The first person to cross the finish line wins, a rule that Hollywood endorses no matter what. When revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara died in 1967 Hollywood scrambled to present his life on film. Two years later Che! (complete with exclamation point) was created, a movie that resulted in controversy and censure. Film critic Steven Scheur famously said that Che! was so horrible that “everyone connected with this film should be censured.” Is it that bad? It’s definitely not good, but it’s more the fault of the Hollywood machine that produced it, more content with capitalizing than telling an honest story. Whether that mitigates its faults is up to the individual viewer.
A biopic detailing the life of Che Guevara (Omar Sharif) as he overthrows Batista’s government in Cuba alongside Fidel Castro (Jack Palance), before eventually striking out on his own in the mountains of Bolivia.
Another mitigating circumstance is the ambition of Che! as a film. Coming out just two years after Guevara’s death the production secured leading man Omar Sharif was coming off the success of Funny Girl a year before and Doctor Zhivago four years earlier. Sharif’s played characters of different ethnicities before, so it’s not worthwhile to denounce his portrayal too harshly. If we’re being honest, he’s the closest thing the movie’s got to a Latin character when played alongside Jack Palance in brownface as Fidel Castro. It’s laughable in hindsight, but Sharif’s acting saves the film from total disaster. Sharif conveys the steely determination, passion, and conviction of Guevara, even when he’s doing something wrong. Had the movie maybe attempted to deepen the connection between Guevara and the audience, Sharif might have gotten a firmer pat on the back.
Sharif acts and acts well, a marked contrast placing him next to Palance, whose mugging and theatrics are just insane. A moment where Fidel guns down a sobbing boy, one of the purer moments of the film, containing actual tension, devolves into laughs at Palance’s handwringing and cries of “Burn! Burn!” Apocalypse Now was still ten years away, but Palance must have read Heart of Darkness and decided to channel Kurtz.
Director Richard Fleischer, in a complete 180 from the last film of his I reviewed – the melodramatic noir Violent Saturday – follows his actors into the jungles of Bolivia and Cuba. The lush greenery showcases the untamed world the revolutionaries both embrace and yearn to control. Unfortunately, there’s a massive fear of offending anybody, so there’s no true throughline to what Che! is all about. Is this about a revolutionary or a mass-murderer with aspirations of dictatorship? The movie says Che was all of those and none of those!
It’s an acknowledged fact that source material wasn’t consulted during production, despite the publication of several biographies at the time, and that could account for the total indifference to events. Sharif has the tough job of playing Che as a romantic idealist who dreams of liberating people while simultaneously killing people he’s supposed to be helping. The movie tackles this neutrality via “interviews” with various people who knew Che (this same device was utilized in Evita). This does do a lot towards giving us unreliable narrators, and gives off the look of telling both sides of the story even when it seems like the filmmakers have no idea how to put everything together by the end.
Che! is a poorly executed story smothered by Hollywood capitalism despite Julie Kirgo’s beautifully penned essay accompanying the Blu-ray. Omar Sharif holds the weight of this film on his shoulders and he creates a human portrait that the script fails to achieve. Che! is worthwhile for Sharif’s performance, and a hearty life at Hollywood hubris.