Che Guevara, Hero or Villain?

A biopic, a non-documentary film that dramatizes the life of a real, historical person, presents a challenge not only to film-makers but to audiences as well. Accuracy issues are always at stake when a director decides to do a dramatic narrative about a famous person, particularly about someone who carries a lot of mythological baggage.

If movie audiences have even a faint knowledge of the historical character, they will come armed with predisposed beliefs about how a character should be portrayed. Hagiographers and groupies are going to be particularly difficult to convince if a film’s portrayal violates their own notions of their heroes.

That said, it was only a matter of time before some film director or producer would see the potential in a film about the famous Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a revered hero to leftists, anarchists, egalitarians, existentialists, rebels, and political activists throughout the world.

Motorcycle Diaries and the two part series, Che, both have taken up the challenge of  following Guevara’s Marxist road.  Diaries is a kind of road-film of a revolutionary-in-the- making. The film follows Che as a young medical student who gradually begins to shape his strong sense of social justice as he observes first-hand the horrific poverty and mortality rates in his wide travels across South America.

Stephen Soderbergh’s Che is a four-to-five hour marathon of Che’s life from his early friendship with Castro leading to the overthrow of the Cuban dictator, Batista, to his attempts at revolutionizing the Bolivian peasantry, which eventually led to Che’s capture and execution.

Some critics have claimed that Soderbergh’s film cherry- picked only those events from Che’s revolutionary journey that give a sympathetic portrayal of him. They are quick to point out, for example,  that the film director did not include Che’s support of executing dissidents.

One could argue against the romanticization of Che’s life in all three films; however, from an historical perspective, both films give us a solid intro into this revolutionary icon of the twentieth century.

Che’s early medical training in the South American rural areas would certainly have jump-started his strong passion for the vulnerable and the impoverished. His support of the rights of the campesinos, his partnership with Castro in defeating the Cuban dictator, and his Bolivian campaign to unite the peasantry all added to his  status among a disparate group of leftist ideologues ranging from communists to anarchists.

Cuba’s rigid socialism under Castro may eventually malign the dictator’s historical status, but Che’s reputation remains relatively untarnished as the hero of the disenfranchised throughout South America.  His early death, of course, saved him from the claws of opportunism and ego that may very well have taken him down a mythological notch or two had he lived.

To many, Che has become a venerated icon of the common-man, a South American Mao working the rural areas of Bolivia as a Marxist catalyst. Like Mao, Che had great faith in his belief that the peasants would rise up in arms against oppression and the economic elitism of the bourgeois (Soderbergh caught this contrast vividly in one scene showing the cocktail-party bourgeois mingling with  the leaders of the political elite in stark contrast with the mud-grimed uniformed Cuban and Bolivian rebels in the hills of Bolivia).

Che’s revolutionary spirit had its roots not only in Marxism but in the legacy of Simón Bolívar, South America’s “Liberator,” who had led the fight for independence in so many South American countries during the nineteenth century.

The Western class-warfare issue had begun during and after the revolutionary period  of the 1840s in Europe with the socialist supporters who had attempted to affirm the rights of the laboring class against the industrial owners. Socialism was  not just as an economic model contrasting capitalism,  it was also a workers’-rights movement in the West which continued as a labor paradigm through the twentieth century and became even more intensified under the Communists as a battle against aristocratic and bourgeois privilege (the Bolsheviks against the Romanovs and the Chinese peasants against the Ming-dynasty bourgeois—a difficult battle to sustain, over time,  once the Tsars and the Ming Dynasty became history)

Che’s strategy of guerrilla warfare also became a kind of Marxist signature-piece giving  him credibility among  hard-core resistance-movement supporters of every ilk. He was the consummate outdoor-cat revolutionary willing to get his hands dirty by wearing down the enemy in small, attack-and-withdraw doses. Unlike the bourgeois, self-preoccupied, dreamy-eyed student leftists of Bertolucci’s Dreamers, Che speaks to the activist revolutionary, not an ivory-towered leftist talking about the Marxist dialectic in the safe confines of a wood-paneled library.

In the end, Che and Motorcycle Diaries may have stretched the truth about Che’s benign persona, but their portrayals of his over-arching revolutionary journey from medical student to activist, guerrilla-warrior remains in tact and utterly truthful.

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