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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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Looking for a National Hero

Looking for a National Hero

(p.134) Chapter 10 Looking for a National Hero
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, I explore the development El santo de la espada, a film that represented ten years in the life of José de San Martín, founding father of Argentina. I also touch on the film’s casting and reception and analyze the film as a historical and war film.

Keywords:   El santo de la espada, Argentine identity, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Historical film, War film

After the box office success of Martín Fierro (1968), Torre Nilsson searched for a project that could be as appealing to Argentine viewers as his adaptation of the country’s national poem.1 According to Mónica Martín, he looked for ‘alguien con quien la gente se pudiera identificar’ [someone with whom people could identify] (1993, 201).2 He found that hero in José de San Martín. The subject of El santo, the general was an icon of argentinidad that not only allowed viewers’ identification but also, and more crucially, referred to the birth of the nation.3 Furthermore, in the early 1960s, historian Enrique de Gandía (1906–2000), who co-founded the Instituto Sanmartiniano with José Pacífico Otero in 1933, explained San Martín’s significance as a leader who ‘no vino a América atraído por la independencia, en la cual nadie pensaba, sino que el trajo la idea de la independencia al Nuevo Mundo. No es el hombre movido por causas ya existentes. Es el hombre que crea esas causas’ [did not come to America attracted by independence, which nobody was thinking about; instead he brought the idea of independence to the New World. He is not a man moved by existing causes. He is a man who creates these causes] (1964, 4). This characterization of San Martín’s qualities seems to match Torre Nilsson’s own groundbreaking talents.

His choice of San Martín was not necessarily a safe one, however. As Diana Paladino and César Maranghello quite lucidly assert, ‘En 1969, encarar la vida del General San Martín era todo un riesgo’ [In 1969, representing the life of San Martín was a veritable risk] (2010, 24). Films had to pass through two rounds of evaluation: first, the NIC had to provide a certificate of exhibition and then the Film Rating Board had to approve its content. Torre Nilsson may have identified with San Martín’s battles in facing the many hurdles that his project had to overcome, but his selection of this founding father also served another purpose. Martín Kohan holds that San Martín ‘es un objeto a invocar para validar y validarse’ [is an object to invoke to validate and self-validate] (2005, 46). For Torre Nilsson, making a film about a founding father meant choosing a venture that would set him apart from his fellow Argentine filmmakers while also solidifying his dominant place within Argentine cinema.4 His desire for respectability (p.135) among his peers and the Argentine public spurred him to undertake a monumental project.5

San Martín’s indisputable status in the national pantheon provided an opportunity to revisit national history and identity. For Kohan, San Martín represents

tres aspectos medulares de su condición de héroe nacional: en primer lugar, las representaciones de la historia patria; en segundo lugar, los ajustes de la identidad argentina; en tercer lugar, la resolución de los conflictos entre un nosotros y otro, al que se puede refractar o incorporar según el caso.

[three key aspects of his condition as a national hero: in the first place, the representations of national history; second, the adjustments of Argentine identity; and third, the resolution of conflicts between an us and other, which can be refracted or incorporated depending on the case]

(2005, 20)

The founding father’s multifaceted character allowed the exploration of national history and identity. Nonetheless, because this celebration of the heroic deeds that led to the Argentine independence was shot under a military government, El santo has been harshly criticized or ignored altogether. Such criticism overlooked the intrinsic elements of the film and its place within Argentine film history. To redress these critiques, it is vital to examine El santo’s preproduction, casting of local stars, and reception to shed light on the strategies deployed to appeal to Argentine spectators in spite (or because) of the political division prevailing at the time it premiered.

El santo: Preproduction, Casting, and Reception

From the outset, El santo was a film that demanded careful preparation and a significant amount of capital.6 It took five months of archival research to design the uniforms and costumes of civilian and military figures (Martín, 1993, 202).7 The Argentine army provided 700 men, 120 of whom traveled with their horses and uniforms from Buenos Aires to Mendoza (Martín, 1993, 202). In addition to the representation of national heroes, the film also portrayed 120 other historical figures: different military leaders, soldiers, elite ladies, peasants, and freed slaves (‘La cara,’ 1969, non. pag.). Torre Nilsson worked alongside a military advisor, Andrés Fernández Cendoya, who managed more than a thousand extras in both rehearsals and shoots.8 On-location shootings in the Andes exposed the film crew not only to the effects of high altitude (dizziness and lightheadedness) but also very low temperatures. Moreover, filming the movement of men and animals in that inaccessible area required the use of helicopters. Even though the producers tried to control the costs as much as possible, the film’s final price tag was 234 million pesos, of which 120 million was part of a loan from the Municipal Bank (‘Gente,’ 1970, 78). The remaining funds were made up from the exhibitors’ advance and the private resources of producers Marcelo Simonetti and Torre Nilsson (Martín, 1993, 204). (p.136)

Looking for a National Hero

‘San Martín y señora,’ Gente, 28 August 1969: 46.

The film’s casting showed the producers’ and director’s desire to engage the national audience by offering a credible representation of historical characters with a cast of popular actors. The main actors—Alfredo Alcón (1930–2014), who was to play San Martín, and Evangelina Salazar (1946–), who would take on the role of San Martín’s wife, María Remedios de Escalada—were nationally recognized.9 Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy explain the importance of casting local stars and their role in shaping the national imagination: ‘The link between the star’s image and screen roles has been intimately tied to questions of national imaginary, of how the stars embodies and also alters characteristics associated with questions of political identity, value and attitude’ (2004, 1). The lead actors in El santo had performed roles that were related to the national imaginary without aligning with the politics of the 1960s. Gente mentioned that Alfredo Alcón was cast as San Martín because he was director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s favorite actor. Previously, he had been superb as the quintessential mythological Argentine gaucho in Torre Nilsson’s Martín Fierro (Barreiro and Paganetti, 1969, 16). Consequently, he embodied the Romantic idea of a man fighting for his freedom, which would also be germane to his performance of General San Martín. To adequately represent the widely recognized face of the founding father, Alcón had to


Looking for a National HeroLooking for a National Hero

‘¿Qué cara de San Martín usará Alcón?’, Gente, 28 November 1969: 26–27.

wear a wig and a plastic prosthesis to make his straight nose resemble that of San Martín (‘La cara,’ 1969, non. pag.). These changes aside, the 39-year-old Alcón was in good physical shape to bring to life the 34-year-old Argentine liberator. In November 1969, Gente published an article with four different faces of General San Martín and the possible transformation that Alcón’s face would undergo in order to resemble the General.10

Well before El santo’s release, journalistic reports on Torre Nilsson’s film contributed to build interest. In October 1969, La prensa informed its readers (p.138)

Looking for a National Hero

‘Con un “Alcón” en las alturas,’ Gente, 30 October 1969: 17.

