHE!”
Hollywood quickly got into the act when Egyptian Omar Sharif (who’d co-starred in the 1962 desert warfare epic “Lawrence of Arabia”) portrayed the guerrilla leader in a 1969 radical chic exploitation flick aimed at the youth market.
“Che!” was one of a number of this period’s Bolshie biopics by ex-blacklistees depicting famous revolutionaries, co-made by leftist talents in an attempt to cash in at the box office on the student movement. “The Assassination of Trotsky” (1972) , directed by blacklisted Joseph Losey with Richard Burton in the title role, is another example.
In “Che!” Puerto Rico locations doubled for Cuba and the Fox Ranch (today Malibu State Creek Park) stood in for Bolivia.
The original script for “Che!” was by Michael Wilson, who during the Blacklist wrote/co-wrote the 1954 labor classic “Salt of the Earth” and, under assumed names, 1957’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence.”
In “Blacklisted, The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist” Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner wrote: “Wilson once described this film as his greatest professional disappointment. A sympathetic screenplay was eviscerated by producer Sy Bartlett in a cold-blooded act of cinemacide… (Happily, the original screenplay has survived.)”
In his review, critic Leonard Maltin mocked the movie as a “bomb” for its “comic-book treatment” and as “one of the biggest film jokes of 1960s. However, you haven’t lived until you see [cowboy star Jack] Palance play Fidel Castro.”
Be that as it may, Sharif captures Guevara’s bravado and fearlessness in the face of capture and death. Flawed as the film is, it contrasts Che’s radicalism, spreading the revolution through guerrilla struggles, with the Soviets’ stodgy socialist bureaucratism and closes with news clips of protests inspired by the martyred hero.
3. Epic Triumph: “CHE: PART I: THE ARGENTINE”
Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh released a two-part, far more historically accurate epic about Guevara in 2008, for which Puerto Rican Benicio Del Toro won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor award.
The first movie, the 134-minute “Che: Part I: The Argentine”, shows how Argentina-born Ernesto Guevara (nicknamed “Che” after the Argentine slang term he often used, which translates as “hey man” or “hey you”) meets an exiled Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir, who was Oscar-nominated for 2011’s “A Better Life”) in Mexico, and immediately realize they are kindred spirits. They join forces, embark on the Granma yacht, survive the disastrous landing back at Cuba where they proceed to wage guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra. Che’s debilitating asthma is depicted during a battle scene when his coughing almost gives the rebels’ away.
Guevara’s battlefield prowess is displayed as he becomes a comandante of the Revolution.
The film follows the “Barbudos” (bearded ones) as the guerrillas sweep Cuba and rise to power. Soderbergh ends the film abruptly, if not stupidly. For some strange reason, instead of recreating the famous newsreel footage of the revolutionaries triumphantly entering Havana in victory, en route the jeep-riding Che argues with a fellow rebel whose vehicle is too bourgeois for their caravan. Guevara actually shares the movie’s writing credits as “Part I” is based in part on his “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War.” Jsu Garcia, who played Che in 2005’s “The Lost City”, co-stars.
4. Epic Defeat: “CHE: PART II: GUERRILLA”
The second part of Soderbergh’s Guevara biopic is absolutely heartbreaking, 135 minutes of pure misery for aficionados of “El Che.” Che again shares writing credits, as “Part II” is based in part on Guevara’s “Bolivian Diary”, and tells the story of his campaign to spread the revolution to South America.
Because Bolivia is contiguous with numerous other countries on the continent of his birth, he hoped to turn this centrally located nation into a base of operations from which El Comandante would export revolution throughout Latin America. But Che’s quixotic crusade to replicate the Cuban Revolution in Bolivia and to “create, one, two, three, many Vietnams” in the Western Hemisphere was as ill-conceived as John Brown’s disastrous 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry in his quest to abolish slavery.
“Part II” shows how the official, pro-Moscow Bolivian Communist Party turned its back on the Argentine and his band of mostly Cuban fighters.
If, as Mao put it, “the people are the sea and the guerrillas are the fish,” Che’s lack of local support doomed his final struggle. A fish out of water, Guevara was caught October 8, 1967, by the U.S.-trained and armed Bolivian military, with CIA participation. He was summarily executed the following day, thus avoiding a sensational trial and bringing to a devastating end Che’s “Tricontinetal strategy.”
According to a June 3, 1975 declassified document, “When Che Guevara was executed… one CIA official was present -- a Cuban-American operative named Félix Rodríguez… After the execution, Rodríguez took Che’s Rolex watch, often proudly showing it to reporters...”
Che’s hands were amputated for fingerprint verification, and he was buried in a secret grave. Thirty years later, Che’s burial site was found, his corpse exhumed and finally laid to rest in Cuba, amidst a popular outpouring.
(In 1994 Swiss director Richard Dindo made the documentary “Ernesto Che Guevara, The Bolivian Diary.”
5. Don’t Cry For Him, Compañera: “EVITA”
In this 1996 big screen adaptation of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (who co-created the “Jesus Christ Superstar” rock opera), Spanish actor Antonio Banderas portrays Che as the counterpoint to his fellow Argentine, Eva Perón (Madonna).
If Evita is a self-aggrandizing political huckster who enriches herself as the wife of General Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce), hiding behind the façade of a populist persona, the skeptical Guevara is depicted in contrast as the real deal, the true revolutionary who has the masses’ genuine interests at heart.
