General Franco Jumps the Shark

Reflections on the film Raza


in Features


Busy, busy, busy. So much to do, so many traitors to be shot. You’d think a victorious tyrant would have his hands plenty full in the aftermath of Spain’s murderous 1936-39 civil war. It turns out, though, that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had long nursed a secret desire, one he was uniquely in a position to satisfy at the outset of his nearly four decades in power. But where in the world did he find the time to write the screenplay for a feature-length film? Never mind that the end product is as artistically shoddy and morally repugnant as anything that ever defiled celluloid, it still gives a fascinating peek through the thick velvet curtains that lead to the lobby of a dictator’s mind.

Film-buff Franco didn’t often go to the movies. The movies came to him. On engagement-free Saturday evenings a projectionist would be admitted to the head of state’s residence on the outskirts of Madrid where a screening room had been installed. Ministers on urgent business would be roped into attendance. It went on like that until old age began gnawing at his attention span, decades down the road. Hitler, too, was acutely conscious of the cinema’s potential for manipulating the masses, but left the hands-on part to his deputy, Goebbels. And Mussolini certainly praised the carbon-arc projector as “the world’s most effective weapon.” But his movie producer son, Vittorio, revealed that Il Duce could scarcely make it through 15 minutes of virtually any film you could think of without dozing off.

Franco’s concern, however, was not to mobilize the masses or even to stay awake. It was to legitimize his side’s triumph in the civil war, and settle a few scores with his notoriously dysfunctional family. A proxy hero was needed for the unimposing public figure he knew himself to be, comically short of stature (five feet, four inches) and morbidly timid in company, a paunchy, squeaky-voiced little introvert. Unlike fascists elsewhere in Europe who certainly knew how to work a crowd, Francisco Franco was the personification of the charismatically challenged.

Having won the civil war “by the grace of God,” Franco got to see foreign movies his own censors had banned, such as Gone with the Wind. Other Hollywood productions that caught his fancy include My Favorite Blonde (with Bob Hope) as well as overtly anti-fascist ones like A Yank in the RAF, Mrs Miniver and Casablanca. But the motion picture that made the greatest impact on him was the 1939 version of Beau Geste, William Wellman’s epic about three brothers fighting heroically in the French Foreign Legion.

Franco, too, was no stranger to the Moroccan desert, where he commanded Spain’s own Foreign Legion from 1923 to 1935 and had been wounded in action suppressing insurgents in the Rif Mountains. But the future dictator’s own combat experiences are hardly referenced at all in the screen treatment eventually published under the open-secret pseudonym of Jaime de Andrade (a name from his mother’s side of the family) after being worked on by more cinematically competent hands, including those of the designated director, José Sáenz de Heredia, with an assist from Antonio Roman.

The film is called Raza (race) — which, let it be said with haste, is not a word front-loaded with the connotations it has in English. “Breed” or “essence” gives a better idea of what he was getting at, or (my choice) “bloodlines.” Franco’s aim was to dramatize how core values such as loyalty and love of one’s country get passed from generation to generation only when they are replenished by sacrifice and heroism.

Raza: anecdotario para el guión de una pelicula was written or probably dictated by Franco in 1940 but the movie did not go into production until the following year. It premiered in Madrid on January 5, 1942 with Alfredo Mayo in the role of José Churruca, Ana Mariscal as Marisol, and José Nieto as Pedro. “Franco and I were sitting up front, his wife and some other people were behind us, so I could watch him out of the corner of my eye,” Sáenz recalled years later, “In the light from the screen I could see that he was deeply moved. His eyes were glistening and he was paying close attention to the story. That was a sign things were going well. When it was over he said precisely these words: “Well done, Sáenz de Heredia, you have fulfilled your duty.”

The film did well at the box office. It was re-released in 1950 under a new title, Espíritu de una raza. As the regime was at that time extremely concerned about not offending the United States, this new version had around seven minutes of its original running time trimmed away, excising fascist salutes and pro-Axis cheerleading. Franco himself is rumored to have written some of the new dialogue, thus achieving the peculiar distinction of becoming the censor of his own movie.

After Raza had been superseded by Espiritu, its fascist-friendly precursor vanished from sight until 1996, when the original negative turned up in the East Berlin archives of the UFA studios. Paul Preston, the historian of record for all matters 20th century Spanish, says that for 33 years, Franco would schedule reprise showings of Raza “on a near weekly basis.” That assertion might benefit from some critical thought, however.

