Academic journal article Framework

The Good Fight: The Spanish Civil War and U.S. Left Film Criticism

Academic journal article Framework

The Good Fight: The Spanish Civil War and U.S. Left Film Criticism

Article excerpt

Temporarily stationed in a small village in southern France while waiting to be covertly escorted through the Pyrenees to join the International Brigades in Spain, future Hollywood screenwriter Alvah Bessie felt nostalgic for home. He attended a local movie house where the Hollywood film Black Legion (Archie Mayo, US, 1937) was playing. The film stars a young and still unknown Humphrey Bogart as Frank Taylor, a Midwestern, xenophobic machinist who loses his promotion to a Polish-born worker. In retaliation, Taylor joins the Black Legion, an underground terrorist organization that firebombs immigrants' houses and proselytizes WASP superiority. The film was loosely based on the group's various murders of labor organizers during the early 1930s.1

As Bessie watched the celluloid nightmare unreel before him, he was wrested back to the horrors of the present:

The picture seemed to confirm the decision that had brought me thus far, and it re-established contact, not only with my own country but with progressive forces that were at work around the world. Watching the typical American workingman, in the film, succumb to and accept ideals diametrically opposed to the very attributes that made him an American, you could feel again the power of evil that was at work. An evil power that would split man from man, brother from brother the world over-and you knew again the necessity to fight that power. For here was Fascism in its American manifestation.2

Being a Communist Party member, Bessie was not unique in drawing connections between fascism abroad and at home. Various Left journals and periodicals like the Daily Worker, New Masses, The Nation, and The New Republic made similar links. John L. Spivak wrote a series of nine articles for New Masses chronicling various anti-Semitic groups' actions in the States.3 General Smedley Butler's Dickstein Committee testimony that exposed the planned coup against Roosevelt initiated by some Wall Street financiers received major coverage.4 Independent African American periodicals like the Chicago Defender, New York Amsterdam News, Atlanta Daily World, and Afro-American saw fascism abroad as intimately related to the lynching terror plaguing the Deep South. Langston Hughes reported, "Give Franco a hood and he would be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a kleagle. Fascism is what the Ku Klux Klan will be when it combines with the Liberty League and starts using machine guns and airplanes instead of a few yards of rope."5

But, more important for this essay, Bessie, like many Left film workers, critics, and theorists at the time, regarded cinema and film criticism as conduits to assist audiences in not only understanding but also becoming involved in domestic and global struggles for justice and equality. Tom Brandon, a central member of the 1930s radical documentary film group The New York Film and Photo League, wrote, "To the writers in the Left Press, film and their subjects-form and content-were inseparable. For all their concern with technique and the need to innovate, to improve, to bring film nearer to the ideal of what the medium of our time ought to be, they never lost sight of the place of film in society, its role as a force for reform and revolution-film was to be a weapon in changing the world."6

This essay investigates the central role the Spanish Civil War played in re-inflecting the direction of U.S. Left film criticism and culture, which should not come as much surprise since the war symbolized, at least for a time, the utopian hopes of the international Left. As one Lincoln Battalion soldier observed, "More clearly than any combat of the past the war in Spain is a fight to the finish between all that is new and generous and hopeful in the world, and all that is old, cruel, and fetid."7 It even managed to temporarily convert George Orwell over to socialism: "In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. …

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