about the progress of the shoot—then in its ninth week—and announced the film’s release with an illustrated advertisement. Gente also devoted column space between July and November 1969 to reports on the film’s progress and anecdotes involving the cast. Gente strove to present Alcón as a veritable leader with some of San Martín’s qualities, describing his routine: ‘El día de Alfredo Alcón, durante los veintitantos en que se filmó el cruce de los Andes y las batallas de Chacabuco, Cancha Rayada y Maipú, no era lo que se dice un remanso de paz’ [Alfredo Alcón’s day, during the 20 days or so in which the crossing of the Andes and the battles of Chacabuco, Cancha Rayada, and Maipú were shot, was not exactly a piece of cake] (Barreiro and Paganetti, 1969, 17). The report continued, detailing the early hours at which Alcón woke up and the time it took to apply his makeup and drive to the set, as well as wait for the shooting to begin. The actor’s self-sacrifice, concentration, and discipline, which resembled those of San Martín himself, were all mentioned and captured in photographs.11 For her part, the 23-year-old Salazar, who (p.139) had quickly achieved national and international recognition in roles as pure and abnegated heroines, had to wear a long, dark wig to look like Remedios. The report presented a crucial parallel between Salazar’s personality and that of the historical character she was about to play: ‘a pesar de la gran responsabilidad, Evangelina Salazar pasó con entusiasmo por las distintas facetas de su maquillaje, con el fin de componer con la mayor veracidad posible la personalidad de la esposa del héroe’ [despite the great responsibility, Evangelina Salazar enthusiastically endured the different stages of her makeup, with the goal of giving life to the personality of the hero’s wife as realistically as possible] (‘La cara,’ 1969, non. pag.). The main actors were imbued with their characters’ sacrifice and patriotic responsibility.

The lead actors and other members of the production team considered their involvement in El santo to be an honor, given the subject matter and the expectations surrounding the film. For instance, Alcón admitted that impersonating San Martín was a considerable challenge, saying that the role ‘es el más cansador, el más comprometido. No es un personaje cualquiera. No se me va a juzgar solamente por mi actuación. Conseguir conformar a todo el mundo haciendo de San Martín va a ser muy difícil’ [is the most tiring and the one that has required the most commitment. It is not just any character. I will not be judged only for my acting. Trying to please everybody as San Martín will be very difficult] (Barreiro and Paganetti, 1969, 18). Even veteran screenwriter Ulises Petit de Murat (1907–1983) —who had won a Silver Condor, the highest award given by the Association of Argentine Film Critics, for the film La guerra gaucha (1942)—felt the enormous responsibility of the film El santo:

Es una búsqueda ansiosa del otro San Martín. Búsqueda que, por otra parte, se remonta a mi infancia. Este es un primer intento por penetrar su misteriosa psicología y el fondo de su genio tan particular. Pero por lo menos no estará rígido en su vestidura de bronce y mármol. Fue un acto de amor de todo el equipo.

[It is an anxious search for the other San Martín, a search that, on one hand, harks back to my childhood. This is a first attempt to penetrate his mysterious psychology and the depth of his unique genius. But at least he will not be rigid in his bronze and marble clothing. It was an act of love on the part of the whole team]

(Ammi, 1969, 69)

Petit de Murat’s words are particularly interesting in that they refer to both the myth of a founding father known by all Argentines since childhood and to the desire to humanize the hero, making him accessible to the national audience.

Given the importance of its subject matter and the logistics involved, expectations of the film’s final cut were high. Part of El santo’s appeal was the fact it was a costume drama adaptation of a true story that involved careful historical research to recreate the hairstyles, clothing, and artifacts of the 1810s.12 Not only did some of the location shoot take place in remote areas, such as the Andes Mountains, at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, but (p.140) the production also involved 2,000 extras (as members of the creole upper class, and as Spanish and ‘revolutionary’ soldiers) as well as many animals—horses and donkeys. Despite the public’s and critics’ anticipation, it was screened privately for President Onganía, who requested some changes.13 For instance, Remedios could not kiss San Martín on the lips nor appear pregnant, San Martín could not lower his eyes in his meeting with Bolívar (to avoid showing him in a subservient position), and finally a scene in which the Chilean flag is raised was omitted (Martín, 1993, 206).

Released in March 1970, El santo had, for the most part, a positive reception. La gaceta gave it a rating of five (outstanding) for box office and quality, and mentioned the ‘caudal sin precedentes de notas en periódicos, revistas y programas de radio y televisión para crear una expectativa sin comparación posible en torno a su estreno’ [unprecedented flow of reports in newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV programs to create incomparable expectancy around its release] (1970, 178). For El heraldo, the film got a five for commercial attributes and 3½ for artistic value (out of 5). Crónica used the headline ‘El San Martín de la Esperanza’ [The San Martín of Hope]: ‘del que dependen muchas cosas fundamentales para la industria, para sus realizadores y para que estas gestas colosales de nuestra historia también puedan ser recogidas por nuestro cine’ [on which many fundamental things depend for our industry, for its producers and so that these colossal deeds of our history can also be adopted for our cinema] (1970, non. pag.). Thus, it is not surprising that the first review published in La prensa hailed El santo as ‘una hazaña de la cinematografía argentina’ [a great feat of Argentine cinematography] (P.J., 1970, 11). For its part, Clarín noted that such an enterprise could not have been possible without economic support from the (film) law.

El santo’s remarkable box office success was a welcome triumph for Argentine cinema. In only six days, the film made 70 million pesos, almost 30% of its production cost (‘Gente,’ 1970, 78). No doubt this was helped by the fact that its release was preceded by a special promotion for school-age children.14 According to Cristina Mucci, El santo was the most popular film in Argentine film history, and its strong reception meant that its production costs were recouped in ten days (2005, non. pag.). For Octavio Getino, the public who supported it expressed its will of upward mobility and national affirmation (1998, 54). Three weeks after the film’s release, an article entitled ‘La espada, el temple y el valor de la crítica’ [The Sword, the Temper, and the Value of Criticism] stated that

El santo de la espada en la zona céntrica llega tercero en el ranking de salas. Es el superfenómeno destinado a cambiar todas las chances del cine argentino porque jamás había ocurrido que en una cuarta semana una película se exhibiera en tantas salas simultáneamente y mantuviera en cines de estreno céntricos—Atlas y Callao—un porcentaje que la lleva a permanecer en cartel sin la menor discusión.

(p.141) [El santo de la espada has reached third place in theater rankings in the downtown area. It is a super phenomenon destined to change all future opportunities for Argentine cinema because never before has a film been shown in so many theaters simultaneously and remained in exhibition in such central theaters—the Atlas and Callao—in its fourth week, a percentage that means there is no discussion about it remaining on the billboard]

(1970, 220)

The exultant tone of this piece alludes not only to the records that Torre Nilsson’s film was breaking, but also the fact that El santo was pleasing exhibitors who were usually reluctant to offer Argentine films, since they often generated weaker box office returns than Hollywood films.15

Nonetheless, El santo also received negative critiques. A review in La nación criticized its plot, dialogue, and performances, stating that ‘el filme no va más allá de una revisión elemental, ingenua, con reminiscencias de lámina escolar’ [the film does not go beyond a basic, naïve revision, with reminiscences of school pages] (‘Evocación de la,’ 1970, non. pag.). The reviewer for Análisis held that the film represented a significant change in Torre Nilsson’s filmic trajectory. Gente’s critiques of Evangelina Salazar’s impassive performance, the absence of warmth in Alcón’s stern general, and the length of some of the scenes are surprising given its ‘promotional campaign’ chronicling the film’s production (Erausquin, 2008, 146).16 It should be noted that film scholars Mary Joannou and Steve McIntyre have identified the length of biographical films as one of the reasons why spectators in general do not favor this genre (1983, 147). These comments seem to address a mismatch between the expectations generated by the film in the media and the final product. Consequently, some of the critiques of El santo were related to the biopic itself.