In 1977, two years after the dictator’s death, director Gonzalo Her ralde released Raza: El Espiritu de Franco, a reimagined documentary collage in which scenes from the original film alternate with interviews with leading actor Alfredo Mayo, and (separately) with Pilar Franco, the Spanish strongman’s younger sister and diehard apologist.

It sounds like a pretty good idea for a movie but it wasn’t actually. Alfredo Mayo prattled on about his youthful conquests and the 250 or so films in which he appeared, while Pilar Franco, a tough old bird dripping pearls, attempted to justify her brother’s “Crusade of National Liberation.” Neither one had anything very relevant to say about the movie itself.

That same year, cultural historian Roman Gubern examined Raza under the harsh light of neo-Freudian scrutiny and concluded that “the entire text of Raza — and the same is equally true of [Franco’s] career — is a basis for our understanding of his irresistible zeal to advance himself, ennoble himself and achieve sublimation and dominance.” Result: what Gubern describes as the “savage empowerment of the ego.”

A savagely empowered ego definitely struts through the prologue to the book version (attributed to the non-existent Andrade) in which Franco loses no time in turning his awkward phrasing and blustering non sequiturs up full blast:

“You are about to witness scenes from the life of a generation, unheralded episodes of the Spanish crusade in which the decency and spiritual nature that characterize our race are manifest. A family of distinction is at the center of our narrative, a true account of those Spanish families that withstood the crushing blows of hardship. Their sublime sacrifice, heroic deeds, acts of great generosity and ordinary decency will pass before you. Nothing bogus will be found here, and every new incident will bring more than just a single name to your lips – there are many others like them! Such is the essence of Spain and of the Spanish race.”

Raza the book and Raza the movie are structured as a cross-generational family saga, set in a time frame that bookends the interval between Spain’s defeat by the United States in 1898 and the end of the Civil War in 1939. The Churrucas are a career Navy clan based in northwestern Galicia that have been sending their sons to die heroically at sea for generations. In the opening scenes, the incumbent paterfamilias is home on leave just long enough to share with his four pre-school aged children a few life lessons on the order of:

(CHURRUCA): “The soldier dresses up for life’s great moments, on the day that he marries, or to accompany Our Lord in the Corpus (Christi) procession. Also to pay his respects to his superiors. So why wouldn’t he do so on the most solemn occasion of all: the day he meets a glorious death?”

True to his parental precepts, the captain is decked out in full parade livery when he goes down with his ship a short time afterward, nailing his colors to the mast and crying out “España! España” as the waters of Havana harbor close over his mutton chop whiskers.

It is all too evident that this was Franco’s way of conjuring up a parent less problematic than his own. The latter was a skirt-chasing reprobate and free thinker who grossly mistreated the long-suffering mother who spoiled young Paco like nobody’s business and was adored by him in return. But honoring thy father is a duty, and duty is a given. What, then, did the two fathers, real and imagined, have in common? Their absence, of course.

Franco’s father never went out to sea for more than a day’s outing. He was the Navy’s district paymaster. Early on, he walked out on his wife and children to take up with a “loose” woman, and the family never forgave him for it. The female characters in Raza — mother, wife and pining sweetheart — correspond to the gender roles Franco would have situated within the cultural and religious boundaries deemed acceptable.

Moral failings aside, in his infrequent and fraught contacts with his adult offspring, the elder Franco made no secret of how much he despised his prissy, uptight and judgmental second son. So powerful was their contempt and distaste for each other that Nicolás, the father, refused to attend his son’s wedding. Franco, for his part, made a point of not being present at his father’s deathbed in 1942, the year Raza hit the silver screen and the text version was published. The latter has what must be the most caustic dedicatory ever to find expression in cold print: “With all gratitude to those who have kept the faith with the memory and lifework of my father.” Franco had his prodigal parent buried with military honors, but made sure the old man’s lady friend and the daughter they had together were booted from the flat where they had lived for 35 years.

So far as anyone can tell, Franco never uttered a public word of reproach to or about his father. The hierarchy of duty, respect and authority would not allow it. It is the same structured reality that leads the characters in his screenplay to submit to the debacle that finished off Spain as a global naval power and cost Madrid its last overseas colonies.

(ADMIRAL CERVERA, commander of the Spanish fleet at Havana, a historical figure): “In the end, without weapons, without troops, without a foreign policy and isolated from the outside world, we military men will once again have to shoulder the blame.”

(CERVERA, again): ”Survival would almost be a shameful act. History will know how to judge us. Out of today’s sacrifices will come tomorrow’s glory.”

