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Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)$

Carolina Rocha

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786940544

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781786940544.001.0001

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Martín Fierro

Martín Fierro

(p.83) Chapter 5 Martín Fierro
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter is dedicated to surveying the development, shooting, and reception of Argentina’s national epic poem, Martín Fierro for the silver screen spearheaded by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. I also analyze this film, contrasting it with Westerns and highlighting its relevance to nation-building in the late 1960s.

Keywords:   Martín Fierro, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Alfredo Alcón, gauchesque, frontier

The project of adapting Martín Fierro for the silver screen was spearheaded by Torre Nilsson, a seasoned filmmaker eager to leave his imprint on Argentine cinema. Despite César Maranghello’s assertion that Torre Nilsson decided to shoot historical topics preferred by the Institute (2005a, 181), his Martín Fierro was the product of a long process influenced by certain developments in Argentine society. In 1959, the Martín Fierro Awards for the best radio and TV programs were established. Around that time, Torre Nilsson started thinking about adapting Martín Fierro to the screen:

Planeé por primera vez filmar Martín Fierro a fines de 1959. Diversas circunstancias determinaron que la cosa quedara en proyecto. Dificultades de adaptación. Falta de adecuada financiación. Martín Fierro no podía hacerse como un filme más, con dos meses de preparación, dos de filmación y uno de montaje.

[I first planned to shoot Martín Fierro at the end of 1959. Various circumstances determined that the project be cancelled. Difficulties in adaptation. Lack of adequate financing. It was no longer possible to make Martín Fierro as a film, which would need two months of preparation, two months of filming, and one month of editing]

(Couselo, 1985, 177)

An additional problem that emerged was the issue of fidelity to the original poem. In a 1965 interview, Torre Nilson confessed: ‘El principal inconveniente es tener que ceñirme bastante a la obra original […] Mi intención era ubicar a Martín Fierro en el año 1930’ [The main obstacle was having to closely adhere to the original work (…) My intention was to place Martín Fierro in the year 1930] (Sanmaritano and Mahieu, 1965, 10). A year later, and after two co-productions, Torre Nilsson was even more convinced of the need to depict Argentine themes; preparations to adapt the poem began. Scriptwriters Beatriz Guido, Edmundo Eichelbaum, Héctor Grossi, Ulises Petit de Murat, and Luis Pico Estrada worked for six months on the poem’s adaptation. In July 1967, Alfredo Alcón signed the contract to play the Argentine gaucho. Coincidentally, two months later, young director David (p.84) Stivel (1930–1992) directed a version of Martín Fierro with Federico Luppi as the lead for the TV channel 11.

For Torre Nilsson, the making of Martín Fierro represented an important challenge. In El heraldo del cine, he anticipated several aspects of his ambitious project: the film would be in color, shoots would go on as long as was needed, and actors would be chosen to match the ideals of 22 million Argentines (‘Si no hago,’ 1967, 262). The filmmaker was candid about his very high expectations for the film:

Si Martín Fierro no es mi mejor filme, me declararé temporariamente incompetente. Si no el mejor filme argentino, me arrepentiré de que no lo haya hecho otro director. Si no es el mejor filme de habla castellana, me arrepentiré de haberlo hecho.

[If Martín Fierro is not my best film, I will declare myself temporarily incompetent. If it is not the best Argentine film, I will regret that another director had not done it. If it is not the best Spanish-language film, I will regret having made it]

(‘Si no hago,’ 1967, 262)

These objectives show the importance and anxiety that this film generated in Torre Nilsson, who admitted his interest in revisionismo histórico, which he defined as ‘el reverso de nuestros héroes, los fermentos sociales de nuestra barbarie’ [the reverse of our heroes, the social ferment of our barbarism] (‘Apertura,’ 1968, 30).1 This assertion proves his embrace of anti-liberal nationalism in open contrast to the liberal position that was a trademark of his late 1950s and early 1960s films, most of which were set in oppressive houses as a critique of the local bourgeoisie. Unlike the filmmaker’s previous films, Martín Fierro demanded not only location shooting, but also numerous extras, making the production an expensive one. Given their considerable investment in the film, the producers aimed to recuperate costs by pleasing large audiences.

