“Guernica” is a movie based on the infamous terror bombing of a Spanish city in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The movie was a Spanish production that was directed by Koldo Serra. It’s original title was “Gernika” which is the Spanish Basque spelling. The film attempts to tell a story about the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his masterpiece. The main character is a journalist named Henry Howell who is based on George Steer. Steer was working for the London Times in covering the war and got the scoop by being the first reporter on the scene. He was the man most responsible for creating the storyline of the bombing being a terror bombing.
A title card informs the audience about the basics of the Spanish Civil War. The year is 1937 and Spain is in the midst of a struggle between Francisco Franco’s fascists backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy versus the Loyalists supported by Stalin’s USSR. Both sides establish press operations to spread propaganda favoring their side. They also suppress information favoring the opposition within their areas of control. The city of Bilbao is in Republican territory which means the press office is controlled by the Soviets. Henry Howell (James D’Arcy) is a reporter who has a problem with the press office censoring his articles. This, plus what he has witnessed, has made him a disillusioned, alcohol-swilling journalist. In other words, he is a cinematic war correspondent. He is paired with a female photojournalist named Marta (Ingrid Garcia Jonsson) who wants to “take the picture that will turn the war around”. In other words, she is a modern war photographer. At one point, she goes into no man’s land to get a shot at the risk of her life. Howell shakes his groggy head. Henry butts heads with a censor named Teresa (Maria Valverde). In the time-honored tradition of movie romances, their relationship will evolve. Her boss Vasyl (Jack Davenport) has the hots for her, so can you say “love triangle”? Meanwhile, the Red Baron’s son Wolfram is in charge of the air campaign on behalf of Franco’s forces. To balance the evil Nazi, the movie creates an evil Commie. He is blackmailing Vasyl. These threads lead to that fateful day in Guernica.
It’s a bit surprising that it has taken this long to make a movie about one of the most famous events in the lead-up to WWII. Especially when you realize it would involve explosions and Nazis. You have the built-in human interest aspects and the situation would seem rife for a wartime romance. Throw in the comfortable fit into the war journalism subgenre. Unfortunately, the obviousness of the scenario results in some obvious clichés. All the main characters are stereotypes starting with the hard-drinking, disillusioned Howell. D’Arcy is capable of playing such a stock character, but no more than that. The rest of the cast is equally mediocre. It is needless to say there is no chemistry between D’Arcy and Valverde. The romantic arc is standard and predictable. Let me take you through the ballroom scene to show what I am referring to. Henry and Teresa have felt the first stirrings of cinematic romance and meet at a ball. He tells her she makes him want to be better. She says she’s leaving and walks away with a tear in her eye. He goes after her. They kiss. Vasyl is watching. Foreshadowing. They find some privacy. Music swells. Fade. Next thing we see, Henry is floating on air and singing “zipadeedoodah” (figuratively). Things are really going his way. What could happen?
The lead up to the big day is lame and then the fireworks don’t pay off. The CGI effects are cheesy. Even a layman can tell those are not authentic German bombers. The explosion effects are just as bad. Their main purpose is to chase our love triangle around the city. Of course, some of the destruction is also to depict the deaths of innocent civilians. Lest we forget the event this love story is set in. In fact, the only redeeming feature of the film is that it sheds some light on the first major terrorist bombing in history. Unfortunately, although there is some intercutting to von Richthofen and his Condor Legion, the movie does not put a lot of effort into the strategy that led to the bombing. A passing reference to the use of thermite bombs is the only allusion to the terror nature of the bombing. Yet, Wolfram is not the villain who executes a journalist and tortures Teresa. You come out of the movie more viscerally repulsed by the Communists than the Nazi bombers. Was this a wise script decision?
Is the movie historically accurate? In the macro sense, yes. Guernica was bombed on April 26, 1937 and people died. Then Picasso painted it. Howell is a composite of George Steer, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Capa (the famous war photographer, who is mentioned by Marta as a role model). The movie does not make it clear that Guernica was the spiritual capital of the Basques and their separatist movement was part of the motivation for the bombing. It also does not delve into the controversy about why the city was a target. Franco had the authority to order the Condor Legion to do his bidding and most likely saw Guernica as a strategic key to his final campaign to finish off his opposition. Guernica lay athwart the road to the city of Bilboa. It is still debated whether von Richthofen was viewing the city as a military target or simply a morale-reduction tool. His several raids of bombers did not manage to hit the munitions factory, so there’s that. What’s less circumstantial is whether the Germans used the opportunity to test out future terror bombings like on Warsaw in 1939. The Germans did use Spain as a testing ground for weapons and tactics so this seems likely. Steer certainly thought it was terrorism and reported it as such. Then Picassso locked in that narrative. This movie reaffirms that take in a personal way. It’s a shame it does not do it more competently.
GRADE = D