BR: Che! (1969)

December 15, 2014 | By


Che1969_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  September 9, 2014

Genre:  Biography / War / Drama

Synopsis: Compact account of Che Guevara, spanning his years with Fidel Castro and post-Cuban revolution years trying to instill uprisings in parts of Latin South America before his execution in 1967.

Special Features:  Isolated mono music track / 1969 making-of promo (5 mins.) / TV spot + Theatrical Trailer / Liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





Produced two years after the death of Argentine-born rebel Che Guevara, Richard Fleischer’s film is infamous for being a grand piece of cinematic kitsch, starring Omar Sharif as the eponymous anti-hero whose face became a brand on T-shirts, sheets, posters, and buttons, and Jack Palance as a cigar-chomping Fidel Castro who led his band of rag-tag rebels into Havana after 2 years of guerilla warfare in the rural areas of Cuba.

The basic story of Che and Castro’s successful revolution is incredible: roughly 80 soldiers land on a beach, are decimated by the planes and soldiers of Cuba’s lead dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and from twelve survivors, manage to increase their membership to a small force which ultimately sends Batista packing, and appoints the pair as key figures in a dictatorship that endures in roughly the same form today.

As a piece of ephemeral tabloid filmmaking, Che! is fascinating for the selective, simplistic storytelling, and if shorn of its major stars, Fleischer’s film would essentially be no greater nor worse than a cash-in TV movie of the week. Sharif may look like Guevara, but he’s robbed of necessary scenes which humanize the pop culture enigma. Part of the problem stems from an obviously tight budget – although shot in beautiful Puerto Rico, the newsreel structure borrowed from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) ensured the three screenwriters needed to focus on just the essential material that would accompany a print biographical sketch.

There’s also a certain sleaziness that dominates the film in spite of Fleischer’s genuine attempts to exploit the news doc format which may well stem from Palance’s colourful version of Fidel (false nose and all), and Sharif’s fiery eyes which often transcend the script’s banalities but also reinforce we’re watching an Enigma rather than a person. The film works, but it keeps stumbling when epic street fights are reduced to an obvious one-scene studio set, and Fleischer’s news doc format mandates ridiculous ‘present day’ confession-style interviews with Castro associates and critics who smile, grumble, or wander around buildings and make their addresses to the camera.

Women are almost non-existent in the film, with Barbara Luna’s portrayal of a token female rebel being an exception that soon vanishes into the background, and Linda Marsh (America America) having an eeny-weeny role of a faux anthropologist / spy who provides Guevara with government and military movements. (The ad copy shows Guevara fondling a woman in a scene that never occurs, and based on the film’s rather short running time, it’s either from a deleted scene, or was pure teaser material designed for the poster art.)

Perhaps the goofiest component is Che’s ‘final thoughts’ that start the film: Sharif whispers the final words of Guevara, now a spirit observing as his own cadaver is prepped for a helicopter transport across the Bolivian mountains to a remote village for final display and disposal. Fleischer returns to this in-progress body transport to infer the nearing end of his film, and there’s an amusing cluster of jump cuts of the helicopter which may have been designed to invoke a newsreel style, but come off as heavy-handed.

Some of Fleischer’s other techniques are rather interesting: special lenses that completely block out the background and make any close-ups of Guevara and Sharif’s eyes hyper-real; a diopter lens that allows for Castro’s men to remain in focus as they turn at the sharp end of a fork-in-the-road in the jungle; and a sudden acceleration of frames as a camera crane up, over and down a shed.

Fleischer’s second unit action scenes are excellent – the combat, explosions, gunfire, and massive vistas sugar fields, and of Bolivia’s mountains where Guevara attempted to mount a central anti-American revolution he hoped would bleed to surrounding South American countries are gorgeous in ‘scope – and he manages to give the teleplay script a visual depth typical of an A-level studio picture. The violence is fast and ruthless, especially a great montage in which Castro’s victory parade through Havana’s streets is intercut with the mass executions of captured Batista soldiers, and Guevara’s repeated injuries and survival add to the details which elevated the former doctor-turned-revolutionary into an icon.

Guevara’s asthma is recurrent – a clichéd yet effective detail that humanizes the icon – but it’s contrasted with Castro’s cigars (never far away from his mouth) and regular consumption of amphetamines and Metaxa booze. The Cuban accents are very loose – Palance just can’t hold it for long – and the cast is a mixed bag of character actors: standouts include Sid Haig and Adolph Caesar, while Woody Strode is largely silent and Robert Loggia is always looking rather irked. With the cast outfitted with Cuban wigs #12 and #14 and Cuban beards #9 and #10, Che! feels like a rush job designed to give studio Fox some easy cash, and perhaps beat any TV news producers to making their own detailed, fact-rich biography.

The real assets in this piece of conventional storytelling are Sharif’s crazily affecting eyes, Charles Wheeler’s gorgeous cinematography, and Lalo Schifrin’s rich score, isolated in a mono music & sound effects track on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray.

Che! has remained a problem film to release – it’s good trash but not a good film – and its never made the move from videotape and TV to DVD, so this BR is a real are rare treat. The visuals are splendid, but the mono 2.0 mix is rather flat, and low in volume. There are few dynamic aural moments in Che! (gunfire and score, excepted), and the isolated score track has been slightly enhanced to give Schifrin’s music a bit more richness.

The isolated music track (apparently taken from a clean mixed music stem, instead of a music & effects track) also marks the first time the original score’s been released, and offers a very different listening experience to the prior soundtrack album.

Originally released on Bill Cosby’s Tetragrammaton label, then AES Records, and later on Schifrin’s own Aleph CD label, the score is more dissonant and impressionistic, whereas the album features somewhat longer re-recorded versions that present themes in more concise listening versions. (It would be interesting to learn whether Schifrin actually wrote two scores – one more melodic and catchy, but there’s no details on the score’s creation in Julie Kirgo’s appreciative liner notes.)

Fans of the album might be a little jarred by the score’s less conventional sound, and should hold onto both the LP and CD releases as they contain different score, re-recorded, and source cues. Last point: even on CD, Che! never sounded particularly good – there’s a grubbiness to the recording which was either deliberate, marrying a coarser sound to the film’s newsreel approach, or a rushed recording which Schifrin never liked, and was unable to significantly improve upon on his own CD edition.

Other Blu-ray extras include a TV spot and trailer. Both are amusing for playing on Guevara’s post-mortem cult status, not like the Bird Lives! wave that followed the death of iconic alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. A vintage making-of promo featurette (in great condition) shows cast, crew, and director on sets and in the jungle.

Fleischer would move right into the making of the superior Pearl Harbor docu-drama Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) , whereas both writer / producer Sy Bartlett (13 Rue Madeleine, The Big Country) and veteran and former blacklisted writer Michael Wilson (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Planet of the Apes) apparently retired from filmmaking (or couldn’t transcend the dud status of their Guevara epic). David Karp, co-credited with devising the film’s story had just completed a season of the Dirty Dozen knock-off TV series Garrison’s Gorillas (1967-1968), and would return to TV as a prolific episodic series writer.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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