For a solid 20 years or so, it seemed every hipster was sporting a “Che Guevera” t-shirt. His image became as ubiquitous as lumberjack beards are today. Were you to ask these neophytes who Guevera was, or most importantly, why he was an icon to be revered or reviled, you’d get everything from blank stares to misinformed ramblings about his being a “man of the people.”
The truth is Che Guevara was a charismatic, brilliant strategist– an obsessive, violent and haunted Marxist, who pushed his ever decreasing number of followers to illness and defeat. More driven than Fidel Castro, who seemed content with taking control of Cuba, Guevera saw the revolution he designed for Cuba only as a starting point; a lynchpin for his greater ambition: to unite the Latin Americas and fuse them into one global superpower. His political career was two-fold. First his successful revolution in Cuba, and lastly, his failed campaign in Bolivia, a territory he assumed would fall easily into his grasp as a pivotal locale to headquarter his plans for world domination.
Twilight Time’s release of the rarely seen Richard Fleischer film Che!, starring Omar Sharif as the polarizing revolutionary, is a dubiously made, but somewhat effective thumbnail sketch of the leader. While it isn’t nearly as well researched or plotted or even good as Steve Soderbergh’s 2008 epic Che, it does hold some interest, especially for the strange but effective choice of Omar Sharif as Che and even stranger (and shameful) casting of Jack Palance as Castro.
Richard Fleischer, one of the most uneven of directors (from the heights of great noir like The Narrow Margin to the very bowels of hell with Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer) is here working at a very standard level. Made in 1971, just two years after the real Guevara’s death, Che! follows the Argentinian revolutionary from his arrival on the shores of Cuba as an asthmatic doctor, assisting Castro’s ragtag rebel army, to his ascension as number two man, and finally to his fall in Bolivia. Castro, in this film, is designed to be an opportunist who doesn’t trust Guevara, but idolizes him; “lifting” his best ideas and taking all the credit.
Palance’s portrayal of Castro is a world-class stinkeroo. Not only does the man look nothing like the notorious dictator (a badly constructed prosthetic nose does little to change Palance’s famous bone structure) but he chews the scenery as voraciously as the rotten cigar perpetually dangling from his grimacing maw. It’s a performance for the ages, and one of the reasons the film has always gotten a bad rap (it’s famously listed in the 1977 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time). He painfully eclipses Sharif, who attempts to paint Guevara with more subtle shadings. In fact, Sharif is quite disarming with his puppy dog eyes and soft demeanor that belie his strong beliefs and murderous behavior.
Having to cover such an epic story in the surprisingly short running time of 96 minutes means that a lot of shortcuts and liberties are taken. Screenwriter Michael Wilson makes the unusual choice of having several of Guevara’s acquaintances deliver information directly to camera, as if we’re catching bits and pieces of interviews. It’s a minor distraction, but a passable way to get through Guevara’s life quickly. There are many (far too many) well executed battle scenes, including one stunt with a jeep full of soldiers getting hit with a Molotov cocktail and catching fire that is pretty damn shocking, but after a while, with no clear tension or character objective, these scenes become tiresome.
The film posits that Guevara is the master strategist behind the Cuban revolution as well as the orchestrator of the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, a theory which does offer up some fascinating possibilities of Guevara’s hope to establish a Latin America superpower. Che! also gives context to the Marxist’s failure to mount a campaign in Bolivia, where the farmers had no real interest in overthrowing their own government. As Guevara’s situation in the mountains becomes more desperate, so does his behavior. His men are forced to eat carrion, and eventually dissert, until Guevara’s motley crew of renegades, starving, sick and defeated, is easily overtaken, beaten and finally, executed.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray includes a “making of” featurette, interesting for its attempts at authenticity by providing similarities between actor Sharif and Guevara from newsreel footage, but somewhat hides the obvious mismatch between Palance and the real Castro.
It may not be accurate, as well as hold moments of unintentional hilarity, but there is something engaging about Che! that at least offers some facts for the many hipsters who are as eager to wear Che t-shirts as they are to wax and curl their mustaches. Hopefully we won’t live to see the day when Idi Amin or Al Bashir take on the same level of pop culture “cool” status.