Che! (1969) Blu-ray Review: A Prime Example of ‘What Were They Thinking?’

Every now and then, a motion picture comes along that is so positively astute in its own sense of being, so sure it knows what it is and why it’s there, that it becomes painfully clear there isn’t a single soul within the confines of the cosmos who could tell you what the hell was going on there. Rather, movies such as these tend to ignore all fundamental elements of filmmaking (i.e. consumer demand and/or a plot) boil down to a quip British comedian Eddie Izzard once made regarding the fine art of making speeches: that people only pay 70% of their attention to how you look, 20% to the way you sound, and a tiny 10% to what it is you actually say. And in the case of the 20th Century Fox monumental 1969 biopic Che!, it is very clear that nobody gave a damn about that last small percentage.

A venerable embarrassment for all parties involved no matter how you look at it, Che! is a movie that demands you take it seriously from frame one, but somehow manages to beg for your forgiveness all the way. Ignited by the demise of the infamous Marxist revolutionary in 1967, Che! seems to have been rushed into production mainly to earn the money of a rebellious youth keen to adorn their torsos with t-shirts sporting the iconic image of the late Commie’s bearded face. And rushed, it was – with studio heads constantly scrambling to alter the very tale they had initially set out to tell (if there was one, that is) for fear of offending the very people they were allegedly trying to “honor” with such a blatant cash grab. Ironically, they only thing the film succeeded in doing was to offend people; right-wing groups in the US boycotted the movie without seeing it, whereas Molotov cocktails were reportedly served at screenings in Chile and Argentina.

But then, some of the great notoriety could have been due to the film’s dubious casting choices, wherein next-to-nary an actual Latin American actor was cast to portray any of the movie’s mostly Latin American characters. Such a call was pretty routine at this particular point in time in Hollywood, sadly, when everything from Native American Indian chiefs to Arab sheiks were usually portrayed by white guys in brownface. And while many of the character actors continuously placed in such roles were damn good at what they did, they come off as only slightly insensitive in today’s far too politically correct age. (To think that all it took was a civil rights movement for Hollywood to actually start casting and portraying black people in a positive light!) In fact, many of those great character actors are present here: Albert Paulsen, Frank Silvera, Abraham Sofaer, and Sid Haig too.

But all of ’em take a backseat when it comes to the main casting of this epic disaster: that of Egyptian actor extraordinaire Omar Sharif as the face that launched a thousand shirts himself: Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Why? “Because he looks just like him,” to paraphrase the words of director Richard Fleischer comments in the vintage promotional piece Why Che?, which is also included in this Twilight Time Blu-ray exclusive; the first time the movie has ever been released on home video in its very country of production (which should tell you something right there). Indeed, there is a passing resemblance between the two, once you get past the whole ethnicity thing, of course. And Sharif sounds pretty good in the part, too, once you get past the whole accent thing, mind you. Granted, I’m probably fibbing about those two items.

According to Mr. Izzard’s theory, that leaves a remaining ten percent devoted to that which Sharif gets to say as Che Guevara. But in the instance of Che!, ten percent is about ten percent too much, as the movie’s dialogue has since gone down in film history as being some of the worst ever. And Sharif knows it, too. Nevertheless, the distinguished actor does his best, resisting the urge to simply bow his head in shame and start crying like a baby all the way. Alas, great casting usually comes in pairs – and just as John Wayne’s Genghis Khan was supported by an equally miscast Susan Hayward as the daughter of a Tatar leader, Sharif’s Guevara is complemented here by the one and only Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. No, that’s not a joke, kids. It really happened: Palance really did play Castro. And in Che!, Castro is something of a buffoon with no militaristic sense whatsoever who relies on Che to make all of his decisions for him (although that would explain why nothing much has changed in Cuba over the last fifty years!).

Oddly enough, he does a fairly OK job with it, too. One would have expected the late star to have really chewed more than cigars here. Granted, at the same time, no set piece remains untouched by human teeth overall, but it’s almost as if Palance is slightly subduing his innate ability to overact for this one – though he still hams it up but good, if that makes any sense. (Be sure to look for the scene where he sighs, looks off into the distance, and is overcome with a genuine look of “Dear God, really?” before snapping back into character.) Director Fleischer also claims to have cast him for the part based on his strong resemblance to the actual individual in question, though with the added beard, big-rimmed glasses, prosthetic nose piece, and curly-haired wig inserted into his cap (which disappears early in the film), Palance looks more like an old Jewish man than anyone else.

Additional miscast performers in this historical farce include Robert Loggia, Cesare Danova, Woody Strode, BarBara Luna, and Linda Marsh – all of whom are cast as Latin Americans. The unintentional comedy surpasses itself the already directionless script from Michael (Planet of the Apes) Wilson and Sy Bartlett asks its actors to address the audience in order to advance the story (or lack thereof), making the whole absurd idea look like a bad National Geographic special as opposed to an actual biography. The streets of Puerto Rico and the mountains of Malibu Creek State Park (where the opening of the M*A*S*H television series was filmed) fill in for Havana and Bolivia, respectively – none of which are in the least bit convincing. But then, when the whole movie is as unconvincing as this (it ignores actual factual events, replacing them with a heaping of tedious drama), who is really going to care? Just sit back and enjoy this bloody train wreck in motion, kids!

As I iterated before, this Twilight Time Blu-ray marks the first official home video release of this internationally panned picture, so the fact that we get it in HD for its debut is quite impressive – especially seeing that the film itself is such a total turkey. Surprisingly, for a film that has been a mark of shame on its parent company for 45 years, the source material Fox made available to Twilight Time for this release was in very good shape (they must have sealed the lid on this one tight, huh?) and with the exception of some inherent grain during credits of optical effects, the print is pretty exceptional. Likewise, the 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track is a pleasant, well-balanced one, and the accompanying English (SDH) subtitles only confirm the ridiculousness of the dialogue you hope you’re only mishearing.

Special features for this cult class-ick are limited to the aforementioned six-minute featurette Why Che?, which gives us a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew at play, with their (probably scripted) comments on the making of the feature played over the soundtrack. Like the movie itself, it’s an interesting look-see to say the least, just to listen to everyone attempt to justify their actions if nothing else. Also on hand are two trailers: one a twenty-second TV spot, the other a longer theatrical preview. A secondary audio option in the form of an isolated Lalo Schifrin score is a highlight, as are the liner notes by Twilight Time’s own Julie Kirgo, who reflects not only upon the purpose of the film, but on the still-living obsession with Guevara as well.

Yes, it’s a bad film. But it’s a good kind of bad, boys and girls. Thus, Che! comes with a nice big shiny “Recommended” sticker from yours truly. Really. Che! is limited to a pressing of 3,000 units.

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Luigi Bastardo

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