Aong with Parker and Rice, Oliver Stone shares the movie’s writing credits. Stone’s interest in Latin America goes at least as far back as the 1986 hard hitting “Salvador”, which he directed and co-wrote (receiving a Best Writing Oscar nomination).
Stone went on to direct three documentaries about Fidel Castro. In 2009, “South of the Border” included interviews with South America’s new left-leaning presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezueala and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who appear to have reaped the benefits of Guevara’s armed attempt to foment revolution throughout the continent.
6. “Venceremos!” “FIDEL”
This 200 minute mini-series about Castro’s rise to power originally aired on Showtime in January 2002 in two parts. The July 26 Movement, guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Che’s final mission in Bolivia and beyond are covered in this informative, entertaining docudrama-like production. Ironically, telewriter Stephen Tolkin also wrote the 1990 movie “Captain America.”
This made-for-TV-movie starred Victor Huggo Martin as Fidel, Tony Plana as dictator Gen. Fulgencio Batista and Gael Garcia Bernal as an extremely determined, if not overzealous, Che, who bravely stares death in the eyes. Unlike 1969’s “Che!” “Fidel” implicates the CIA in Guevara’s capture and execution. (Watch.)
7. Uneasy Rider: “THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES”
This 2004 feature executive produced by Robert Redford is a sort of prequel to “Fidel”, in that Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal reprises his role as Che, only this time, he is much younger, a medical student of middle-class origins who embarks on a motorcycle odyssey across South America years before he became a freedom fighter in Cuba.
Brazilian director Walter Salles’ adaptation is based on the journal Guevara kept (Che again receives a writing credit for the movie) that came to be called “The Motorcycle Diaries”, a sort of Latin American counterpart to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
The diary details how he and Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo De la Serna, a distant Che relative) choppered their way across South America. They came of age, politically, as eyewitnesses to the campesinos’ hardships. There’s spellbinding scenery at places like Machu Picchu, and a Neo-Realist use of indigenous people.
Young Ernesto wants to become a doctor to alleviate human suffering, and is serious, honest to a fault and compassionate. The medical student’s experience at a so-called leper colony on the Amazon is transcendental. A Christ-like Che refuses to wear latex gloves and befriends the Hansen's disease sufferers.
To celebrate his birthday, Che swims across the river full of deadly creatures that separates those with and without the disease -- the symbolic divide between the First and the Third Worlds -- becoming the first person to ever swim across it. Joining the afflicted, Che casts his lot with les miserables. The “lepers” are overjoyed by his act of solidarity, inspired by his compassion and courage -- a wonderful metaphor for who Che became. Bernal is sublime as Che and, ironically, what may well be the best feature about Guevara is set before he became the face of “the heroic guerrilla.”
8. “Until the Final Victory!”: “HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE”
This Argentine biopic about Che, which takes its name from one of Guevara’s slogans, was directed by Buenos Aires-born Juan Carlos Desanzo, who was the cinematographer of the acclaimed pro-Third World liberation movement documentary “The Hour of the Furnaces.” Alfredo Vasco portrayed his fellow Argentine Ernesto in this 100 minute feature film, which was apparently shot in Cuba and released on October 9, 1997—the precise thirtieth anniversary of Che’s assassination.
9. A Basic Doc: “THE TRUE STORY OF CHE GUEVARA”
Ernesto gets the History Channel treatment in this nuts and bolts nonfiction film that covers the basics of its subject’s tumultuous life. Onscreen sources in Maria Berry’s 90 minute, 2007 documentary include Guevara biographer Jon Lee Anderson, Peter Kornbluh (who recently exposed Henry Kissinger’s purported plan to attack Cuba during the 1970s), Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei, Che contemporaries, etc. The doc has a centrist-to-conservative point of view; Anderson calls Che’s efforts to export revolution an attempt to start “World War III.” The film utilizes reenactments plus great newsreel footage, including the rebels’ triumphant march into Havana where they’re welcomed by joyous crowds.
10. Begorra it’s Guevara!: “MEETING CHE GUEVARA & THE MAN FROM MAYBURY HILL”
Irish director Anthony Byrne’s 2003 sci fi, noirish black-and-white short is certainly the most bizarre film to use Che as a character (at least since the 1969 Omar Sharif pic!). In 1964, after his speaking engagement at the U.N., en route to Algiers Guevara’s Cubana flight stopped at Dublin Airport to refuel. (According to a news clip, bad weather actually forced Che’s jet to stop in Ireland, where some of Che’s ancestors originally came from.) Byrne’s enigmatic short is influenced by H.G. Wells (who was a socialist, by the way) and his science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds”, apparently as a reference to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Karl Shiels, who appeared in “Batman Begins”(2005), plays Che and John Hurt (“1984”) is the Man from Maybury Hill. (See: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE9R-SO6yn8 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_WDo4STRak. To see Che’s interview with an Irish journalist at Dublin go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBYUOOEHbJw.)
In these films and clips various actors portray Ernesto Che Guevara. You can watch the man himself, in his own words, delivering the above-referenced 1964 “Patria O Muerte!” speech at the United Nations in New York, sticking it to the Yanqui imperialists right in “the belly of the beast.”(See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ekfej_kmHQ.”)