El santo’s international release also met with mixed assessments. In Spain, it received lukewarm reviews,17 but had a warm reception at the Film Festival of Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia:

El público asimiló perfectamente el espíritu del personaje y el ideal que alentó la gesta libertadora […] El aplauso fue general y sostenido. Constituyó de verdad una sorpresa, pues no cabía suponer que personas tan ajenas a la problemática histórica de América Latina pudieran mostrar acercamientos hacia sus protagonistas, sobre todo en el caso de San Martín, de tan severo estilo de vida y tan poco profuso a los esplendores.

[The audience perfectly understood the spirit of the character and the idealism that motivated the liberation campaign (…) Applause was general and sustained. It was a veritable surprise, because it was not possible to imagine that people so removed from the historical reality of Latin America would show sympathy for its protagonists, above all San Martín, whose lifestyle was so austere and free from luxuries]

(‘Optima,’ 1970, 424)

This success abroad was a long-held goal for Argentina cinema, for it (p.142) meant new markets and audiences. The film’s merits were also recognized by an important Latin American filmmaker, the Brazilian Glauber Rocha (1939–1981) director and founder of Cinema Novo lauded it as a great epic (Tal, 2005, 173–74).18 Given the power of cinema, Rocha saw the epic as irrevocably linked with didacticism: both could spark a much-needed revolution that could enlighten the lower classes and de-alienate the middle sectors.

Despite its domestic popularity and exhibition abroad, El santo has been either overlooked by film scholars or seen as a product of an authoritarian government, given that it was shot and released during the Onganía dictatorship (1966–1970). Fernando Peña holds that the film ‘no resiste un análisis medianamente serio, pero tuvo un éxito que aseguró la carrera cinematográfica del realizador’ [does not stand up to a moderately serious analysis, but had a success that ensured the cinematographic career of the filmmaker] (1993, 30). Raúl Beceyro also refers to the director’s complicity with the regime in power (1997, 10). Similarly and more recently, Ignacio del Valle mentions the genre of historical drama which includes El santo: ‘El auge de este último puede entenderse, por lo tanto, como una forma de eludir la contingencia de parte de los realizadores que se mantenían dentro de los cauces permitidos al cine por el régimen’ [The prominence of the latter (the historical drama) can be understood, therefore, as a way of escaping constraints for the filmmakers who accepted the cinematic channels allowed by the regime] (‘La actualización,’ 2010, 244). This comment does not take into account that the representation of a founding father is both a political and an artistic endeavor that cannot neglect taking into account the ideological environment in which the film was made. More fundamentally, San Martín’s portrayal in El santo engages in no uncertain terms with issues related to both national identity and the mission of a national cinema. Therefore, the circumstances surrounding its production and consumption deserve careful examination.

It is important to consider the film’s production timeline alongside the political developments. Preparations for El santo began in late 1968 with the writing of the script.19 The casting was finalized in June with the signing of Evangelina Salazar for the role of Remedios and the film’s shooting began on July 18, 1969. Two months earlier, in May 1969, a revolt known as El Cordobazo in which students and workers battled against the police in the city of Córdoba. This movement of opposition delivered a blow to Onganía’s government. As historian Michael Burdick explains, ‘Politically, el cordobazo exacerbated the divisions within the army, and within days the entire cabinet of President Onganía resigned’ (1995, 147). Consequently, by the time El santo was released on March 25, 1970, Onganía’s term in office was coming to an end due to the increased resistance from both the labor sector, which was pushing for better salaries, and the urban guerrillas, whose armed violence was escalating. These challenges compelled General Roberto Levingston (1920–2015) to replace Onganía as head of the country on June 18, 1970. Given this context, it is pertinent to ask—in light of some film critics’ assertions—how much influence a president who was confronting such (p.143) serious problems—and/or the authorities of the National Institute of Cinema (NIC)—had on the production of this film. While the military authorities demanded several cuts (Martín, 1993, 202; Paladino and Maranghello, 2010, 37), the film’s main narrative remained unaltered. Finally, it is also necessary to take into account the film’s popular reception. At the time of its premiere, El santo pleased a wide spectrum of viewers: from army generals to members of the public whose sympathies ranged from the far left to the far right. Either as a vehicle or a challenger (or both) of the military establishment, El santo was a crucial nation-building cinematic work that was widely consumed by Argentines. In what follows, I present a close analysis of the film, examining its engagement with national history and identity.

El santo de la espada

As a biopic, El santo presents a combination of traditional and original cinematic techniques. One of the traditional biopic techniques identified by George Custen is a title that introduces a special period in the main character’s life (1992, 51). Even though the founding father’s legacy transcends those years, the film’s title refers to the ten years (1812–1822) that San Martín spent battling Spain for the independence of the United Provinces of the River Plate.20 El santo’s opening in medias res constitutes an original technique. Accompanied by a small group crossing the Andes, General San Martín, dressed in civilian clothes, meets his faithful assistant Olazábal, who informs him that he still has a mission to fulfill. A disillusioned San Martín tells the soldier that he is tired of being called a tyrant and an ambitious plotter, and hopes to return to Buenos Aires. As the camera pans the Andes from right to left, San Martín admits in a voice-over: ‘He depuesto la insignia del mando supremo para siempre. Diez años que comienzan cuando volví a la patria que había dejado siendo un niño’ [I have given up the badge of supreme leadership forever, [after t]en years that began when I returned to the motherland that I had left as a child]. These lines help contextualize, giving the date, 1822, and both the circumstances of the founding father’s life and the process of liberation in South America. Furthermore, they frame San Martín’s standing: after years of military campaigns, his participation in the independence process is marred by miscommunication and false accusations. Corroborating the general’s words about his career, a dissolve takes spectators back to 1812 Buenos Aires when he first arrived in town and is interviewed by the members of the Triunvirato [Triumvirate], to whom he conveys his willingness to serve in the fight for independence. The scene details his past military experience in Spain and the qualities that marked him as an effective leader: courage, commitment, capacity, and discipline. When asked by Bernardino Rivadavia, a member of the Triumvirate, why he is leaving behind such a brilliant military career in Europe, San Martín replies—as the camera closes in on his face—that he has given up his fortune and personal ambitions for the benefit of his country’s freedom.