Martín Fierro was a carefully planned film which enjoyed a superb reception. With an approximate budget of over 100 million pesos, it was produced by Contracuadro, a company owned by Torre Nilsson and American investor André du Rona. During shooting, Juan Carlos Neyra served as the historical advisor (‘Martín Fierro y las estadísticas,’ 1968, 30). Besides Alcón, the stellar cast comprised María Aurelia Bisutti (1930–2010) as Fierro’s wife, Lautaro Murúa as Sargento Cruz, Graciela Borges as the Captive, Fernando Vegal as Vizcacha, and Walter Vidarte as Picardía. Martín Fierro was released on July 4, 1968, in the Atlas Cinema, one of the best movie theaters in Buenos Aires. La gaceta described its outstanding box office success during the opening week: ‘la gente de la calle esa que rara vez se ocupa del cine, no cesa de indagar sobre los méritos del filme y expresa que “no se lo perderán”’ [the people on the street, those who only rarely concern themselves with cinema, have not stopped asking about the strengths of the film and say that they ‘will not miss it’] (‘En el cine Martín,’ 1968, (p.85) non. pag.). As shown in Table 4, Martín Fierro was the only Argentine film to be ranked among the most popular films of 1968. Film critic Salvador Sanmaritano explains:

llevar a la pantalla el máximo poema de nuestra literatura nacional fue la empresa más postergada de nuestro cine […] Un acto de fe y valentía que el público ha recompensado con generosidad tal que Martín Fierro está a punto de batir todos los récords obtenidos por James Bond, novicias rebeldes y azucaradas y muchos otros mamuts imbatibles del negocio cinematográfico. Que eso lo haya logrado un filme argentino con un tema estrictamente nacional, es, algo que debe hacer pensar.

[the undertaking to bring the most important poem of our national literature to the screen was the most delayed of our cinema (…) An act of faith and courage that the public has generously rewarded in such a way that Martín Fierro is close to surpassing all the records set by James Bond, rebellious and sweet novices and many other unbeatable giants of the cinematographic business. That all this has been achieved by an Argentine film with a strictly national theme should give us pause for thought]2

(1968, 40)

In 1969, Martín Fierro became the first film with record box office takings to be shown on TV, only nine months after its theatrical release.3 Despite this feat, critical reviews were mixed.

The evaluations—both positive and negative—were analogous in the different media outlets. The positive ones stressed the film’s technical aspects. La gaceta gave it the maximum score for box office takings and quality, describing it as ‘admirable esfuerzo y valiente desafío’ [an admirable effort and courageous challenge] and agreeing with the category ‘of special interest’ bestowed on the film by the NIC (‘Martín Fierro,’ 1968, 349). Alcón’s performance was unanimously praised, as was the scene with the malón [group of Indians riding], the rest of the cast’s performances, the music by Ariel Ramírez, and the excellent photography. Clarín emphasized the reappearance of national topics in Argentine cinema and hoped that Martín Fierro’s success would encourage the production of similar films (‘Martín Fierro,’ 1968, non. pag.). Curiously, the negative reviews mentioned both the lack and the excessiveness of the fidelity to the original poem as well as the numerous scenes of calamitous poverty and harsh violence. K.S., who reviewed the film for Análisis, a weekly magazine, characterized it as a ‘transcripción edulcorada’ [sweetened transcription] (‘Desafío,’ 1968, 31).4 Nonetheless, sociologist Julio Mafud praised Torre Nilsson’s film, noting its attention to the social spirit of the literary work (1968, 9). More recently, however, Bollig has observed that even in cases of ‘infidelity’ to the original literary work, the film shows consistency with the poem’s themes (2012, 11). Another criticism pertained to the depiction of violence. J.H.S., reviewer for La prensa, stated that ‘Se acumula sordidez, miseria, al punto que creemos que sobre más de (p.86) la mitad de la mugre y de la sangre que se exhibe’ [Sordidness and misery accumulate to a point where we believe that more than half the dirt and blood are unnecessary] (‘Martín Fierro y las,’ 1968, 30). Eduardo Romano also mentioned the killing of animals and the savagery of the Indians as intolerable scenes of violence (1991, 141). Hernández’s poem, however, includes episodes of cruelty and poverty, such as those that were singled out for critique: the beheading of the Indian, the poverty in the forts, and Fierro’s violent nature (Sala, 1968, 49), but also, and more importantly, those episodes are crucial to understanding the conditions that Fierro faced and the importance of his narrative, which provides an underdog’s perspective.5 Thus, certain reviewers’ discomfort at the film’s portrayal of poverty and violence speaks more to their desire to separate themselves from a humble past than to the violence on screen.6

