The Siege of the Alcazar (1940)

  |  Drama, War

The Siege of the Alcazar (1940) Poster

Set during the Spanish civil war, the story of a commander of a fort Alcazar in Toledo, faithful to general Franco.


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4 February 2000 | stryker-5
"Los Actos de Coraje y de Fe"
This film won an award at the Venice Film Festival of 1940 - but it would, wouldn't it? The story of a great victory for Franco's side in the Spanish crusade against bolshevism, filmed in Rome by a fascist studio, it could hardly fail to pick up fascist plaudits.

A curious hybrid of a project, this Italian movie of a real-life Spanish event was shot at Cinecitta and on location in Toledo, and stars both Italian and Spanish actors. The Italian title "L'Assedio dell'Alcazar" (The Siege of the Alcazar)lacks the resonance of the Spanish "Sin Novedad en el Alcazar" (No News in the Alcazar), for reasons that will become apparent. I watched a rather poor-quality print (the only surviving one?) with lots of jumps and scratches, and highly-obtrusive end-of-reel marks. The editor's handmade signs, bold crosses and lines, are clearly visible in places.

Toledo is a town steeped in history. Remnants of its great past are everywhere, including the steep, narrow streets bequeathed by the arabs, and the great alcazar (fortress) which dominates the compact city crowded into a loop of the River Tajo. For Spaniards, the Alcazar resounds with historical significance. It is, first of all, the ancient arab stronghold which was conquered by Spain's christian heroes in the middle ages, and therefore stands as a symbol of Spain herself. In addition, the Alcazar was wholly remodelled by the Emperor Charles V at the apogee of Spain's Golden Age, the brief century which marked Toledo's own greatness. The four cupolas of the Alcazar evoke for all Spaniards the very image of Castile's heyday. Finally, the Alcazar was reduced to rubble in the violent cataclysm of 1936, to be rebuilt brick by brick by Leftist prisoners, a potent symbol of a nation brought to ruin by civil war, only to rise again.

Some of the episodes of the Siege depicted in the film are unintentionally comical, and some are plainly historically inaccurate. It is easy to see why the Carmen/Captain/Pedro love triangle was introduced. The audience needs to latch onto recognizable individuals if the larger story is not to seem impersonal, but this crude love story is irrelevant and a waste of narrative space. No doubt the stirring patriotic song is a turn-on for franquistas, but the addition of choral harmonies and brass accompaniment destroy its credibility. A derechista plane drops a crate of supplies without a parachute, but the crate somehow effects a soft landing in the courtyard without the slightest forward impetus. Leftist envoys are led into the Alcazar and through a crowd of womenfolk in blatant disregard of historical fact. The women and children of the Alcazar were housed in the cellars, well away from bolshevik negotiators. Carmen may be half-dead from hunger and thirst, but her privations in no way diminish the gloss of her perfect cupid's-bow lipstick. The relief column did not reach the Alcazar by strolling over the hills like a bunch of mushroom-pickers.

On the other hand, some of the sequences are very well done. Italian artistic director Primo Zeglio is mindful of Toledo's auspicious past, his establishing shots presenting the city like an El Greco canvas, its roofs nestling into the curve of the Tajo with the Alcazar proud on the skyline. The bustle of the women and children moving into the cellars is excellent, evoking both the sense of emergency and the fortitude with which it is being faced. Epic-scale set pieces are handled confidently. The first air-raid combines impressive shots of a panicking crowd with realistic-looking explosions. The fusillade scenes are really quite beautiful, and the night-time shots are very good, both the sorties and the quiet, contemplative scenes in the cellars. Chiaroscuro lighting picks out Carmen (played by French actress Mireille Balin), sleepless and radiant with sexual energy.

Siege films have to be careful to avoid monotony, so in 'Sin Novedad' we get a variety of emotional tones. The elation of the successful wheat raid ("Muchachos! Es trigo! Es trigo!") and the news of the advance from Badajoz are exhilarating high points. In contrast, the religious scenes (the adoration of the Virgin of the Alcazar, the last communion of the dying men) are deeply solemn moments - though viewers unsympathetic to Spanish catholicism may not enjoy them.

Similarly, the birth of the baby (several children were born during the 41-day siege) is given an un-subtle Madonna and Child symbolic treatment which some viewers might find excessively sentimental. The mother is even called Maria. Just in passing, why is the baby wrapped in that bizarre way?

The lovely scenes of the Toledan countryside and the town's picturesque streets are all-too-brief, forming little more than a fleeting backdrop to the great exodus. The hand to hand fighting of the Reds' last offensive is brilliantly done, as is the destruction of the once-beautiful Covarrubias courtyard. If not quite historically precise, the pulling down of the red flag and the hoisting of the royal standard has a symbolic and cinematic impact that cannot be denied.

Though the film claims to honour all who died, irrespective of allegiance, this is plainly a hollow boast. Rightists are all shown as saintly (take for example the sacred, sexless union of Antonio and Conchita), and Reds are depicted as cruel,drunken rapists.

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