(p.144) San Martín’s sacrifices to liberate the Spanish colonies in South America guide his depiction in El santo. The film focuses on the principles and personality that steered the general in his mission in Latin America. In one scene, San Martín stands alone as he is interviewed by the Triumvirate. He is shown as a military man without local connections, as his past army career (in which he performed remarkably well fighting for Spain) is examined. His loyalties and true motivations are a matter of concern given that he had left his homeland as a boy and served in Spanish regiments for more than 20 years. At 34, he gave up all that he had accomplished in Europe to start again in a land he barely knew and chose a radically different cause from the one he had supported so far. The film strives to preserve San Martín’s agency and make him accessible to the audience. His voice-over explains that the validation of his military rank that took only eight days and he was entrusted with the task of creating a new regiment of grenadiers. As befits a man on active duty, the general is shown training this newly formed militia. This is seen through the admiring perspective of Remedios de Escalada (Evangelina Salazar), whose gaze momentarily aligns with that of the viewers. Like the young patrician, the spectators appreciate San Martín’s expediency and mastery in accomplishing his first mission. The introduction of Remedios five minute into the film provides important clues about the general’s personal life. He seems to be smitten by her, but harbors doubts due to her youth, as conveyed in a short exchange with a colleague.21 In the following scenes, however, the general is portrayed as a man in love, who asks for Remedios’s hand, even though he has only a partial salary to support her.22 Estela Erausquin observes that, ‘al presentar al decidido y apuesto oficial enamorado, el film propone conciliar, para el gusto del público, el romance con la acción espectacular’ [by presenting the decidedly good-looking military man in love, the film proposes to combine romance with spectacular action in order to appeal to the audience] (2008, 145). Indeed, the romance places the loner San Martín within a family and depicts him as integrated into the social life of the upper-class creoles. More importantly, his marriage, which takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, establishes his heterosexuality, an important feature for the founding father who, as a leader in an all-male institution, was immersed in a homosocial environment.23 Nonetheless, even in the first months of his married life, the film presents the general choosing the call of duty over personal life. His inability to be a family man may be problematic. On the one hand, his zeal and dedication to the liberation is not diminished by his new marital status, a standard representation of responsible men in war films. On the other hand, if he cannot find time for his family life, how deep is his commitment to it and to his young bride?

San Martín’s relationship with Remedios could be construed as one in which she metaphorically represents the fledging Argentine nation. For instance, in one scene, the general is about to leave home to deter the landing of the Spanish forces in the Parana River in a mock operation before attacking Buenos Aires. When his new wife asks him if he could not have sent someone (p.145) else in his place, he replies: ‘Mira, si a tu Buenos Aires, le pasa lo mismo que a Montevideo’ [Consider, if your Buenos Aires has to undergo the same situation as Montevideo].24 The parallel between Remedios and Buenos Aires gives San Martín the impetus to protect both by courageously fighting against the godos (Spanish soldiers). This dialogue takes place before the battle of San Lorenzo, in which the general came close to losing his life. The clash was shot with aerial views of the cavalry under his leadership charging at full speed against the Spanish forces. This scene also illustrates that all acts of patriotic heroism risk the hero’s loss when San Martín’s horse is killed and traps the general under its weight. When he returns to Remedios’s side, she seems to sense the danger that her husband experienced, but the general soothes her: ‘Su Buenos Aires puede dormir tranquila, la están velando los Granaderos de San Martín’ [Your Buenos Aires can sleep peacefully; she is being protected by San Martín’s grenadiers]. The feminization of Buenos Aires, evident in the use of the feminine adjective and direct object pronoun is mirrored by Remedios in the first part of the same scene: before her husband’s arrival, she could not sleep calmly. Once again, the Remedios-Buenos Aires parallel is underlined to show San Martín protecting both.

El santo alternates between a third- and first-person narrator. Usually, the third-person narration shows San Martín in action, meeting other military leaders, making myriad decisions, and planning for the crossing of the Andes. The first person, that is to say, San Martín’s voice-over, is usually deployed in moments of calm to provide insights into his thoughts. For instance, on one occasion, the general expresses his frustration at the way the process of independence is being handled from Buenos Aires, asking rhetorically, ‘¿Hasta cuándo esperaremos para declarar la independencia? ¿No es ridículo acuñar moneda, tener pabellón y hacer de la guerra un rey del cual hoy se depende?’ [How long will we wait to declare independence? Is it not ridiculous to mint money, have a flag, and make of the war a king on whom we still depend today?].25 These questions frame his uncharted path and his place in ‘monumental history’ which, according to Landy, ‘relies on a vision of the past during moments of crisis and heroic conflict, and it reveals a penchant for the actions of heroic figures’ (2001, 3). It is the way in which the founding father reacts to problems that shows his commitment to the liberation of South America and his formidable strategic planning.

El santo also presents San Martín as a multilayered person. While for Erausquin, ‘el héroe de Torre Nilsson es, verdaderamente, un santo’ [Torre Nilsson’s hero is truly a saint] (2008, 146), as the title suggests, San Martín’s virtuosity is limited to his role as a military strategist and visionary leader. He believes in training and planning, and he respects the other generals (Manuel Belgrano, Martín de Güemes, and Bernardo O’Higgins); but he is also aware of the criticisms directed at him—that he is ambitious, cruel, and a thief—which gradually start influencing his decisions, perhaps culminating in his resolution to leave Simón Bolívar to bring to an end the independence of South America without his assistance.26 Argentina’s founding father (p.146) is unduly maligned when the film presents him sacrificing his comforts and personal life. He is depicted as unable to hear and heed the advice and wishes of his young wife, who repeatedly asks him not to exert himself too much and to spend more time with her. The ‘saint of the sword’ seems to have been a poor husband.

Here we also must consider Remedios’s characterization, which alternates between activity and passivity. For Tzvi Tal, the film ‘reinforced the traditional view of the hero’s wife as a quiet, supportive helpmeet’ (2004, 25), in line with the gender roles encouraged by the military regime in the late 1960s, when the film was shot. Several crucial aspects should be noted now about the relationship between San Martín and Remedios in El santo. First, the age difference between her and San Martín was considerable: 19 years. She was 15 years old when she married the 34-year-old San Martín. The first 35 minutes of the film present her as imbued with agency: it is she who invites the general to a gathering at her home, stating that she would like to discuss with him a project to obtain arms and money for his campaign. When San Martín asks her father for her hand, he is told that ‘así como la ve, todavía, una niña [Remedios], tiene una voluntad muy firme en todas sus cosas’ [even though she still is a child, she has a very strong will in all things]; thus, despite her youth, it is Remedios who makes the decision to accept his marriage proposal. Later in the film, when she is living in Mendoza, she spearheads the donation of jewelry to help cover the expenses of the crossing of the Andes, an act that confirms her own commitment to the liberation cause. Despite her agency, in El santo she is also treated as una niña [a child] by both her father and her maid. In that sense, and as I have mentioned above, the film shows San Martín as a father figure to his wife: attentive, protective, but also in control of their decisions. Second, Remedios was a traditional upper-class porteña [native of Buenos Aires]. In Remedios de Escalada de San Martín: Su vida y su tiempo, historian Florencia Grosso explains the situation of Argentine women in the nineteenth century: ‘Motor del hogar, sacrificada y esforzada trabajadora, no se conocían jamás sus nombres y solamente brillarán por sus propios maridos. Ellas han sido apenas sombras’ [Driving force of the home, sacrificial and zealous workers, their names were never known and they will only shine because of their husbands. They have been only shadows] (2013, 12). Remedios suffered from tuberculosis for several years, a fact that must have left her housebound. In this context, is it credible that an experienced military leader could have been influenced by such a young spouse? That is to say, would not the founding father be seen as an unreliable career officer if he had paid attention to an unproven woman? Thus, the role left to Remedios was that of the liberator’s friend and wife, a witness to his struggles and frustrations, a domestic anchor for the seasoned fighter. This portrayal is in line with the norms for women of her time. This begs the question of how we should interpret the critiques of Salazar’s performance as a sweet and docile Remedios (Erausquin, 2008, 144). More importantly, did the film propose women’s return to such traditional roles as homemaker, as Tal suggests? To (p.147) answer these questions, it is appropriate to consider Robert Rosenstone’s insights about historical films and apply them to El santo.

