Although Ben Urwand’s recent book on the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer has largely been discredited, the collaboration of the American film industry with fascism has always been very real. Urwand was simply looking at the wrong country. Between the early 1950s and the late 1960s, so many big-budget films were made in fascist Spain that it’s no exaggeration to call Generalissimo Francisco Franco the father of the American independent film studio. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Franco got jobs and American tourist money. He deftly used American “soft power” to help normalize Spain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. American film studios like United Artists, in turn, got cheap, union-free labor, thousands of extras, and even the use of the Spanish Army. For his epic film El Cid, producer Samuel Bronston got access to the walled medieval town of Avila, the grand castle of Manzanares, the ancient Valencian town of Pensicola, and the Cathedral at Burgos. Those are not sets you can build, even on a budget of 7.5 million dollars. That Bronston, who was also Leon Trotsky’s nephew, was willing to ignore, or even actively promote Spanish fascism goes without saying.
The honeymoon between Francisco Franco and the American film industry came to an end in 1964, with Fred Zinnemann’s film Behold a Pale Horse. Behold a Pale Horse, a fictionalized dramatization of the last days of Spanish anarchist Francesc Sabaté Llopart, is neither stridently left-wing, nor a particularly damning indictment of Spanish fascism. Captain Viñolas, the Francoist police captain played by Anthony Quinn, is a complex, even sympathetic character. It’s not anti-Catholic. The moral center of Behold a Pale Horse is probably the conflicted young priest played by Omar Sharif. Manuel Artiguez, the aging Catalan guerrilla leader played Gregory Peck, is stiff, dour, and by no means heroic. Nevertheless, Zinnemann’s portrayal of Viñolas as a venal, insecure womanizer so angered Spanish Minister of Tourism and Information Dr. Manuel Fraga Iribarne that he retaliated against Zinnemann’s distributer, Columbia Pictures, blocking their entire catalog in Spain for over 5 years. He even bullied the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo into butchering his great film Queimada. Pontecorvo rewrote the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish. He also cut over 20 minutes of offending material.
Behold a Pale Horse is an underrated film that deserves to be better remembered, but it’s not exactly Weekend or The Battle of Algiers. So what exactly made Fraga come down so hard on Columbia pictures, which, to its credit, refused to knuckle under to the Spanish government and lost millions of dollars? Franco, unlike Hitler or Mussolini, was a subtle, clever man, and Fraga a sophisticated cosmopolitan, but fascists have very particular tastes in film. They do not want to see themselves portrayed as flawed, three-dimensional, middle-aged men like Anthony Quinn’s Captain Viñolas. Rather, they like to see themselves as grand, larger than life, heroic figures like Charlton Heston’s Rodrigo de Bivar. Anthony Mann’s El Cid is an utterly thrilling movie, and I won’t apologize for liking it, even though it’s basically Francoist state propaganda. But there’s a reason why Robert Bresson made Lancelot du Lac, his deconstruction of the chivalric epic. Whatever El Cid’s politics, and you can read it as a liberal call for the reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, great romantic spectacles that require the use of half the Spanish Army as extras, and two of the grandest castles in Spain as locations, are based on a fundamentally reactionary aesthetic.
Behold a Pale Horse opens at the end of the Spanish Civil War. A column of anarchist soldiers, now a column of refugees, makes its way into France. One by one they turn in their arms to the French police. But Manuel Artiguez, Peck, won’t turn in his rifle, or give up the struggle. He turns around, and goes back to Spain to organize a guerrilla war against the fascists. The next scene takes place 20 years later. Paco, a boy whose father died under torture to protect Artiguez, is being led into exile in a French town called Pau to live with his uncle. There he hopes to meet the great Manual Artiguez, who he hopes to convince to go back to Spain to assassinate Captain Viñolas, the same policeman who killed his father. When Paco does meet Artiguez, however, he finds, not the great guerrilla leader and Spanish Robin Hood he’s heard so much about, but a dour, stiff, disillusioned 50-year-old man. American anarchists who grow up dreaming about going back in time and enlisting in the Durruti column won’t like Artiguez any more than Fraga liked Captain Viñolas.
The Basque country scenery, on the other hand, is breathtaking. We can see exactly why Artiguez has lost all his taste for revolution. The neat, well-kept little towns on both sides of the Spanish French border are far too beautiful for another war. When we meet Captain Viñolas, in turn, he’s no more heroic than Artiguez. He’s an ordinary man who likes women, fine horses, nice clothes, and the good things in life. He doesn’t strike you as the type who would torture a man to death to capture an old political rival. We see that his obsession with capturing Artiguez is more professional ambition than it is a continuation of the Spanish Civil War. If all he wanted was to neutralize Artiguez, he could easily send a spy to assassinate him, but what he wants is to capture the old guerrilla leader and put him into prison as a common bandit. He wants to deny that it’s a political conflict altogether. He not only wants to kill his political opponent. He wants to erase him from history altogether.