(CERVERA, commenting on the sinking of the Maine): “A deliberate explosion? A mine! What mine? If only we had some mines! Who stands to benefit from the attack? Never mind that our men risked their lives to help rescue their victims.”

It seems odd that Raza’s behind-the-scenes screenwriter appears to bear no deep grudge towards the Americans whose imperialist ambitions sent Spain into a downward spiral of helplessness and humiliation, contributing to the conflict that was to come. In a similar display of gallantry, after the civil war breaks out, the Nationalist commanders are of two minds regarding the foreign volunteers fighting in the International Brigades led by “the most intractable and abhorrent elements of the European criminal underground.”

If Franco could acknowledge the merits of the US Navy and Spaniards on the other side of the trenches, who did he consider to be his true enemies? At every stage of his adult life, he was convinced the Masonic Brotherhood was behind an international conspiracy to infiltrate European institutions. He was still seeing frémesones under the bed right up to the end, convinced that they were out to get him, and had sabotaged his plane in a near-miss 1938 assassination attempt. Just weeks before departing this world in November 1975, he used his remaining breath to call on Spaniards to “beware the leftist-Masonic conspiracy that has taken root in political circles while communist-terrorist subversives carry on with their plot against the social fabric.” After the war, he set up a “Special Tribute for the Repression of Freemasonry and Communism” to provide a judicial framework for that repression.

(CHURRUCA, briefing his superiors on “perturbations” in the Philippines): “Foreign conspirators are everywhere — and the Freemason invasion is even worse. There’s no place for you if you’re not a mason, and any notion of honor will get you exactly nowhere. This is an enemy that will give us one hard time for sure.”

“What could my son possibly know about freemasonry?” scoffed Nicolás Franco. “It is an association of honorable and illustrious men who are certainly his superiors in knowledge and openness of spirit.”

In Francisco Franco’s dogmatic worldview, the good guys are all Spaniards. Even the bad ones are hands-down better than non-Spaniards. One of his characters praises Republican militiamen for their valor under fire. “Anyone who sells them short cheapens our victory and libels our race. Are they misguided? Yes, certainly. But they are also brave.”

Says another: “The Reds are good fighters like ourselves, only unlike us, they are not fighting alone.” One can almost hear the words rendered in Franco’s high pitched oratorial squeaks when a third speaker claims that “We’re doing Europe a big favor by purging it of undesirables from all its revolutions.”

Another dubious stunt is the cavalier way in which Franco appropriates characters from history like Cosme Damien Churruca, the Spanish admiral who won fame and acclaim as an explorer, innovator, and military tactician, until he was killed in action off Trafalgar. In other words, this Churruca was providing aid, comfort, and command skills to the foreign enemy that invaded Spain, unseated its rulers and killed a half million of its people during the 1808-1813 Napoleonic occupation. That’s what you call a patriot? The lasting impression left by the French on the nation they brutally subjugated can be seen in two famous canvases by Goya, who also left a scathing record of the atrocities in the Disasters of War etchings.

So — can it really be said that Churruca was fighting for Spain when he went down with his ship? It’s probably a question that General Francisco Franco never asked himself. But asking difficult questions is not such a good move if you’re a career autocrat looking to stay in power. And unlike his peculiar excursion into screenwriting, staying in power was something that Franco was really, really good at.

The historical figures on whom the general’s dramatic surrogates lavish their praise include obscurities like the Almogávars, a band of mercenaries and brigands who destabilized the Ebro Valley in the 13th and 14th centuries. Their ranks included both Christian and Moorish fighters from the petty kingdoms and reconquered territories of the Iberian peninsula and France, but the plain truth is they were neither good Spaniards nor bad Spaniards since no country of that name or description existed at the time. Spain did not start to coalesce into a modern nation-state until 1492.

A modern screenwriter would get all that out of the way before the opening titles, since Raza’s principal plotline does not clank into gear until 1928 and the Churruca offspring have come of age. Daughter Isabel is an attractive, devout, and insufferably passive young woman. Her brother José, the courageous and overbearing Franco stand-in, is heading for the Infantry Academy at Toledo, just as Franco did, though not by choice. There were just not enough naval commissions to go around, and Franco’s elder brother Nicolás had preference.

In the movie, the eldest brother is called Pedro, and he is defiantly lukewarm on the subject of serving God and country. To the family’s dismay, he resolves — for all the wrong reasons, including making money and playing politics — to go to university and practice law. Foreshadowing makes it clear Pedro is going to be the family outlier, when he parrots some of the lectures he has been attending at the Madrid Atheneum, a radical hotspot.