El santo de la espada as a Historical Film

In ‘The Historical Film: Looking at the Past in a Post-literate Age,’ Rosenstone mentions two approaches to understanding historical films. The implicit approach deals with historical films as if they were adaptations of real-life events and, thus, how faithfully the filmic rendition resembles versions of the past (2001, 51). El santo not only received state funds but also was shot with the participation of a historical consultant and several divisions of the Argentine armed forces in order to ensure a faithful historical representation. While the film’s flaw could perhaps be the inclusion of too many historical facts, which detract from presenting a more compelling portrayal of the Argentine liberator, historians, film critics, and spectators alike are almost unanimous in the opinion that El santo offers a historically accurate vision of San Martín’s ten-year career fighting first for the liberation of what today is Argentina, and later, for Chile and Peru.27 The film’s fidelity to historical events is one of its unquestionable strengths. For instance, the president of the Board of Historical Studies of Mendoza, Edmundo Correas, reported that:

Las juntas de estudios históricos del país en su reciente sesión plenaria decidieron otorgar un voto de aplauso al director y los realizadores y colaboradores de la película El santo de la espada por el bien logrado esfuerzo que ella significó para el recuerdo de nuestro héroe máximo.

[the country’s boards of historical studies decided at their recent plenary session to award a vote of approval to the director, producers, and participants in the film El santo de la espada for what their well-achieved effort means for the memory of our supreme hero]

(1970, 5)

One reason for the undisputed assessment of El santo as a quality historical film could be found in the subject matter itself: San Martín’s place in the pantheon of founding fathers is undeniable, despite the many ideological waves throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century Argentine history (Hourcade, 1998, 73). Michael Goebel describes the consensus among Argentine historians from both the Academia Nacional de la Historia and the Instituto Rosas, saying that ‘the figure of San Martín in particular was revered unanimously’ (2011, 53). This shared view of the main character also influenced the film’s reception. The armed forces and the Peronist Youth movement, in opposition in the late 1960s and early 1970s, found common ground in El santo.28

The explicit approach stresses that like other cultural products, historical films reflect the values and idiosyncrasies of the time in which they were made. The only two academic references dealing with El santo (in more (p.148) than footnotes), Tal’s and Eurasquin’s, belong to this approach. Tal cites historians María del Carmen Feijoo and Marcela Nari’s article tracing shifting Argentine gender roles in the late 1960s, suggesting that the film stresses a patriarchal order of respect and obedience such as the one sought (but not attained) by General Onganía.29 This reading does not consider the fact that the film was based on a book by writer and historian Ricardo Rojas.30 Published in 1933, El santo de la espada represents the San Martín as a romantic hero fighting for the liberation not only of his patria, but also of the continent.31 Eduardo Hourcade notes that Rojas’s book was an immediate success: ‘dejó acuñada una metáfora imborrable para la reflexión sobre San Martín’ [it left an indelible metaphor for reflection on San Martín] (1998, 88). Therefore, the San Martín portrayed in the film is one that was created decades before the tumultuous 1960s.

In El santo, Rojas not only provided a biography of the founding father, but also and more importantly, an expression of argentinidad. Considered ‘the essential Argentine’ by Ismael Moya, Rojas, along with Manuel Gálvez (1882–1968) and Leopoldo Lugones (1874–1938), was part of the Centenary Generation, intellectuals who had witnessed the celebrations of 1910, when Argentina commemorated its first hundred years as an independent nation (Goebel, 2011, 36). Decrying what they perceived as the corrupting influence of immigrants on the nation, these cultural nationalists favored the role of gauchos as the embodiment of argentinidad.32 As Jeane DeLaney explains, ‘[cultural] nationalists believed that certain individuals—by virtue of their intuitive powers and heightened sensitivity—could see beyond surface phenomena to understand the occult forces shaping the nation, and thus help guide it back to its true course’ (2002, 647). Rojas emphasizes what makes San Martín truly unique: ‘hay algo adicional que excede al adocenado jinete de las estatuas ecuestres’ [there is something more that exceeds the familiar rider of the equestrian statues] (1940, 9). The hero could not only see what others failed to distinguish, but also and more crucially, he could provide a moral compass to guide future generations. It is, then, Rojas’s imprint that shapes the depiction of San Martín as a remarkable leader, capable of seeing what others could not: Belgrano’s value, the importance of Güemes’s montonera gaucha [gaucho rebellion], and the need to liberate all South America. Rojas’s influence is also evident in San Martín’s concern for the unity of the nations that had formerly been Spanish colonies. Rojas, who believed in the union of Latin America, stressed San Martín’s generosity in freeing other nations besides Argentina and saw it as proof of the general’s South American vision. Nonetheless, Torre Nilsson’s representation is a matter of interpretation, too. James Chapman clarifies that:

The radicalization of French film culture following the upheavals of 1968 and the ascendancy of high theory in journals such as Screen after circa 1970 signaled a rejection of the Bazinian orthodoxy in favor of the idea (p.149) that all film was merely a ‘representation’ or ‘construction’ and had no claim to objective reality.

(2008, 59)

Drawing on this insight, I now turn to an analysis of the explicit approach and of El santo as an interpretation of the Argentine foundational pantheon.

The explicit approach of El santo is also illustrated by Erausquin, who agrees with the 1970s critiques by spectators who labeled the film a ‘solemn pastiche’ of interest only to Argentines even though her interpretation of San Martín as a tragic hero (2008, 146) places the founding father in the pantheon of world leaders, rendering his life an example of the universal desire for freedom and self-definition. This view fails to take into account that the subject matter is inextricably related to the definition of what Argentine cinema should be. In other words, the criticism leveled at the film—that it does not present a topic that is sufficiently appealing to foreign audiences—does not see national cinema, particularly that of a peripheral nation, as competing on an unequal footing with Hollywood’s mega-productions. In addition, the criticism that the film was only for the consumption of Argentina’s domestic audience sets the parameter that Argentine cinema needs to be of interest to foreign audiences as well, ignoring the fact that the intended audience of every national film industry is, precisely, the domestic one. While Torre Nilsson has been accused of opportunism in accepting funds from the NIC and resources—ranging from historical and military consultants to uniforms and horses—from the armed forces, as a historical film, El santo celebrated the birth of the Argentine nation and highlighted San Martín’s moral values, his sacrifices, and his commitment to freedom. Hence, the film provided a model of morality and citizenship for a nation at odds with itself. More crucially, El santo resonated with Argentine viewers as San Martín represented an archetypal liberator that both the Argentine left and right respected.