When Viñolas learns that Artiguez’s mother is dying, he gets his chance. Pilar Artiguez, a fiery old anarchist wants to die at home, but Viñolas, seeing his opportunity to capture his old enemy, and probably get a promotion, kidnaps her and brings her under guard to a hospital, which he then orders locked down and quarantined. She is the bait he will use to lure Artiguez back across the border into Spain. While Pilar is dying in the hospital, we meet the film’s third important character, Francisco, a young, secretly liberal priest played by Omar Sharif. As much as she hates priests, Pilar trusts Francisco. Even though she had previously told one of Francisco’s colleagues to “go bless the rifles of the firing squad priest,” and even though she refuses to take the last rights, she does beg Francisco to grant her a deathbed request. She wants him to take a letter back to her son in Pau and warn him not to fall into the trap. Francisco, who has seen anarchists kill priests, and even has a friend who was wounded in one of Artiguez’s bank robberies, nevertheless, takes pity on the old woman. He not only agrees to deliver the letter, he refuses to divulge to Captain Viñolas what she said on her deathbed. He will not violate the privacy of the confessional, even for the Francoist state.
Captain Viñolas is astonished. Aren’t the Catholic Church and the Francoist state allies against communism? Why wouldn’t Francisco tell him everything he knows? But we begin to see what so angered Manual Fraga about Behold a Pale Horse. Released in 1964, a year after Vatican II, the film is setting up the idea of a separation of church and state in Francoist Spain. Captain Viñolas knows he can’t harm a priest, but he did not expect a priest to show so much independence. He’s undismayed. Whether or not Pilar is dead, he will still try to lure Artiguez into his trap. He sends Carlos, a slimy agent provocateur and informer played by the French actor Raymond Pellegrin. Francisco gets to Pau ahead of Carlos and attempts to deliver the letter to Paco, who has since become friends with Artiguez, but Paco flushes the letter down the toilet. He thinks the priest is lying. He refuses to believe that Pilar is dead, and sends Francisco on his way. But when he sees Carlos, he realizes he’s been mistaken. Carlos is the informer who helped Viñolas capture his father. Francisco was telling the truth. Pilar is dead. Artiguez will be walking into a trap, and almost almost certain death.
The process by which Paco manages to convince Artiguez to believe a priest, his supposed enemy, makes Behold a Pale Horse worth watching, whatever its flaws. Just as Francisco had to wrestle with his conscience, Artiguez has to wrestle with his intellect. How do you uncover an agent provocateur? Is the priest lying, “snitch jacketing” a loyal anarchist, or is Paco correct? Francisco wins Artiguez’s trust when he informs him he’s from the town of Lorco, a place Artiguez knows well, and an anarchist, not a fascist town. Francisco radiates the kind of personal integrity that will convince an enemy to believe him. He won’t lie, or have his fellow priests lie to save his own skin. If he winds up in a fascist prison for honoring the deathbed wishes of an old woman, so be it. In any event, Carlos removes all doubt about who he is when he reaches for Artiguez’s gun, and escapes after a desperate struggle.
Artiguez finally knows Pilar is dead and he knows he’ll be walking into a trap, but he decides to cross back into Spain anyway, partly to honor his dead mother, partly to kill Viñolas to avenge Paco’s father. Behold a Pale Horse ends on a note of sadness, but also one of enigma. Artiguez successfully infiltrates the town of San Martin, where Viñolas has set his trap, kills a fascist sniper, and gets Viñolas in his sights. Viñolas is his. He could kill him any time he wants. Instead he spares the Viñolas and kills Carlos. Why? Does Artiguez spare Viñolas to break the cycle of revenge and violence, to free Paco from the civil war that claimed so many lives? Or does he simply recognize Viñolas as a worthy opponent he can’t bear to kill. Zinnemann never really gives us an answer. But what he does seem to be saying is that Francisco, not Artiguez is the future of resistance in Spain. Artiguez ends up shot down by Viñolas’ troops. Francisco ends up in jail, but Viñolas admits he will have to let him out when the church hierarchy demands it. We can’t help but think that Artiguez died in vain. By contrast, we see Francisco as a Spanish cousin to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s 1964, the year after the March on Washington.
Zinnemann’s politics may sound wishy washy and liberal, but how many directors can brag about how they provoked a fascist government into trying to destroy a whole film studio?