• Contemporary Historians, Inc.
  • 52 minutes
  • 1937
  • Directed by Joris Ivens
  • Commentary by Ernest Hemmingway
  • Photography by John Ferno
  • Music by Marc Blitzstein and Virgil Thomson
  • Narrator Orson Welles
  • Sound Director Irving Reis
  • Film Editor Helen Van Dongen

  • The Spanish Earth


    Reviews of Spanish Earth from 1937 and 1938.


    The land is dry and irrigation is needed to provide food for the defenders of Spain. Fuenteduena, one village twenty miles from Madrid, can put food on the road for freedom. There is the constant sound of machine guns and canons. Yet, "men cannot act for the camera in the prescene of death." At the front line, war becomes part of life. A huge phonograph blares music to the troops. Death is all around. The lawyer turned soldier dies and the innocent bookeeper is killed by enemy fire on his way to work. The Duke Palace is destroyed, but thankfully a few pieces of Spanish art are salvaged. The People's Army unites, the air attack is coming, the working man fights on!

    The original outline of Spanish Earth called for an exploration of one Spanish village over a span of six or seven years, featuring a peasant family and the struggles of their young son Julian in the war ravaged country. This footage was obtained in addition to actual fighting, air bombings, and the political and emotional unrest of the people.


    There are three cinematic modes in the film. First is the personal mise-en-scene of the village. Waugh writes that with "their heavy tripod-based Debrie camera, Ivens and Ferno developed a kind of documentary 'mise-en-scene,' a collaborative shooting style 'staging' 'real' actors in 'real' settings." 1 Ivens had no qualms about re-shooting village scenes or using camera angles, such as low-angle medium close-ups, to obtain his romantic scenes of the people of Spain.

    The second mode is the spontaneous shooting on the front lines. Using two hand held cameras, Ivens captured the horrors and heartaches of fighting. The final cinematographic mode is that of the static "newsreel" footage of the People's Army rally.

    The beginning of the film uses descriptive syntagma to familiarize the viewer with Spain and its struggles. The village is shown and shots of a map displaying its geographical importance to the cause. After this introduction, Spanish Earth then employs parallel syntagmas of civilian and military life resulting in some of the most powerful scenes of the film. As Waugh states:

    "The alternating pattern of civilian and military struggles was therefore not just an effective editing device but a crucial idealogical statement. In countering images of victimization with images of resistance and revolution, Spanish Earth articulates a world view that sees people as agents of history, not its causalities....And in alternating the military resistance with the civilian struggle, Spanish Earth equates them, merges them into the ideological concept of the people's war." 2

    There are several scenes of the people--a soldier eating fruit, Julian returning home to his family, fresh bread being served in the morning. In contrast, there are numerous sequences of fighting and bombing edited to display just how quickly peace can be destroyed. This "emphatic cutting, pulling the spectator by his emotions from stage to stage of an idea's development" is one way to "deepen the relation of real things--to show what is below the surface." 3

    Another very important aspect of the film is the narration. The Spanish Earth in its original form was narrated by Orson Welles. According to Ivens:

    As proposed by Archibald MacLeish we asked Orson Welles to read it and it seemed like a good job; but there was something in the quality of his voice that separated it from the film, from Spain, from the actuality of the film....In any case, when I took the film to Hollywood, the other people in Contemporary Historians--Herman Shumlin, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker--sensed what was wrong and suggested that Hemingway try reading it himself. That was right. During the recording his commentary sounded like that of a sensitive reporter who has been on the spot and wants to tell you about it--a feeling that no other voice could communicate. The lack of a professional commentator's smoothness helped you to believe intensely in the experiences on the screen. 4

    The cinematic modes, the overall structure of parallel syntagmas, and the careful attention to editing and narration work together in The Spanish Earth to make the war in Spain a reality for viewers in America.

    The City Native Land Power and the Land People of the Cumberland Valley Town The Spanish Earth Heart of Spain Return to Life China Strikes Back Films

    1Waugh, Thomas. Ed. Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary. Metuschen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984. (116).
    2Waugh. Show. (123).
    3Alexander, William. Film on the Left. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press., 1981. (156).
    4Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1978. (356-7).