Torre Nilsson’s Martín Fierro also faced criticism from the Grupo Cine Liberación [Cinema Liberation Group]. In a short piece from October 1969, the Grupo asserted that the depiction of historical themes was part of the government’s official policy. More specifically, the piece decries:

la interpretación oligárquico-liberal con su línea “Mayo-Caseros” y la interpretación neocolonial disfrazada de nacionalismo o desarrollismo, sostenedora de las tesis generacionales según las cuales el país se ha movido a través de la línea “Revolución-Organización-Desarrollo” son unánimes las tentativas de borrar al pueblo de la historia.

[the oligarchic-liberal interpretation with its ‘Mayo-Caseros’ line and the neocolonial interpretation disguised as nationalism or developmentalism, which support the generational theses holding that the country has moved along the ‘Revolution-Organization-Development’ line, are unanimous in their efforts to erase the people from history]

(‘Significado,’ 1969, 82)

The Grupo Cine Liberación took issue with the fact that Torre Nilsson’s film did not allude to the problems affecting Argentine society in the late 1960s. Certainly film historian Robert Rosenstone would agree that Martín Fierro lacked a subtext referring to the concerns of the time in which it was shot.7 The Grupo’s critique, however, represents a political opinion that goes beyond the poem’s artistic adaptation to the screen. It is important to note that the Grupo’s appraisal of Martín Fierro resembles the British left’s assessments of heritage films, which states that the recovery of an upper-class and European past was triggered by ‘a nationalistic folklore from above’ (Paul Dave quoted in Vidal, 2012, 14). The Grupo’s piece also noted the support that Mitre’s descendants gave to Torre Nilsson’s Martín Fierro and argued that ‘si [Hernández] hoy viviera sería un perseguido más entre tanto perseguido’ [if he were alive today, Hernández would be one more persecuted among many] (‘Significado,’ 1969, 82). The Grupo equated Hernández with the victims of the 1956 massacre (in which several Peronist sympathizers were executed), those who were victimized between 1956 and 1960, and those who (p.87) took part in the rebellion in Córdoba in May 1969. Nevertheless, the assertion that Hernández would have been among these victims of persecution had he been alive at the time of the film’s release, is a fruitless speculation. Hernández, who sided with the authorities in La vuelta, could have defended developmentalism. Although this stance did not gain traction with historians of Argentine film, the allegation that the film responded to the policies of the Onganía government has indisputably colored its interpretation and significance until the present. During the course of my research, however, I have found no evidence to sustain the claim that Torre Nilsson supported the tenets of the revolución argentina. Quite the opposite, opinions he expressed in several interviews published in the early 1960s indicate that he had thought about and worked on this project for quite some time, but only after 1966 did various elements come together to bring it to fruition. Moreover, the political developments during the first two years of the revolución argentina did not allow the government to focus on film policy. The 1966 cinema law was a long-expected change to solve the problems of the 1957 law, and by the time Law 17,741 of May 1968 was passed, Martín Fierro had already been shot. Furthermore, film histories of Argentine cinema have omitted the widespread interest among both the press and the public that surrounded not only Martín Fierro but also the other films that will be covered in this chapter. That attention, which translated into high media coverage, supported and helped create great expectations among domestic spectators, which in turn acted as a free promotional campaign.

