The Spanish Earth

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USA, 1937

Director: Joris Ivens

Production: Contemporary Historians, Inc. (New York); black and white, 35mm; running time: 53 minutes. Released 1937. Filmed March-May 1937 in the village of Fuentedueña and Madrid, Spain; also on the Jarama and Morata de Tajuña fighting fronts.

Screenplay (commentary): Ernest Hemingway; narration (English version): spoken by Ernest Hemingway; narration (French version): translated by E. Guibert and spoken by Joris Ivens; narration (original narration used in previews at the White House) spoken by Orson Welles; photography: John Ferno; editor: Helen Van Dongen; sound supervisor: Irving Reis; music: Marc Blitzstein; arranger: Virgil Thomson.

Award: National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, one of Top Ten of 1937.



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Verstappen, W., "Hemingway or Ivens: Spaanse aarde," in Skoop (Amsterdam), November 1978.

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* * *

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, in July 1936, Joris Ivens was in the USA at the invitation of the New York Film Alliance, and had already begun to involve himself in the cultural politics of the New Deal and the Popular Front. His first response to the outbreak of the war was to collaborate on a project with his editor Helen Van Dongen and the novelist John Dos Passos which, by means of reedited newsreel footage of the conflict, would explain the issues and background to the American people. However, the original material's pro-Franco stance proved a problem and, as Ivens put it, "I remarked that it would be cheaper and more satisfactory in every respect to make such a documentary film on the spot, instead of being at the mercy of newsreel costs and newsreel attitudes." Spain in Flames was thus rapidly completed, and, on the initiative of the editor of Fortune, Archibald MacLeish, a group of writers, including Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, got together and formed a production company, Contemporary Historians Inc., which sent Ivens to Spain with the princely sum of $3,000 with which to make a film about the war. In Paris he teamed up with his cameraman John Ferno, who shot the bulk of the Spanish footage, and they were later joined in Spain by Dos Passos. When the latter left his place was taken by Ernest Hemingway, then war correspondent for the North American News Alliance, who both wrote and spoke the film's commentary.

Ivens's original idea was to illustrate the background to and causes of the Civil War by telling the story of a village's political growth, from the fall of the monarchy, the period of agricultural reform, the outbreak of war, the village's capture by Franco's forces, through to its recapture by the Republicans. Much of the action would focus on one particular peasant family, whose coming to political consciousness would symbolise the development of the peasantry as a whole, while the village itself would stand in as a cross section of Spanish society. Obviously, such a project would involve a great deal of dramatization and re-enactment, but Ivens had already experimented along these lines in the remarkable Borinage. Once in Spain, however, Ivens and Ferno realised that such a complex film would be impossible in the circumstances. As Ivens himself said: "How could we ask people who had fought in the fields and in the trenches in and around Madrid to help reconstruct the atmosphere of King Alfonso's abdication? These people were too deeply involved in their fight to think how a typical village had behaved before the war. We felt shame at not having recognised this. One could not possibly ask people who were engaged in a life and death struggle to be interested in anything outside that struggle." They therefore set off for Madrid and the front, eager to film the conflict itself. However, something of the original plan remained in their development of "an approach that would place equal accents on the defence of Madrid and on one of the small nearby villages linked to the defence because it produced Madrid's food." They finally settled on one particular village, Fuenteduena, which was on the vital Valencia-Madrid highway, in an area which had only recently been confiscated from landlords, and where an important irrigation project was under construction. The front and the village, each of which depends upon the other, are further linked by the figure of the young peasant from Fuenteduena who has become a soldier and is now fighting for the Republic in Madrid, thereby accentuating the main theme of the film: "Working the earth and fighting for the earth," in Ivens's words.

In the end, with its mix of documentary and re-constructed elements, Spanish Earth is at once a less elaborate but more complex film than that first conceived by Ivens: one critic aptly describes it as "an improvised hybrid of many filmic modes." This gives the film a curiously contemporary feel, but what really marks it out as a landmark of documentary filmmaking is its directness, its sense of immediacy, and its refusal to have any truck with spurious notions of "objectivity." Ivens himself states that "My unit had really become part of the fighting forces," and again, "We never forgot that we were in a hurry. Our job was not to make the best of all films, but to make a good film for exhibition in the United States, in order to collect money to send ambulances to Spain. When we started shooting we didn't always wait for the best conditions to get the best shot. We just tried to get good, useful shots." When asked why he hadn't tried to be more "objective" Ivens retorted that "a documentary film maker has to have an opinion on such vital issues as fascism or anti-fascism—he has to have feelings about these issues, if his work is to have any dramatic, emotional or art value," adding that "after informing and moving audiences, a militant documentary film should agitate— mobilise them to become active in connection with the problems shown in the film." Not that Spanish Earth is in any sense strident— indeed, quite the reverse. Ivens understands fully the power of restraint and suggestion, quoting approvingly, à propos his film, John Steinbeck's observation of the London blitz that "In all of the little stories it is the ordinary, the commonplace thing or incident against the background of the bombing that leaves the indelible picture."

Ivens's visual restraint is matched by that of the commentary. Originally this was spoken by Orson Welles, but Ivens felt that "There was something in the quality of his voice that separated it from the film, from Spain, from the actuality of the film." Hemingway's manner of speaking, however, perfectly matched the pared-down quality of his writing. Ivens saw the function of the commentary as being "to provide sharp little guiding arrows to the key points of the film" and as serving as "a base on which the spectator was stimulated to form his own conclusions." He described Hemingway's mode of delivery as sounding like that of "a sensitive reporter who has been on the spot and wants to tell you about it. The lack of a professional commentator's smoothness helped you to believe intensely in the experiences on the screen."

The film's avoidance of overt propagandizing reflected not only Ivens's conception of the documentary aesthetic—it was also hoped that this might help Spanish Earth achieve a wide theatrical release. However, as in Britain, there was thought to be no cinema audience for documentary films, and the plan failed. Nor did it help the film to escape the watchful eye of the British Board of Film Censors (who had previously attacked Ivens's New Earth), who insisted that all references to Italian and German intervention were cut from the commentary, those countries being regarded as "friendly powers" at the time.

—Julian Petley

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