(PEDRO): “Anything a government does is subject to discussion and criticism. Many would agree that a nation that abandons its empire forfeits the right to send its children on Quixote-like adventures to conquer sand dunes and rock formations. Spain’s mothers have every right to demand that the blood of their children be put to better use.”

Pedro is an edged caricature of the youngest Franco sibling, Ramón. He was a daredevil as well as a playboy, a pioneer aviator who made the first transatlantic flight between Spain and Argentina in 1926. He was a “practicing” Freemason and something of a con artist, but it was his involvement in arms trafficking schemes, gambling, heavy drinking, and womanizing that really set the two brothers at odds. What Franco saw as Ramón’s short measure of principled patriotism is reflected by the opportunistic and ambitious Churruca outlier. Ramón Franco, however, died when the seaplane he was piloting crashed into the Mediterranean in 1938.

The youngest sibling, Jaime, is a sweet-tempered soul who completes naval training for his dead father’s sake but decides to join a religious order that cares for orphaned children. Franco gives him hardly any lines at all, apparently having scant use or sympathy for warrior washouts. Sister Isabel is being courted by José’s best friend from artillery school, Luis Echeverria. The wedding of Isabel and Luis introduces Marisol, Isabel’s BFF, who clearly has a thing going for José.

Meanwhile, things are not looking too good for Spain. “The patriots are neglecting their country and the Catholics are neglecting their God.” The monarchy is overthrown, the dictatorship unravels, the republic is proclaimed and the “Reds” take over. The captain’s widow gets roughed up when she tries to prevent the rabble (chusma) from desecrating a church and dies a short time later: “God granted her the consolation she so often had entreated, and so was spared having to witness the devastation of the fatherland.”

Then José is taken prisoner on a mission behind enemy lines. Marisol pleads with Pedro, who has severe conscience issues but decides not to endanger his political career by attempting to save his brother’s life. The best deal Marisol can get from him is a pass to witness José’s execution. Mindful of his father’s advice, José goes before the firing squad in uniform, defiant and with chest medals clinking. Bang! Marisol hastily claims the body, “Look, he’s still warm,” she cries, and sends for a doctor she knows to be loyal to the cause.

This is where Franco’s second-rate intelligence reveals itself, complete with a garnish of leafy green hokum. José has been cut down by a volley of bullets from a firing squad and receives the customary coup de grace. That’s where “Jaime de Andrade” jumps the shark, to use the catchphrase identifying a twist of plot all too obviously contrived, out of character, or just plain preposterous. Nobody, but nobody, takes a bullet in the brain at point blank range and stays warm long after it comes out the other side. We all know better than that. Franco definitely knew better. What could he have been thinking, though? Maybe about the Moorish bullet that grazed his lower abdomen and came within millimeters of tearing open his liver during a clash with rebels in Morocco in 1916 that made him, briefly, a celebrity hero.

Brother Jaime is not so fortunate. He and his fellow monks are marched out at midnight to a beach where they are lined up and shot to pieces with machine guns. This is Franco’s (substantially accurate) version of a July 1936 massacre carried out by leftist militiamen in Calafell, near Barcelona, where 15 friars and novices in charge of a children’s charity hospital were gunned down. This sequence gave Sáenz de Heralde the opportunity to try out some more ambitious cinematic effects, including shots of the incoming tide creeping up the sand and sweeping away the imprints left by the doomed men’s sandals. Visible in silhouette, the holy friars chant a requiem dirge as they “keep our appointment with God.”

After that, the plot goes off in wildly different directions. Pedro has become a big fish in the Republican security establishment, but is stunned to find a religious keepsake medal belonging to his brother Jaime among the loot confiscated from the murdered friars. It’s clear that a change of heart and of sides is in the works. The generalíssimo wants it clear that even human dreck like Pedro can get a ticket to ride the redemption railroad as long as he pays for it in blood. Approached by an attractive female spy who urges him to remember where his true loyalties lie, Pedro hands over his side’s battle plans. In due course, both are caught and taken out to be shot. “Rejoice with me,” José tells his sister, “He died like a Churruca. His soul is saved.”

But there’s more. Luis has served the nationalist cause with valor but as the stalemate drags on, succumbs to his longing to be with his wife and children. Rumors about conditions in occupied Bilbao, where Isabel and the kids are holed up, add to his disquiet. Troops strumming their guitars evoke the far-away comforts of home and family. They will call him a deserter. He doesn’t care.

Here is where things finally start to get interesting. In the film, Luis is about to enter enemy territory when by chance he meets up with his comrade in arms and brother-in-law José, who persuades him to abandon his mad scheme.