Among the media outlets covering the release of Martín Fierro, particularly noteworthy is the coverage in Gente, which characterized it as a veritable national event.8 The magazine published a two-page report in which editor Carlos Fontanarrosa and three up-and-coming journalists—Samuel Gelblung, Víctor Sueiro, and Mario Mactas—discussed the film.9 While Sueiro described it as ‘una obra trascendente, con toda la fuerza necesaria’ [a transcendental work, with all the necessary strength] and Mactas thought that the film was ‘inteligente y respetuosa’ [intelligent and respectful] (‘Gente de,’ 1968, 46), Gelblung listed its weaknesses: long titles, poor lighting, shocking scenes, and an unfortunate soundtrack (‘Gente de,’ 1968, 46–47). Nonetheless, they all recognized the exceptional work of the actors and the filmmaker, Fontanarrosa admitting that Torre Nilsson ‘era quizás el único director argentino que podía tomar el poema y llevarlo a otro lenguaje’ [was perhaps the only Argentine filmmaker who could take the poem and carry it into another language] (‘Gente de,’ 1968, 46–47). The piece also contained information about ‘recaudaciones asombrosas’ [amazing box office takings]: in its first week, Martín Fierro was seen at Cine Atlas by 29,547 spectators with a net taking of 7,914,797 pesos and was exhibited in 17 other movie theaters, where it made 39,216,262 pesos. Of those 17 movie theaters, 90% continued to show the film for a second week. In Rosario, the film was released in the Gran Rex movie theater and three others—Echesortu, Opera, and America—and made 5,692,345 pesos. In Córdoba, it was shown in (p.88) the Gran Rex, where it made 2,966,179 pesos and in Bahía Blanca, it took 1,775,810 pesos in the Ocean cinema. The report noted that the film would be released in Tucumán and Santa Fe the following week (‘Gente de,’ 1968, 47).10 Finally, the article gathered several opinions: that of actress Milagros de la Vega (‘Me pareció una película extraordinaria’ [it seemed to me an extraordinary film]), that of Fred Still, the representative of Paramount in Argentina (‘Creo que el gaucho de ustedes debió tener la misma dignidad, melancolía y grandeza que muestra la película. Es una verdadera figura épica’ [I believe your gaucho must have had the same dignity, melancholy, and greatness that the film shows. It is a true epic figure]), and that of director Daniel Tinayre, who stated that ‘quizá le criticaría el excesivo sadismo y crueldad de algunas escenas’ [maybe I would criticize the excessive sadism and cruelty of some scenes] (1968, 48–49).11 These different views attest to the fact that the film Martín Fierro constituted a prominent social event for Argentine cinema and, as such, was attended by the many different players of the national film industry: actors, distributors, and directors.

Martín Fierro was premiered outside Argentina almost immediately: on August 21, 1968. Two months later, it was released in the French Cinémathèque, at an event attended by Latin American intellectuals living in Paris: Argentine visual artists Raquel Forner and Leopoldo Torres Agüero and Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, among others. Again, Gente reported on the film’s reception:

Los comentarios acompañaron la proyección. Alguna risa ex temporaria, exclamaciones de horror (varias). Una francesita bailarina, que nadie supo qué hacía allí, se levantó diciendo que ella no podía soportar estas cosas de indios salvajes. Fin y aplausos, no muchos.

[Comments accompanied the screening. Some out-of-place laughs, outcries of horror (many). A little French dancer—nobody knew what she was doing there—got up, saying that she could not take such savage Indian things. The end and some clapping, not much]

(‘Triunfos,’ 1968, 21)

Despite this reaction, the magazine stressed its positive reception: ‘Y los franceses dijeron que sí’ [And the French said yes] (‘Triunfos,’ 1968, 21), and mentioned the dealings of the film’s Argentine producer who was working on its commercial release, initially scheduled for January or February of 1969. In April 1969, Martín Fierro received the Golden Seagull at the second International Film Festival of Rio de Janeiro, in which it competed against Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Secret Ceremony (Joseph Lose, 1968), Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968), and Joanna (Michael Sarney, 1968). Talking about the award, Torre Nilsson considered that it was given to ‘nuevo cine argentino, del que Martín Fierro es una síntesis’ [the new Argentine cinema, of which Martín Fierro is a synthesis] (‘Martín Fierro es el,’ 1969, 61). The filmmaker’s inclusive comment not only stressed argentinidad, but also paid homage to the Argentine film tradition. Continuing the (p.89) film’s screening abroad, at the end of March 1970, Alfredo Alcón and actress Norma Aleandro traveled to Osaka, Japan. Despite Gente’s solid report when Martín Fierro was released and the interest in the film’s foreign markets, the magazine published a lukewarm review, rating it simply as ‘good,’ advising: ‘puede y debe verse, pero no es “Martín Fierro”: apenas un “western criollo” con pretensiones, bien filmado y sin ritmo’ [it can and should be seen, but it is not ‘Martín Fierro’: only a ‘local western’ with pretensions to grandeur, well shot, but without rhythm] (1968, 57).12 While the charge that the film was not a proper adaptation of the poem lacks substance, it is worth pausing for a moment to unpack this review and also consider the film’s position as a national endeavor.

Martín Fierro: Argentine Western or ‘Southern’?

