The Spanish Civil War is a good war for movies. Its ideological split between fascists on the one hand and liberals and communists on the other was a warm-up for World War II. It was a global conflict and a trial run for the Cold War, too, in the sense that republicans and leftists from around the world — notably from the United States and the Soviet Union, but from many other parts of the world as well — converged on a country to try and tilt its fortunes their way. Setting a movie in the Spanish Civil War allows storytellers to engage with the fundamental issues of those conflicts without having to address their specific baggage. Also, Spanish architecture and landscapes (perhaps I should say Mediterranean, since many Spanish Civil War movies were filmed in Italy or other similar locales) offer a distinct backdrop from the grayer, grimmer palettes usually seen in WWII and Cold War flicks.
I’ve watched a lot of Spanish Civil War movies, and I thought I’d briefly run through the ones I can remember:
The Spanish Earth (1937) — ★★☆☆ — Orson Welles narrates this Ernest Hemingway-scripted propaganda film in support of the Loyalist cause. Notice the date: it’s well before Citizen Kane made Welles a household name among film-lovers. The documentary is rather dry despite the names associated with it, but Welles reported a strange story about meeting Hemingway in the recording booth. See the excellent Vanity Fair piece on an unfinished Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind, that began as a loose adaptation of the incident.
The Fallen Sparrow (1943) — ★☆☆☆ — A potboiler parlor-room noir with some neat ideas about torture and memory but no cohesiveness, this one is for John Garfield completists or Spanish Civil War buffs only.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) — ★★☆☆ — Gary Cooper is his usual ponderous self as an American who comes to fight against Franco, and he and Ingrid Bergman don’t have the chemistry that she usually has with her costars. However, a colorful palette and some smart writing for the supporting roles make this a reasonably watchable Hemigway adaptation.
The Angel Wore Red (1960) — ★★☆☆ — Ava Gardner is the main reason to check this title out, but the plot has echoes of The Third Man, and not just because Joseph Cotten makes an appearance. With a little more visual panache, this could have been a bonafide classic.
Behold a Pale Horse (1964) — ★★★★ — This overlooked film is a pretty stunning tale of revenge, thoughtfully directed by Fred Zinnemann and powerfully acted by Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. The movie takes place years after the Spanish Civil War, but the stakes feel higher than in most movies set during the conflict.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) — ★★★★ — This isn’t really a Spanish Civil War movie, at least not for most of its runtime. A must-see for Maggie Smith (Harry Potter, Downton Abbey) fans, its connection to the war is revealed toward the end, and is just one of many reasons to watch or rewatch it.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) — ★★★★ — Víctor Erice’s legendary take on Frankenstein was one of Roger Ebert’s ten favorite films of all time. The story is told from a child’s perspective, and visually it is a cinephile’s delight, but it has a profoundly dark undercurrent.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — ★★★☆ — The Spanish Civil War components of Guillermo del Toro’s memorable fantasy are actually the weak parts; the strength of the film is its use of macabre creatures to illustrate the story of a young girl’s life in a fascist headquarters.
The Exile (2015) — ★★★☆ — This unreleased film screened at the 2015 Austin Film Festival. It follows two of Franco’s soldiers who capture a partisan near their snowbound mountain outpost, and soon begin to question everything about the war. I hope the film eventually finds an outlet, it’s certainly worthy of distribution.
I’ll update this list with any additional Spanish Civil War movies I happen to see!