If we return to the issue of investigating what Torre Nilsson’s film says about the late 1960s in Argentina, there are several aspects worth exploring. First, El santo presents glimpses of the intertwined church-state-army nexus that bore striking similarity to the late 1960s. Paladino and Maranghello note that in Torre-Nilsson’s film there are more references to religion—San Martín’s wedding, a convent, and a crucifix—than in previous films about the founding father (2010, 35). Nonetheless, there is one crucial exchange between San Martín and Fray Luis Beltrán (1784–1827) that has escaped the interest of film scholars. Beltrán, a priest who joined the independence movement, was placed in charge of producing armaments for the campaign in Chile. In El santo, he appears using the Franciscan cloak and encouraging men to work hard. San Martín calls him ‘Captain,’ explaining that despite some opposition, the priest has been promoted with a military rank. The general also tells Beltrán: ‘No es de anti-católicos luchar por la revolución’ [It is not anti-Catholic to fight for the revolution]. In the early 1970s, such an assertion was anything but innocent in Argentina. Throughout Latin (p.150) America, some Catholic priests opted to play a vital role in the (future) socialist revolution organized in the Movement of Priests for the Third World (MPTW) that emerged in the late 1960s (Burdick, 1995, 137). The MPTW was left-leaning, while more traditional Catholic groups sided with Onganía’s government. Burdick explains this division:

On one side, the colonial legacy of liberal capitalism with its structures of domination and exploitation was represented by a coalition of traditional elites, the military government, and many members of the church’s hierarchy. On the other side, the progressive clergy with their proposed vision of the ‘new man’ and the ‘new society.’

(1995, 140)

In El santo, San Martín’s reassurance to Fray Beltrán about his revolutionary role could be interpreted as promoting not only the political revolution, but also the plight of the dispossessed as the MPTW was doing. This position contrasts sharply with that of right-wing Catholics who supported Onganía’s regime.

Another aspect of the church-state-army relationship concerns San Martín’s belonging to the Lautaro lodge. The lodges were anti-clerical associations. Nora Barrancos writes: ‘Las logias masónicas, debido a su porosidad reclutadora y a las fórmulas rituales que empleaban constituían refugios para el oficio de la verdadera religión de la fraternidad a través de un estilo que pretendía la laicidad pública’ [Due to their porous recruitment and the ritual formulas that they used, the masonic lodges constituted refuges for the exercise of the true religion of fraternity in a style that public secularism hoped for] (2007, 55). Paladino and Maranghello note that San Martín’s participation in this secret organization is omitted from Torre Nilsson’s film (2010, 35). This omission de-emphasizes San Martín’s secularism at a time when Catholicism was promoted by the government. Burdick explains that ‘Military lodges were not uncommon in the Argentine armed forces, but for the first time religious orthodoxy became a unifying factor’ (1995, 128). Given Onganía’s unshakable Catholicism and his excellent rapport with Monsignor Antonio Caggiano (1889–1979), the fact that the founding father’s membership of an anti-clerical association was not presented in the film could have been due to the director’s self-restraint, a form of self-censorship. As all Argentine films had to be approved by a Film Rating Board in which Catholics were the majority, drawing a veil of silence over the general’s involvement in an anti-clerical lodge could have been a strategy to avoid delaying or jeopardizing the film’s approval.

The second issue that resonated at the time of the film’s release was the country’s lack of resources. In El santo, San Martín mentions the lack of resources to support the fight for independence. In another scene, Belgrano informs him that ‘la miseria nos acosa’ [misery overwhelms us]. Later, when San Martín prepares the army that will cross the Andes, he confides in Remedios, ‘Estoy rodeado de miseria. El mes que viene no voy a tener ni un cuartillo para dar al ejército’ [I am surrounded by misery. Next month I will (p.151) not have even a penny to give to the army]. On another occasion, he lists all the things—from horses and food to arms and tents—that he needs to supply his troops. Aware of these needs, Remedios organizes a donation of jewelry to be used to buy supplies for the army. The ladies’ sacrifice is complemented by San Martín’s order to reduce military salaries and his address to the people of Mendoza, urging them to make sacrifices in the name of the nascent patria: ‘seamos libres y lo demás no importa nada’ [let us be free and the rest does not matter at all].33 In the late 1960s, despite the expansion of the Argentine middle class, the upper and lower classes were still separated by a considerable gap in income and resources, and poverty affected vast sectors of the Argentine population that lived without running water or electricity. Consequently, the efficient allocation of national resources was still a pending matter in the early 1970s. San Martín’s call ‘seamos libres,’ [let us be free] serves as a crucial unifying goal for a society that, both in the nineteenth century and in the early 1970s, was highly polarized. The prioritization of political freedom functioned as a common middle ground between right and left.

Third, and related to the previous point, El santo underscores San Martín’s fight for political independence and nation building, in which the army played a central role. Even with the weak support of the civilian authorities, who send him military titles, but are unaware of or disinclined to fund his liberation campaign in Chile, San Martín is presented as an efficient planner whose ‘real talent is the ability to convey that there is order in what is otherwise chaos’ (Braudy, 2003, 235) and who believes in discipline and training and carefully studies every detail of the crossing of the Andes. His genius consists, then, in persevering in the face of adversity, laying out a network with other generals, and moving forward with this strategy for war. After each battle, scenes capture the general avoiding the celebrations and honorary titles; instead, as a true strategist, he starts planning his next move. Thus, San Martín is not portrayed as bloodthirsty: he only authorizes a death sentence by firing squad when he sees evidence of the condemned’s atrocities.

Fourth, the film also illustrates his most famous act of selflessness when, at the pinnacle of his career and fame, he renounces his military position, clearing the way for Simón Bolívar’s indisputable leadership. The general’s management style and the role of the army in nation building could be compared with/contrasted to Onganía’s style of leadership and that of the guerrilla group the Montoneros, Onganía’s political antagonist in the late 1960s. While Onganía was described by his detractors as rigid and dictatorial, the Montoneros also resorted to a military organization, as historian Vicente Massot explains:

fueron a la Guerra—civil, prolongada, integral y revolucionaria, como se cansaron de definirla en sus libros, proclamas y congresos—y para ello formaron ejércitos con sus estados mayores, divisiones, batallones, compañías, pelotones, grados jerárquicos, insignias y uniformes, plenamente consciente de lo que hacían.