Martín Fierro and the American Western bear certain—nuanced—similarities: the setting in the unpopulated frontier, the conflict between civilization and barbarism, and the depiction of social antagonism.13 Regarding the first, in both Martín Fierro and the Western, the frontier demarcates a rugged and untamed space of separation between progress and backwardness. Longshots of the landscape convey the idea of unclaimed territory. According to Philip Loy, ‘traditional Westerns consist entirely of small towns and wide-open landscape’ (2001, 126). In Martín Fierro, there are multiple shots of the pampas and the skies that denote an attention to the landscape which, for Romano, had not been prevalent in Hernandez’s poem (1991, 137); small towns are not present in the film. Several scenes take place in pulperías [canteens], depicted as the main points of socialization and communal encounters, and the penitenciarias [prisons] and police stations which signal the presence of authorities. The second similarity pertains to the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism. Bollig asserts that the fight between Martín Fierro and the Indian is tantamount to a typical Western scene (2012, 12). In order for that to be accurate, Fierro (Alfredo Alcón) would have to embody civilization and be opposed to the Indians’ savagery. It is true that he finds himself on the side of civilization at the outset of the film, when he still is a law-abiding gaucho, but later his pilgrimage takes him away from his people, and he even rides into the heart of barbarism, the toldería [Indian village], a space of cruelty and archaisms.

Closely related to the civilization-barbarism conflict, we find the third broad similarity: tensions between different classes. In Martín Fierro, gauchos, such as Fierro himself and Cruz are exploited by the military and civil authorities (the judge) even though they own land, and receive no help from the estancieros [ranch owners]. Likewise, social divisions are notable in Westerns, particularly concerning the ownership of property. The ‘haves-nots’ constantly face threats and abuses from those with more financial power (banks) or more might (Indians who appropriate property) (McGee, 2007, 93–101). In Martín Fierro, although newcomers to the region—immigrants, (p.90)

Martín Fierro

Alfredo Alcón as Martín Fierro.

women, and children—are taken as booty by the Indians, the main clash concerns those with property—gauchos—and the authorities.

Nevertheless, there are several differences between Martín Fierro and the classic Western. First, in the latter, the heroes represent progress and, according to Loy, work for peace and justice (2001, 112). While Fierro looks for justice in the first part of the film—based on El gaucho Martín Fierro—and in the second part—based on La vuelta de Martín Fierro— he looks for peace, he does not stand for progress. His nomadic existence speaks of a retreat from civilized life. In Westerns, small towns are islands of civilization in the desert, but in Martín Fierro the estancias represent the forefront of capitalist expansion.14 The second difference concerns the themes of these works. As explained above, El gaucho Martín Fierro is a nineteenth-century poem that exposed the disruptions caused by corrupt rural authorities who preyed on defenseless gauchos. The poem’s popularity during a time of national growth revolved around the populist vindication of the gaucho and a return to an idyllic past (Shumway, 1991, 292). Released at a time of tumultuous social change, Torre Nilsson’s film depicts the exploits of a mythological gaucho whose fictional life also reminded Argentines of their national identity. For their part, Westerns constituted a filmic genre whose golden age was the 1930s–1950s (Loy, 2001, 22). Made at a time of growth and development, Westerns looked back and celebrated American expansion as a sign of the country’s manifest destiny (Loy, 2001, 80–83). In Argentina, however, the (p.91)

Martín Fierro

Martín Fierro and Cruz in the toldería.