(JOSÉ): You have to go searching for the path of honor, and if you don’t know where to look, you have to make the choice that causes you the greatest pain. You can be absolutely certain it will be the right one. That’s how it works for me.
(JOSÉ, again) If you turn your back on us now, all that will be waiting for you in Bilbao will be your wife’s contempt. If you do it here, you’ll earn the contempt of your comrades, and that goes for me, too. The day after tomorrow it will be the contempt of your children.

In the film, Luis lets himself be convinced, finally, that going over to the enemy is a really, really bad idea. But it doesn’t happen that way in the book. No surprise that, considering how Raza’s author had personally approved thousands of death warrants after the war was over, when those earmarked for liquidation posed zero threat to the regime. He even tacitly approved the execution of his own first cousin, whom he had often played with as a boy.

In what must be Franco’s original hardball ending, it is clear that Luis has forsworn his duty, and for that he must pay the going price. Even his wife thinks so:

(The door opens and his trembling wife appears, with so much fearfulness and mistrust reflected in her features that stops her husband short just as he’s about to embrace her.)
(ISABEL): You . . . You’re here?
(LUIS, hesitating): Yes, it’s me. I’ve come to see you. I couldn’t go on without seeing you.
(ISABEL, with even more wariness): How . . . ? How did you get here?
(LUIS, his head hanging low): “Through the front lines. I walked out on my . . . ” (he cannot finish the sentence.)
(ISABEL turns pale and interrupts him): “No. No. Tell me it’s not true. You can’t have done this thing. Go away. For the love of God’s, go back to our people. (Her hand gestures at the open door. Awakened by the tumult, their little daughter cringes in the hallway, repeating over and over what she is hearing, “Go away, papa, go away for the love of God!”)

So Luis gets sent to a certain death by his own wife as Franco (or one of his surrogates) lathers up some unusually vivid prose for a sequence in which the camera tracks Luis fleeing blindly through the night in an attempt to undo his folly and regain his honor.

The streets are empty now, swept clean by squalls blowing in from the northeast. He collapses in the mud-choked ditch that edges the asphalt, gets back on his feet and stumbles forward at a feverish pace. Bramble bushes shed their berries as their branches tear at his clothing. Again and again he falls to his knees, forces himself to get up again and dodges volleys of whistling bullets, with the sound of traffic rumbling nearby and sharp, sudden noises piercing the night.

Did Franco really write that? Could he have written it? It is startling to suddenly come upon a lone passage of vivid, if somewhat rough-hewn descriptive writing (Think Richard Widmark in black and white pursued at night by gangsters). Did Franco have someone write it for him? The movie, released in January 1942, has the “happy ending” but the book published afterwards, in the summer of 1942, makes it quite clear that Luis deserts, repents, and is killed. And that he had it coming to him.

It would seem that someone, most likely director Sáenz de Heredia, chose to modify Franco’s original ending and, amazingly, got away with it. Not because of ideological differences — the director’s cousin was the founder of the Falangist movement. Sáenz de Heredia’s commitment to the Francoist cause never wavered over a 30-year career. Most likely he realized that, as played by Raul Cancio, Luis is much too simpático a character — I am thinking of the young Don Ameche — and that audiences would not respond well to his getting killed and shamed on account of a moment of justifiable weakness. How Franco felt about seeing his main teaching point — you have to fight with courage and die with honor — on the cutting room floor can only be the subject of speculation.
In the book, Luis’s fate is tempered somewhat by presenting it as an assumption rather than a fact. José takes his small niece aside to explain to her why she will have to grow up without a father:

(LUIS): “From now on, the only thing you must remember is that he loved you all very much and was a brave soldier. Hold him in all the respect he deserves and try to forget about the night when the love he felt led him to a misbegotten attempt to see all of you. Duty demands that you and your mother make the greatest of sacrifices. He gave his life for the fatherland.”

Raza ends in a flurry of footage from the July 1939 Victory Parade held in Madrid. It must have taken some nerve for Sáenz de Heredia to ignore the brutal finale that Franco wrote for his character and no doubt expected to see on screen. Instead, the director allows the remorseful Luis to reconnect with his family. As Raza comes to an end, they all are gathered around the piano, clowning it up for the kiddies, waiting for the parade of goose-stepping cohorts, one of which is led by José on a white horse no less, carrying an up-ended saber and looking quite pleased with the way things have turned out. It is clear that José and Marisol have plans of their own for improving the indomitable Spanish raza.•

Feature image collaged by Isabella Akhtarshenas. Other images sourced from Paramount and Brooklyn Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.