Sincere, truthful, moving, Spanish Earth. So you can guess that our old friend the censor had to have a go at it with his emasculating scissors; cutting out "horror" shots and removing tactless references to German and Italian intervention. But with a film like this the impotence he would inflict returns upon himself. Snip he never furiously, he cannot destroy its strength.
It was made by Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway; and those who complain that Hemingway's work is falling off had better prepare to eat their hats, for he has written the best commentary in the history of the sound film. As the pathetic little groups of six men go out across the quiet fields to the attack (a scene photographed with all the restraint which, not merely through the physical compulsion of flying bullets but also through Ivens's sense of filmmaking, gives this film a quality of greatness), as they go out across the fields they used to till, Hemingway's voice--for he speaks the commentary himself--cuts through the sounds of crackling battle, "This is the moment which all the rest of the war prepares for, when six men go forward into death, to walk across a stretch of land, and by their presence on it prove this land is ours."
It is not merely fact that this film presents, but emotions and moods which build up for the first time a true picture of what war is really like. But it presents more than this--it presents the face of Spain and the faces of its people, proud and remote until bombs drop or shells shatter, then in panic and tears; women who trip and fall in their run for the safety of the Metro station, women who gasp and weep in that horrible vacuum which follows the destruction of the home they have lived in so happily until two minutes ago; ordinary men who have become soldiers almost imperceptibly, who will fire a fieldgun every so often at the ruins of their great university which, thanks to the treachery of fellow countrymen and the mercenary troops of Italy and Germany, they must bring even further to destruction; and, worst of all, the faces of children who cannot understand, but are afraid.
Villages, cities, churches, fields--they are all here--a picture of Spain itself. There is no sensational cutting and no coruscating camerawork; but there is the observation of men who can imaginatively observe, can feel and express the implications of what they see. "Man cannot act before the camera in the presence of death,"says Hemingway, as a frieze of magnificent faces of Government troops swing past the camera; but here is something more than acting.
We can only hope that the well-meaning Left and Liberal press has not, by screaming to the rooftops that the censor has mutilated the film, put people off going to see Spanish Earth. Ignoble cuts count for nothing when you are watching a great film.
from Joris Ivens: Artist in Documentary
by Sidney Meyers and Jay Leyda
The Magazine of Art, July 1938.
Spanish Earth is a work largely planned and executed under fire. The sacrifice and heroism of men defending their land permeates and conditions the film. The intense discipline required to move almost instinctively under shellfire--and still come away with art--could come only from a sense of dedication to tasks and a degree of consciousness that we find in the greatest artists.
Nowhere before has been sought and expressed the face of men going into battle so truly as in this film. Did you ever see in a film before the actual recoil of a rifle butt biting into the neck and shoulders? Here you feel it yourself. Although the soundtrack was composed and synchronized back in New York, with Irving Reis and Helen Van Dongen, it could only have been directed by a man who had himself been in danger from shells and airplane bombs, which we hear from the soundtrack and instinctively shrink from. Cameraman Ferno's sensitiveness to a wide range of scene and action deserves particular attention. Whether he is showing the Spanish earth peacefully plowed or brutally bombed, his photography finds the exact tone to communicate each atmosphere.
In Spanish Earth Ivens had realized himself most fully. The static and insulated quality of many documentaries is challenged by every detail of the film. Ivens has not only fixed his attention upon his central concerns, but, illuminatingly, upon all the objects and movements that surround them. This rich body of selected observation, which occupies all planes of every shot, and leads, at each viewing of the film, to fresh discoveries, mounts to a tremendous total effect. Each new-found touch leads, not to distraction, but to completer understanding of his subject--the tragedy and heroism of a people torn from the soil.
The greatest single section of Spanish Earth begins when we see below us in a village an old woman come out into her yard. Hemingway's voice: "Before, death came when you were old and sick. But now it comes to all in this village. High in the sky and shining silver it comes to all who have no place to run, no place to hide." We hear a frightened cry: "Aviacion." Another voice, a child's, thin, poignantly young: "Aviacion." The planes are overhead. The camera spins propeller-wise and locates them. The bombardment comes. The bombs are on us. A mother runs toward us. Someone's younger sister looks about uncomprehendingly, dazed, her hand pressed against her body. "They strike us here." When the dust of explosion settles, a voice is raised in funeral song. We find ourselves beside the dead, touching their feet, meeting the unseeing eyes. In one house, burst open by a bomb, the camera descends to the broken bed.
Such scenes are at the apex of documentary filmmaking--subtle craft at the service of Ivens's conviction--the climax of ten years of seeking. Spanish Earth is a complete affirmation of Ivens's intentions. There has been no documentary that so combined exquisite tenderness with consummate craftsmanship, that was so full of humanness, that has been so surely made for broad audiences. The next step taken by this extraordinary, clearsighted artist depends on history. Today, on the battlefields and in the villages of China, he is filming the hopes and struggles of the Chinese people. Wherever out of the clash of old and new worlds emerges human tragedy and nobility, there Joris Ivens will be.