southern expansion was denounced early on as state encroachment for the benefit of a small group of large landowners.15 The third difference between Martín Fierro and Westerns concerns the theme of law and order. The opening scenes of Martín Fierro show the gaucho returning to his home as his voice-over explains that he was drafted against his will and forced to leave his family behind. The unjust treatment he received not only goes unpunished, but has also unleashed other painful occurrences—his family’s dissolution, his wife’s death—that leave him permanently displaced from his community. Westerns, on the other hand, had to pass the approval of the Production Code, and so they generally stress sacrifice, hard work, and the nurturing presence of family. In so doing, they ‘held up America as a noble land of equality, fundamental fairness, achievement and decency’ (Loy, 2001, 8). Westerns thus contributed to building the American nation by emphasizing moral values, while Torre Nilsson’s Martín Fierro focuses on the gaucho’s indomitable spirit to survive despite isolation and state-sponsored violence. Here it is important to note that some post-Production Code Westerns are ‘traumatic Westerns, [which] mark an obsessive return to troubling memories that refuse to dis/resolve’ (Loy, 2001, 21). Torre Nilsson’s film shows traumatic episodes that conspired against nation building and continue to affect the national psyche: the savagery of the natives, the corruption of the civil and lay authorities, the ineffective power of the government, and the tensions between mestizos, creoles, and recently arrived immigrants. That is (p.92) why, for Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, the original poem constituted a reaction: ‘dar la espalda a la civilización que se había consolidado en falso’ [turning its back on the civilization that had built on falsehood] (1958, 36). The denunciatory tone of the poem makes it into the film, presenting an unconstitutional society in which peaceful gauchos, like Fierro and Cruz, are deprived of their homes, family, and subsistence, forced into permanent displacement. In Martín Fierro —as in Hernández’s poem—the issue of moral values is evident in the main character’s wise teachings and Vizcacha’s controversial advice. While the former appear at the film’s end and may thus offer the advantage of concluding with morality, the latter is centrally placed, pointing to the persistence of problematic traits—such as personal gain, manipulation, and viveza criolla [creole wit]—in the national character. The dichotomy between morality and progress is not settled in Martín Fierro. A fourth dissimilarity between Martín Fierro and Westerns concerns the issue of voice. In the film, the oral register of the gaucho, a key feature of the gauchesque, takes two forms: voice-overs to tell Fierro’s story and eight-syllable-versed payadas [ballads]. Both help to move the story forward and clarify the main character’s motivations. In contrast, voice-overs are rarely used in Westerns; third-person narration prevails. These marked differences problematize the idea of considering Martín Fierro as a Western.

Nonetheless, Martín Fierro may be considered a type of Western if we concentrate on its narrative development. Scholar Michael Coyne has distinguished between two types of Western: community and odyssey. The first is characterized by the actions of a competent hero who resorts to violence in order to defend and protect his community. Odyssey Westerns are those in which the hero wanders a rugged terrain that represents his tortured soul (1997, 9); the lack of a specific point of anchorage emphasizes his unusual status outside of a community. Martín Fierro can be considered an odyssey Western whose protagonist roams the Argentine plains: first he returns to his former home, only to find it abandoned; then—through a flashback—he revisits his past as a conscript sent to the frontier, his desertion to join the Indians, his return to civilization to look for his sons, and finally his separation from his sons. The film also bears notable similarities with Westerns of the law and order cycle, which ‘often contrasted the heroism and integrity of a solitary lawman or gunman with the avarice, cowardice and hypocrisy of their communities’ (Coyne, 1997, 69). As noted by Mafud, in the poem (and also in the film), exemplified by the fatal duel with the moreno, a confrontation that allows Fierro to blow off some steam, society pushes him into delinquency and solitude (1968, 23). Fierro’s killing of the moreno comes after many humiliations: conscription, years of unpaid labor, and harsh punishment for complaining about the government’s false promises. Despite this crime, Fierro’s heroism surfaces in the scene in which he saves the captive, risking his life to help her.16 What places him firmly on the ‘good’ side is the corruption and greediness of those who represent the law and have persecuted him. From the commander who enlists him to the (p.93) person in charge of payroll, to the judge who names Vizcacha as guardian of Fierro’s younger son, all these representatives of power use it to benefit themselves and take advantage of others.

Independent of its classification as a Western (or a Southern), Martín Fierro occupies a prominent place in Argentine film history. It inaugurated a series of ‘heritage films’ which, in Vidal’s words, present ‘the ways in which national cinemas turn to the past at different moments in their history in search of their own foundational past’ (2012, 3). Amidst the economic modernization of the twentieth century, the film reminded Argentines of the challenges and problems of a similar turning point during the nineteenth century. Torre Nilsson’s Martín Fierro avoids presenting a reading of the past from a twentieth-century perspective, and its depoliticization during turbulent times was deployed to attract a wide audience. The film also incorporates several folkloric acts (Aguilar, 2002, 23), which was another point of nationalist interest for the Argentine middle and working classes in the late 1960s (Goebel, 2011, 161). The resounding success of Martín Fierro opened the doors for other high-quality gauchesque films.


