For as long as the war lasts

The title is from the foundation document of the Franco regime in 1936 and refers to him being head of state – elected by his fellow army generals – “for as long as the war lasts.” This is the title of the new film by Alejandro Amenábar  which opened this weekend in Spain after launching at the Toronto and then the San Sebastian film festivals: MIENTRAS DURE LA GUERRA. It is already the number 1 box office hit in Spanish cinemas after two days, with double the audience compared with Downton Abbey which also released in Spain this weekend.

Since I first read The Spanish Civil War by the conservative historian Hugh Thomas when I was twenty years old, I have been forever impressed by the speech given by the philosopher and rector of the University of Salamanca Miguel de Unamuno in response to General Millán de Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion, and his extraordinarily brave challenge of the paradox “¡Viva la muerte!” (Long live death!) while standing before the falangists and troops of the Legión whose motto this was.

I read the speech aloud to my daughter two years ago from that same book I purchased in 1971 and found it just as powerful as when I first read it decades earlier. Curiously, it emerged in recent times that the entire history of this confrontation was subject to some fabrication by the exiled republican father of the well-known former British Conservative politician Michael Portillo. (Portillo’s father may have been the original source for Hugh Thomas’s account.) This might disappointingly modify your response to the historical moment at the centre of the film, but in my view it does not reduce the power of the narrative.

Miguel de Unamuno in 1936 delivering his speech to nationalist troops in the University of Salamanca condemning extremists of both right and left.

Above all Amenábar has made a quietly understated film about the human and political tragedy of 1936 which quite boldly presents even the rounding up and shooting of the republicans of Salamanca by the local fascists and incoming nationalist troops as an almost everyday political upset. In these days of sudden political disorientation, a film that presents such terrible events in a way that shows how easily and quickly our world can be turned upside-down is salutory. Our lives and our interests, our loved ones and our homes, our friends and our long-treasured way of life can be placed in the hands of gangsters, extremists and murderers – in the blink of an eye. Our human fragility can be subjected to ideological extremism and our lives extinguished at the whim of ideas exercised by murderers. Miguel de Unamuno’s best known work of philosophy is called The Tragic Sense of Life. In a real way, that is the sentiment evoked by this film.

General Franco in 1936: a quietly spoken man who is presented in the film as an unlikely candidate for the post of “Generalissimo.”

While the main scene in the film concerns the confrontation between Millán de Astray and Unamuno, the portrayal of General Francisco Franco y Bahamondes – the Generalissimo – is quite surprising. At last in a Spanish feature film about the civil war we see a character who is three dimensional, realistic and who is presented – if not favourably – at least in a way that genuinely attempts to show his motivation. In one scene, as Franco sees a grand equestrian painting of El Cid in Salamanca cathedral he is fired by a sense of history as a Catholic “crusader” himself. It is underpinned by a scene showing Franco and his wife and daughter kneeling and praying the rosary. Later, as he overlays his self-chosen crusader image over the El Cid painting we see Franco sitting for an equestrian portrait. (Many of the statues of Franco in town squares in Spain until the end of the regime in 1975 were equestrian statues, as I remember.)

The character is softly spoken, almost effeminately portrayed in this film, and he contrasts very markedly with the mad violence of Millán Astray and the other generals around him who elected him as Generalissimo. This was clearly a well-researched biographical likeness. Indeed, I remember in November 1973, standing in the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid among a million Franco supporters (the event was Homenaje a Franco and I had found myself there by accident after taking the train to Madrid from Alcazar de San Juan following a walking tour of La Mancha and finding the train filled with falangists); and when Franco finally spoke I was surprised to find his voice softer than I had imagined a dictator might sound! Of course, he was a very old man and he would be dead two years later, but I was struck that the softly spoken Franco in this film had something of the man I had only seen once, on that occasion at the end of his life. It is in soft and almost apologetic tones that he tells Unamuno in the film that his friend, the protestant pastor who had been arrested earlier, will be executed. Yes, Unamuno’s friend may well be a good Christian, but as a protestant and therefore inevitably a freemason, he is not a true Spaniard so he must die.

Raising the monarchist flag in Salamanca.

In the scene where the flag of the Spanish Republic is ripped from the balcony outside his headquarters, Franco hands a new folded flag to a soldier and instructs him to fly it instead. As the flag is unfurled, a lone voice begins singing the Spanish monarchist hymn. It turns out that so few of the troops know the words to the hymn, so everyone ends up singing “la la la” to the tune. In the cinema this is a shocking revelation to some of the Spanish audience. For this is the Spanish national anthem that we are used to hearing on every state occasion today, at every medal ceremony in the Olympics when a Spanish athlete wins, and still we can only sing “la la la” because the words have disappeared in the historical past.

Having passed my citizenship exam in Conocimientos Constitucionales in June, in preparation for my application for a Spanish passport after Brexit, I watched this film with a sense of deepening my identity with the country which I am formally in the process of joining. And this is a film that shows the way people are being torn apart by a political divide that takes no prisoners: a society in which you are either with us or you are against us. The firing squads are working overtime on both the republican and nationalist sides of the dividing line.

As I watch the Britain that I once knew turn into a Britain I no longer want to know – with so many people raising the threat of “riots in the streets” in a week when Parliament has descended into a snarling den of bullies and gangsters – I can only shake my head and sigh. I have no idea why a country as solid and seemingly ordered as the one I left behind in 2010 to start a new life in Spain could begin to resemble the chaos, political extremism and failure to recognise the growing signs of totalitarian rule. The very ingredients of the calamity that befell this country in 1936 and robbed everyday citizens of their right to a normal life for forty years.

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