(p.152) [they went to war—civil, prolonged, total and revolutionary, as they became weary of defining it in their books, speeches, and conferences—and for that, they organized armies with their chiefs of staff, divisions, battalions, companies, platoons, hierarchical titles, insignias, and uniforms, totally aware of what they were doing]

(2013, 13)

Thus, the military organization that in El santo is used to wage war against foreign oppressors was similar to the one deployed by both the armed forces and guerrilla groups in the 1970s, the difference being that the enemy in the latter conflict was an internal one.34

Finally, Torre Nilsson’s film was relevant in the early 1970s for its depiction of continental liberation. El santo exemplifies the redirection of San Martín’s energies toward the emancipation of other Latin American ‘brothers.’ He is also shown as a leader who takes special precautions not to appear as a conqueror of other nations. As soon as he liberates Chile, he returns to Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, San Martín’s liberation of Argentina, Chile, and Perú was an important step for the continent’s political emancipation, a fact that was recognized by more political filmmakers. In 1968, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino provided a revisionist interpretation of Argentine history in their documentary essay, La hora de los hornos [The Hour of the Furnaces] (1968). Influenced by Peronist ideology, they understood the relevance of San Martín as an icon of liberation that could be deployed for economic independence.35 Del Valle states that ‘Solanas y GCL plantean la idea de la actualización del mito –“nuestra lucha y la de San Martín son la misma”’ [Solanas and the Grupo Cine Liberación shared the idea of actualizing the myth—‘our fight and San Martín’s are the same’] (2010, 10). Colonial domination and the union of Latin America are themes that appear in both La hora de los hornos and in El santo, but while Torre Nilsson’s film emphasizes political liberation, Solanas and Getino’s documentary stresses economic independence, still an unresolved issue in the late 1960s. Consequently, the film seems to ask viewers: What are Argentines in the early 1970s doing for their fellow tucumanos or mendocinos? How are the filial relationships between Argentines and their Latin American ‘brothers’ (Chileans, and Peruvians) in the 1970s? And, by extension, in what ways are other Latin Americans defending the freedom obtained in the nineteenth century and the rights of equality and fraternity that underpinned the wars of independence?

By presenting the challenges that San Martín had to overcome to make possible the birth of the Argentine nation, El santo allows a comparison with the trials that Argentine society experienced in the early 1970s. In the film, some of those tests were the weakness of the central bureaucracy established in Buenos Aires and the discord of the population who supported different political sides. The distrust of the first ‘independent’ authorities is shown in El santo when Rivadavia and other creoles criticize the political authorities for their lack of efficiency. The division in the population is seen in (p.153) another scene where, during a theatrical representation, both a royalist and San Martín are informed of the defeat of Manuel Belgrano’s troops, showing the political and ideological rift between members of the same social class. Even with an idealized look to the national past, El santo presents the different political sides, alluding to the tumultuous times in which the Argentine nation was forged. The five points that I have discussed illustrate the ways in which El santo engaged with matters that were not only central to Argentine society of the time in which it was released, but also crucial to interrogating versions of nationhood that Argentines were considering and also Argentina’s role within South America. Fighting for independence is El santo’s main theme, particularly after the first 40 minutes, when war begins to dominate the screen. Thus, it is necessary to briefly analyze El santo as a war film.

War in El santo

The first shots show soldiers waiting for the return of a seasoned and successful general who has valiantly led men in war for ten years. One important dimension of El santo as a war film, therefore, is consideration of the successive tests that the general had to face to attain the goal of continental independence. In the film, San Martín must overcome his weak health, the granting of titles but little financial support for his campaign, and long periods of separation from his family. Despite these major challenges, he recruits and trains soldiers, and wisely plans his following moves. Patriotism leads him to prepare and manage armies and gives him a reason to fight. His mission is an epic one for the number of obstacles that he faces. Yet San Martín is also seen as laying the foundations of new countries. El santo paints the conditions in the nascent Argentina in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when almost everything was lacking, except the generosity that spurred upper-class women to donate their jewelry and the determination that drove men from different social backgrounds to join long and uncomfortable military campaigns and fight bloody battles to liberate South America. Closely related to the generosity of men and women in the 1810s, El santo interrogates viewers about the extent to which the general’s successors and the citizens of the other Latin American nations that he liberated have been able to make the most of the hard-fought political freedom he bequeathed to Argentines, Chileans, and Peruvians. John Belton states that ‘The war film mediates our relationship to war, helping to prepare us for it, reconcile us to victory or defeat, and adjust us to its aftermath’ (2012, 218). Argentine society at the time of El santo’s production needed a strong sense of direction that could help avoid its disintegration. In portraying ambitious plans of the past and their realization despite multiple challenges, the film sought to motivate domestic viewers to continue the task of nation building. San Martín’s accomplishments as shown in the film illustrate that, figuratively, no mountain is too high to be crossed with the proper amount of organization, extreme discipline, and relentless commitment.

(p.154) The legitimacy of war is also a topic addressed in El santo. As a warrior, San Martín is relentless against the Spanish forces but unwilling to participate in internal conflicts. In a crucial scene, he affirms that he would never raise his sword to fight for or against his ‘brothers.’ He is concerned about the emerging nation’s slow fall into anarchy and civil war, and, to avoid taking sides, he prefers to return to Chile, even though he has to be carried on a stretcher—due to poor health—in order to continue his liberation campaign. In the final leg of this campaign, he takes great care not to appear as an oppressor. For instance, in one scene, when asked why he is not attacking Perú, he replies that he is waiting for an invitation—this comes when the governor requests that he and his men protect Lima after the retreat of the Spanish troops. Arriving as a liberator, San Martín is offered special lodgings and custody, but he declines, choosing instead the company of his faithful assistant and sleeping in the military barracks. As Belton asserts, ‘the battlefield is a world in which the laws, beliefs and behavior, and morality of civilization are suspended’ (2012, 196). But the home front also provides important clues about the different sides’ relation to beliefs and moral values. Once in Perú, the general is advised to harshly subdue the pockets of resistance, but he rejects imprisonments and executions. When Lord Cochrane urges him to attack the port of El Callao, San Martín disagrees, basing his decision on the Spaniards’ lack of supplies. Instead, he waits for their surrender, which eventually saves hundreds of lives. His final voice-over explains, ‘la causa que defendí es la del género humano’ [the cause that I defended was that of mankind], closing the chapter of his participation in the wars of independence in South America and retiring from public life. San Martín’s voice-over justifies his involvement in war, universalizing the reasons for his fight for freedom.

At the end of El santo, San Martín’s commitment to liberation and continental unity are tested once again. First, military victories lead to a cult of personality that the general does not condone. For him, success was made possible thanks to the joint efforts of the many men who started their military career under his orders and followed him all the way to Perú. Thus, he avoids celebrations and tributes, preferring to let others enjoy them. Second, being away from his family seems to become more difficult to bear, particularly when he receives news of Remedios’s declining health and thinks about all the projects that he had to put aside in order to conclude the liberation of South America. Third, in his meeting with Bolívar (Héctor Alterio), San Martín prioritizes the still unfinished project of liberating Perú and Bolivia, urging his Venezuelan counterpart to eliminate the royalist resistance. While the meeting with Bolívar appears friendly, San Martín informs the general that he will be leaving the command of the army so that Bolívar can lead it in the completion of emancipation.