(1) Gonzalo Aguilar holds that ‘revisitar el pasado, redefinir el panteón nacional, narrar una historia más auténtica, construir fábulas de identidad nacional son algunos de los deseos que la película de Nilsson venía a complacer’ [to revisit the past, redefine the national pantheon, narrate a more authentic history, and build fables of national identity are some of the wishes that Nilsson’s film has come to fulfill] (‘Juan Moreira,’ 2016, non. pag.).

(2) Elina Tranchini mentions the 1921 Martín Fierro directed by Alfredo Quesada (1999, 125).

(3) Gente wrote that the TV licensing deal was worth 4 million pesos (‘1969,’ 1969, 13).

(4) Several decades later, cultural critic Eduardo Romano criticized both the film’s fidelity to the original poem and certain uses of poetic license, such as the rearrangement of the verses and the introductions of characters who provided additional information (1991, 134–35).

(5) Fierro explains the low points of his life as a persecuted gaucho:

  • Vamos dentrando recién
  • A la parte más sentida
  • Aunque es todita mi vida
  • De males una cadena.
  • [Now we are just coming
  • to the saddest part
  • even though the whole of my life
  • is nothing but a string of troubles].

(Hernández, Martín Fierro, 935)

(6) The writing of this chapter coincided with my watching the TV miniseries The Tudors (2007–2010), whose depiction of bloody death sentences and tortures, particularly in Season 3, are truly disturbing.

(p.94) (7) Rosenstone holds that ‘The mainstream film tells history as a story, a tale with a beginning, middle, and an end. A tale that leaves you with a moral message and (usually) a feeling of uplift. A tale embedded in a larger view of history that is always progressive, if sometimes Marxist (another form of progress)’ (2001, 51).

(8) Ulanosvky describes Gente as ‘informal y osada pero muy integrada en el sistema occidental y cristiano’ [informal and daring but very aligned with the Western, Catholic system] (1997, 161).

(9) For Ulanosvky, Gente’s content is ‘un inapelable álbum de lo argentino’ [an indisputable album of the Argentine] (1997, 163).

(10) Six months later, Gente chose Alfredo Alcón and Leopoldo Torre Nilsson as ‘Figures of the Year’ for 1968 because of their involvement in Martín Fierro and summarized the film’s achievements: ‘ocho semanas en sala de primera línea de la Capital Federal y Córdoba, seis en Rosario y Bahía Blanca, cinco en Santa Fe, cuatro en Mendoza y catorce en Mar del Plata (el primer caso que registra la exhibición en la Perla del Atlántico), hicieron que esta película de una belleza plástica y de una dramaticidad desgarradora se transformara en el triunfo más resonante que registra el cine argentino’ [eight weeks in first-class movie theatres in Buenos Aires and Córdoba, six in Rosario and Bahía Blanca, five in Santa Fe, four in Mendoza and 14 in Mar del Plata (the first recorded case of screening in ‘the Pearl of the Atlantic’), made this film of visual beauty and heartbreaking dramatism the most resounding success ever recorded in Argentine cinema] (‘1968: Las figuras,’ 1969, 7).

(11) The poem Martín Fierro has passages of even greater brutality than those represented in the film, such as the episode of the captive and the death of her son (1085–135).

(12) Félix-Didier and Levinson also mentioned that in the 1960s the popular La guerra gaucha was seen as a type of Western (2009, 52).

(13) The representation of violence could be one difference between Martín Fierro and the American Western. As Torre Nilsson states, ‘no quise marcarla con ferocidad permanente, pues ésta era muy de western’ [I did not want to make it with cruelty because that belonged very much to the Western] (Vieites, 2002, 90).

(14) Adrián Veaute holds that ‘en términos políticos, la civilización estuvo relacionada al liberalismo colonialista y el sometimiento de pueblos’ [in political terms, civilization was associated with a colonialist liberalism and the subjugation of peoples] (2005, 105).

(15) Ludmer states that ‘el viejo gaucho de Hernández en 1879 queda legalizado como el trabajador de la riqueza agroexportadora’ [Hernández’s old gaucho achieves legitimacy in 1879 as a worker in the rich agricultural exports business] (1998, 2).

(16) Mafud states that ‘la ternura de Martín Fierro está siempre viva. Es tal vez lo que más nos afirma su sociabilidad profunda’ [Martín Fierro’s tenderness is always alive. It is perhaps that which tells us most about his deep sociability] (1968, 29).