The Spanish Earth

The Spanish Earth (1937) Director: Joris Ivens

“Before death came when you were old or sick. But now it comes to all this village. High in the sky and shining silver, it comes to all who have no place to run, no place to hide.”

Hemingway on the set of the film

★★★☆☆

The Spanish Earth is a powerful panoramic film of Spanish Civil War, written by Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos (two writers whose relationship had deteriorated), and it was directed by Dutch independent filmmaker, Joris Ivens. The narration for the film was originally set to be completed by Orson Welles, however Ernest Hemingway completed the narration in the final version (apparently some of the staff found Orson Welles’s original narration as ‘too theatrical’ -an accusation which greatly offended Welles). The final version of the film is a rare example of Hemingway’s recorded voice. Remarkably, in the French language version of the film, Jean Renoir offered his voice for narration. The film’s production group formed a production company called Contemporary Historians, Inc. to raise the funds necessary to make the picture.

The Spanish Earth is a short 52-minute film. It is shot in a pseudo-documentary style, and it is somewhat propagandistic as it portrays Spanish villagers and peasants scratching out a living from the soil in Fuentidueña de Tajo in central Spain, southeast of Madrid. The film takes place during the Spanish Civil War and it favors the republican coalition of liberals, moderates, communists, anarchists, socialists, and other citizens opposed to the military-fascist junta led by Francisco Franco. The film details the protection of a roadway between Valencia and Madrid, while planes backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany bomb the surrounding Madrid region. The civilians fight to preserve and protect vital irrigation for their crops which they achieve at the dramatic conclusion of the film.

The purpose The Spanish Earth was to draw attention to the atrocities of the Franco dictatorship in Spain (in many ways a ‘prelude’ to World War II), as the United States, England, and France largely remained neutral in the conflict. Even Hollywood and other international sources of news drew minimal attention to the war, and Hemingway, as a lifelong lover of Spain, hoped to highlight the brewing war that was tearing the country apart. The film was released several years before Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, and in some ways it can serve as a companion to George Orwell’s famous account of the anarchists in Barcelona, Homage To Catalonia. The film was screened at the White House for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt (it was the early version featuring Orson Welles’s narration). It was also screened for a group of Hollywood moguls and literary icons. The screening of the film in Los Angeles was the last time F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ever saw one another.

The Spanish Earth is a fascinating glimpse into an often overlooked yet highly destructive and influential war in the 1930s. The most powerful parts of the film are the faces of the soldiers, peasants, farmers, and civilians fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against a military regime.

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