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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Salt of the Earth
by Donald Levit

The Museum of Modern Art’s open-ended “Collaborations in the Collection” is geared to Doc Month February in a selection from Joris Ivens in tandem with the editing and sound work of Helen van Dongen. Along with the director’s first two, late Twenties silent art studies, The Bridge/Die Bruge and Rain/Regen, dual programs feature three mid-length documentaries, The Spanish Earth from 1937, The 400 Million of ’39 and Power and the Land the following year.

Traveled, cosmopolitan, applauded, the Dutchman moved further leftwards from his international student movement and labor solidarity days, leaving behind the earlier experimental shorts for political statement filtered through stylized realism. It is an ironic sidelight of the changed Zeitgeist that, never returning to the United States after HUAC branded him a Communist in 1951, he made legendary films that today are embarrassing in virtuous sincerity extolling the compassionate heart of American democracy.

A lion’s share of the fault lies in the narration, the kind of one-sided screen advocacy journalism that has resurfaced in contemporary non-fictions and based-ons like Milk (and its star’s Academy Award acceptance words).

“Power” in the 1940 title refers to that of individuals united for a populist purpose and also to that which, in this Department of Agriculture-commissioned thirty-eight minutes, arrives with rural electrification. Ohio’s farming Parkinsons are poster-perfect but work needlessly hard because they have yet to organize cooperative ownership for a network of wires that for-profit commercial enterprise denies to sparsely populated areas.

The visuals are elegiac if self-conscious in symmetrical framing. And while it may be unfair to criticize that era’s patronizing lines about women from the point of today’s different attitudes, the two relatively longer works as well are burdened by naïve cheerleading that has not worn well and is occasionally offensive.

Following an expense-paid stay in the Soviet Union, Ivens was invited here by the Rockefeller Foundation but convinced by Contemporary Historians, Inc. (Herman Shumlin, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman) to do a location documentary about Spain’s anti-fascist struggle. Uncredited MacLeish and Hellman wrote the story, Hemingway the narration—some sources give Dos Passos for Part One—and Hemingway did menial labor during filming and substituted his own voice for Orson Welles’s.

The land and its men are hard and dry, he begins, and “this land is ours,” as 1,500 Loyalist villagers dedicate themselves to irrigating the parched land while keeping open the supply lifeline from Valencia to Nationalist/rebel-threatened Madrid. With uninspired token inserts of leaders such as Second Republic Popular Front President Manuel Azaña, Commander Enrique Lister and Dolores “La Passionaria” Ibárruri, footage concentrates on the common man: peasants farming or baking for the war effort, Madrileños living through privation and evacuation of the weak, rank-and-file volunteer infantrymen.

Back in New York the Virgil Thomson faux Iberian folkloric score and incessant machinegun fire were added to the silent reels, plus San Francisco earthquake sounds run backward to simulate bomb blasts. Such is indicative of the staged feeling that counters Papa’s supposed alarm that the crew took “too many chances.” Indeed, contrary to claims, much appears posed, from relatively groomed troops to ruined buildings that have already settled. There are tirades against Axis participation, but aside from three tiny planes claimed to be Junkers and some corpses of foot soldiers the voice indicates are from Italy, there is no sense of outside intervention or a touted “war’s devastation.”

What there is, is pious celebration of “democracy and those who defend it,” and exhortation for the United States to admire and join in.

The 400 Million is slightly less aloof from the reality of civilians caught in warfare. Done during an officialdom-hindered nine months in China financed by the newly formed History Today, Inc., including The Good Earth Oscar-winner Louise Rainer, the result is a similar plea to stand up for principles rather than a clarification of issues. This depiction of a China retrenching in its interior against base Japanese aggression on its coasts, praises the united courage of the hitherto backward one-fifth of the world. Hurt in hindsight by its heroic archival portraits of villainous Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang and by ludicrous fake-accented Radio Tokyo broadcast “translations,” it, too, appears rehearsed, despite the presence of Life’s Robert Capa (himself accused of rigging his classic photo of Loyalist death in Spain). The same sort of awkward “stirring” scripting (Dudley Nichols, read by Frederic March) further flattens the overt message of a brave people menaced and in need of our help.

“Men cannot act in front of the camera in the face of death,” pontificates Papa in The Spanish Earth. However, in light of hokey writing, subsequent advances in film technology and practice, and the immediacy of television’s living-room wars, these most celebrated and controversial of the thirteen Ivens-van Dongen collaborations are today dated documents rehearsed for another time and another place. 

(Released by Film Historians Inc. Not rated by MPAA.)

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