Steven Soderbergh’s Epic Film Biography of Che

Che J. Hoberman in the VQR:

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928 and reborn as a revolutionary martyr thirty-nine years later, captured, and summarily executed by the Bolivian military. Or perhaps he was reborn three days after his death, October 10, 1967, when the photograph of his corpse—pale eyes open, surprisingly mild—was transmitted to the world. John Berger immediately noted the photo’s similarity to two Renaissance paintings, one ultra secular and the other nouveau sacred: Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip” and Mantegna’s painting of the dead Christ.

Within eighteen months of his death, this instant immortal had been embalmed—in the form of Egyptian matinee idol Omar Sharif—by Twentieth Century Fox, as the subject of a tediously self-important and ridiculously old-fashioned Hollywood biopic. Early evidence of the hyperreal: noting the production’s budget, John Leonard observed in the New York Times Magazine that making a movie about revolution was considerably more expensive than the revolution itself, “about $10,000 an hour.” But of course: as director Richard Fleischer told Leonard, “No one had ever heard of Che Guevara until he died.”

The last of the moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck saw his studio’s Che in the tradition of Fox’s 1952 Viva Zapata—a melancholy, heartfelt, prestigious, star-spangled tribute to revolutionary failure. A hardcore New Left action tough guy, this Che equates Yanqui and Soviet imperialism and has no patience for governing. “I’ve had enough,” he tells Castro. The Beard begs him to stay but Che is unmoved. “You want to build socialism on one flea-speck in the Caribbean?” he sneers before leaving for his date with destiny. The last word is given to an old Bolivian peon who, hating Che and the government equally, had informed the authorities. His question is delivered to the spectator: “Why do people in your country flock to see a dead gangster?”

The closest thing to a rock star that international Communism ever produced has reemerged as a capitalist tool.

Why indeed?