Spanish Civil War of which I know little more than Spain had a Civil War, and an awareness of controversial general Francisco Franco. Part of the problem with major events in history I'm curious about is where to even start? There's so much going on, and countless books to choose from. Well, it may not count as an official introduction to the Civil War, but 1960's The Angel Wore Red takes place with the conflict as its backdrop.
I was surprised reading reviews at the IMDB that this is a generally panned movie. I'd never even heard of it before it aired on TCM as part of an Ava Gardner tribute despite a pretty impressive cast. Complaints ranged from bad camera technique to awful dubbing to something as simple as the movie being too dark to be able to see anything. If that's important to you, seeing. Now, I'm not expert when it comes to movies, and I typically just try and enjoy the story. A movie has to be pretty awful for me to be critical of many things as long as I'm entertained. So is this a classic? By no means, but I liked it, and it's certainly a change of pace detailing a little told story.
Disillusioned with the direction the Catholic Church is taking and struggling with his own faith, young Spanish priest Arturo Carrera (Dirk Bogarde) leaves his position in the church. His timing is horrible though as a rebellion breaks out the day he leaves with priests an easy target of the revolutionaries. He seeks help from a prostitute, Soledad (Gardner), who isn't aware he's a priest, but Arturo eventually ends up arrested and thrown in jail to await execution. An American newsman, Hawthorne (Joseph Cotten), intervenes though, convincing the rebels that a priest's presence could smooth over objections some of the troops are having. With concerns over Soledad's safety, Arturo goes along with the plan as the violence escalates, much of it revolving around a missing religious relic that both sides want to get their hands on.
Now with little knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its background, I will say this is a poor introduction. The revolution is obviously the backdrop to the story, but there's little explanation of what is actually going on with the exception of a few names thrown around here and there; notably the Socialist party and I think Franco once or twice. Basically, I was confused with what was actually going on throughout the story, and it never really clears up. It isn't a huge roadblock because once you get involved with the story you know the characters are in danger, and that's enough motivation. Still, when I watch a historical movie I like to have some idea what's going on, but maybe that's just me.
What did work with the otherwise confusing story was a sub-plot that dealt with faith on both an individual level and on a larger scale that faith can have an impact on large, powerful groups of people. Before a Spanish cathedral is destroyed, the cardinal saves a religious relic that's long been a part of Catholic history; a drop of blood believed to be from St. John. It's believed that whoever has possession of the blood cannot be defeated so naturally both sides want control of it. A diminutive priest (Aldo Fabrizi) who knows its location delivers a powerful, very moving monologue about the power of faith and how it can drive people to do things differently than they normally would have, putting themselves in the face of danger because they believe they will be all right. Amidst all the criticism of the movie as a movie, this sub-plot is untouched and the high point of the movie.
So two main characters are a Spanish priest and a young Spanish prostitute. Naturally, I'd assume an English actor who doesn't look Spanish, and an American actress who could maybe pass as Spanish would play those two roles. Jokes aside though, Bogarde and Gardner are the least of the movie's worries. Thankfully Bogarde doesn't attempt any hokey accent even if it does sound odd to listen to a Spanish priest speak with a very English accent. Gardner plays a role she so often did, a woman with a reputation. She plays these parts so well you can take it for granted at times what a good actress she was. The disillusioned priest and the prostitute fall for each other in a relationship that never feels forced or unnecessary. They have a definite chemistry together that does a good job of anchoring the movie.
Looking at the criticisms are they fair looking back on the movie? Yeah, I guess so. The dubbing does seem odd at times -- especially Vittorio De Sica as General Clave -- and the movie is dark visually where it can be hard at times to make things out through the shadows. But watching the movie, none of those things truly bothered me. I was aware of them, yes, but that's it. Cotten ends up being the cliched American newsman (even wearing an eye patch) who delivers a cliched narration about war and how awful it is. So as I write all this, I'm thinking this is all coming across as too negative, but I did like the movie mostly because of Bogarde and Gardner.
The Angel Wore Red <---TCM trailer (1960): ***/****