In the movie Che, Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro plays an Argentine thrill seeker-cum-murderer who helped turn Cuba into a Stalinist state. That Argentine was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known as “Che.” The movie is actually two films that total just under four and a half hours. Yet despite those 263 minutes of celluloid, important aspects of Guevara’s personality and deeds are omitted. Things like, you know, the truth.
You may not even know who Che Guevara was, but you’ve probably seen his face on a t-shirt. He’s that ragged, bearded guy with a faraway look in his eyes and a beret on his head. More than likely you’ve seen that t-shirt on a college campus or in a European or Latin American gift shop. It’s the ultimate irony because Guevara was a consummate anti-capitalist. There’s a bit of poetic justice when a man who indiscriminately killed others in order to impose a system devoid of capitalism is now the world’s greatest t-shirt salesman.
Unfortunately, Guevara is also venerated in Hollywood, thus explaining the reported $60 million cost to make Steven Soderbergh’s bore fest of a hagiography. The cop-out used by Soderbergh and del Toro to justify this marathon of an abomination is that it’s the story of a “complex” historical figure living in “complex” times; his desired ends justified what are normally unjustifiable means. Yet since the film’s opening on December 12, 2008, to date it has recovered a measly $922,347 in the U.S. As such, the movie Che bears one important similarity to the real Che; it’s highly celebrated by some even though it’s a complete failure.
Despite the considerable mythology built up around his image, the real Guevara was a bumbler who never accomplished anything except as Fidel Castro’s wing man and executioner during the Cuban insurrection of the late 50s. Even there, the Castro propaganda machine embellished his greatest “victory.” Guevara’s lackluster record began as a young man when he enrolled in medical school. Historians can find no concrete evidence of him ever obtaining a degree and he certainly never practiced medicine. One of Guevara’s fellow rebels who fought alongside him told me Guevara only had a cursory knowledge of medicine. When Castro came to power in 1959, Guevara made a fool of himself as Cuba’s “economics minister.” Later, Guevara failed dismally in his attempts to launch insurrections in the Congo and Bolivia, where he ultimately met his demise in 1967. Guevara was also, by all accounts, a lousy husband and father.
On one occasion Guevara went to the Soviet Union on a diplomatic mission for Cuba and insisted on laying flowers at the Stalin’s tomb despite objections from his Soviet hosts who were in the midst of trying to expel the demons of Stalin’s reign. But Guevara was undeterred; he was an adoring fan. Earlier in his life he even took to signing his correspondence “Stalin II.”
Recently, del Toro walked out on an interview with the Washington Times when he became uncomfortable with a line of questioning about the real Ernesto Guevara. It’s difficult to have faith in an artist that won’t defend his choice to participate in a whitewash of history. Someone has to play Hitler in the movies about World War II, but it would be surprising if a bankable star like del Toro did so in a film that was favorable towards the Fuhrer. And when asked recently about the protests that the premiere of the film in Miami spawned, del Toro said, “First of all, the protesters hadn’t seen the movie. They were protesting Che, or Fidel Castro, or Cuba, or the revolution. But they hadn’t seen the movie, you know. That was strange for me. I understand [the protests], but at least see the movie.” Gee, Benicio, why would they pay good money to see a movie that whitewashes the history of a man whose evil they witnessed first-hand?
Nonetheless, it’s quite appropriate that del Toro is acting like coward. He must be a method actor because Guevara was similarly afflicted with a yellow stripe. When he surrendered to Bolivian army Rangers, Guevara came out with arms raised proclaiming, “Don’t shoot. I’m Che Guevara — I’m worth more to you alive than dead.” He was willing to kill for his “ideals” but not willing to die for them.
Guevara’s execution at the hands of the Bolivian military was appropriate given the hundreds of executions he himself was responsible for, in many cases personally administering the coup de grace. Guevara was a big man when he had a gun and his victims were handcuffed, but he went out with a whimper when confronted with the same fate.