El santo’s ending moves away from the theater of war to focus on the general’s personal life. His voice-over asserts his desire to be a common man dedicated to his estancia, wife, and child, but this wish for simplicity after (p.155) ten years of war is not fulfilled. Once in Mendoza, news of Remedios’s death reaches him, altering his plans. He briefly visits her tomb in Buenos Aires, before departing for Europe with his young daughter Mercedes. Once the nation’s freedom is ensured, he gives up his role as founding father to become his daughter’s father. More importantly, the film closes with San Martín’s explicit wish to avoid further tributes. His ‘testament’ seems to underscore his selflessness and desire for anonymity. On one hand, the film appears to respect the founding father’s wish for simplicity and rejection of accolades; on the other, El santo activates the remembrance of the general’s heroic deeds and his indisputable place of honor in Argentina’s national pantheon.


(1) In early 1969, Gente mentioned the popular reception of Martín Fierro (1968) as one of the factors that made El santo de la espada possible: ‘Este éxito le permite a Torre Nilsson trasladar a la pantalla de plata la vida del general José de San Martín, con el mismo equipo de guionistas, técnico y artístico de Martín Fierro y con su insuperable protagonista: Alfredo Alcón’ [This success allows Torre Nilsson to present the life of General José de San Martín on the silver screen, with the same team of screenwriters, technicians, and artists as Martín Fierro and with its incomparable protagonist: Alfredo Alcón] (‘1968: Las figuras,’ 1969, 7).

(2) In an interview, Torre Nilsson admitted that he sought a box office success (‘Gente,’ 1970, 78).

(3) Asked which type of audience Torre Nilsson thought about when making El santo, he replied, ‘Pensé en el país’ [I thought about the country] (‘Gente,’ 1970, 76).

(4) In 1967 Torre Nilsson did two co-productions with André du Rona, but quickly stopped making films with international financing. As a long-time player in the film industry, Torre Nilsson thrived on taking risks.

(5) La gaceta referred to the director’s prestige as one of the selling points (El Santo,’ 1970, 178).

(6) For Miguel Ángel Rosado, Torre Nilsson opted for the ‘big spectacle’ in both Martín Fierro and El santo de la espada (1992, 144). Laura Radetich also states that Torre Nilsson, ‘que conocía el rigor de la censura decidió obedecer los mandatos y contó la historia que los generales querían escuchar, eliminó todos los aspectos controversiales de la vida del prócer y se ajustó a los lineamientos del autor original que junto a Mitre fueron los que dieron forma al panteón nacional de los próceres’ [who knew the severity of censorship, decided to obey orders and told the story that the generals wanted to hear, omitted all the controversial aspects of the life of the founding father and adapted to the ideas of the original author who together with Mitre shaped the national pantheon of the founding fathers] (2006, 60).

(7) Bruno Ramírez explains that ‘historical films that are conceived and carried out as serious attempts to explore the past through cinematic dramaturgy do, in fact, call for considerable research’ (2014, 45).

(p.156) (8) While the presence of a military advisor is another point that led Argentine critics to deride El santo, such advisors, whether military or historical, were and are still called to help in different films. For instance, Robert Rosenstone mentions the case of Louis Gottschalk of the University of Chicago who, in 1935, wrote to the president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: ‘If cinema art is going to draw its subjects so generously from history, it owes it to its patrons and its own higher ideals to achieve greater accuracy. No picture of a historical nature ought to be offered to the public until a reputable historian has had a chance to criticize and review it’ (2001, 50).

(9) Salazar began acting in TV series in the early 1960s. In 1965, she was the female lead in a box office smash, Mi primera novia (Enrique Carreras). A year later, she had the main role in Jacinta Pichimaguida, una maestra que no se olvida [Jacinta Pichimaguida, a Teacher Who Cannot be Forgotten], which was also a hit. That same year, she was the protagonist of Del brazo y por la calle (Enrique Carreras), for which she won the Best Actress Award at the San Sebastián Film Festival, an honor that made her known throughout Spain. For his part, Alfredo Alcón had a solid career in theater, TV, and cinema. With Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, he starred in the popular Martín Fierro (1969), and Güemes la tierra en armas (1973), and they would work together again in La maffia (1973), Boquitas pintadas (1974), and El pibe Cabezas (1975).

(10) Bingham states that ‘The actor, whose stock in trade is embodiment, behavior and expression, is the focal point of the invention, the element that literally gets the most attention’ (2010b, 77).

(11) Years later, Alcón distanced himself from his roles as San Martín and Güemes: ‘Yo filmé mucho con Torre Nilsson. De sus obras me gustaron algunas, otras no. No me gusta el Nilsson del Güemes o San Martín’ [I worked a lot with Torre Nilsson. I liked some of his films but not others. I did not like Nilsson’s Güemes or San Martín] (Ferreira, 1995, 186).

(12) The opening credits list the many institutions that helped as consultants and extras: the Instituto Nacional San Martiniano, the Comando en Jefe del Ejército Argentino, the Regimiento de Granaderos a Caballo, the Dirección de Estudios Históricos, the Comando de Instituto Militares, the Armada Nacional, Gendarmería Nacional, the IV Brigada Aérea, the Compañía de Ingenieros de Montaña, the I Regimiento de Infantería de Patricios, the Comando Brigada de Infantería de Montaña, Regimiento de Infantería de Montaña General Las Heras, the XIV Batallón de Arsenales José María Rojas, and the Escuela de Policía Vucetich.

(13) The cuts were made in scenes where Remedios called her husband José, instead of ‘mi General,’ and where San Martín suffers from stomach ache during the crossing of the Andes.

(14) Torre Nilsson made an agreement with the distributor who charged half the ticket price for elementary and secondary school students (Radetich, 2006, 60).

(15) Two contemporary American blockbusters were Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) and The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), which in April 1966 had been screened for 15 and 48 weeks respectively.

(p.157) (16) As a comparison, the American biopic Patton (Franklin Schaffner), also released in 1970, was 172 minutes long while El santo de la espada ran to 120 minutes.

(17) El santo was also released in Spain with the title Estirpe de raza. The reviewer for the Spanish journal ABC stated: ‘El espectador queda sin saber quién fue realmente José de San Martín […] El resto es una sucesión pomposa e infantil de acontecimientos’ [The spectator leaves without knowing who José de San Martín really was (…) The rest is a pompous and childish succession of events] while the newspaper Madrid considered it a ‘digna y valiosa reconstitución de una página de la historia de América’ [a worthy and valuable rendition of a page of America’s history] (1970, non. pag.).

(18) As a way to justify Rocha’s (perhaps misguided) support of the film, Tal explains that the Brazilian filmmaker was not cognizant of the school of historical thought (2005, 174).

(19) In December 1968, Torre Nilsson mentioned that he had just finished the scenes of the crossing of the Andes and the battle of Maipú, and that he expected to start shooting in March 1969, though he admitted that the cast was not complete, despite the fact that many people were eager to participate in the film: ‘Hay muchos que se ofertan, me paran por la calle’ [There are many who propose themselves, they stop me in the streets] (‘Larga charla,’ 1968, 14).

(20) Here the film departs from Rojas’s book, which is divided into three parts covering three periods: 1778–1816, 1816–1822, and 1822–1850.

(21) Nora Barrancos explains that in the nineteenth-century it was not unusual for men to marry younger women, with an average age difference of 13 years (2007, 64).

(22) Mr. Escalada mentions that San Martín only had two-thirds of his salary as it is well known that he donated the other third to cover the expenses of the independence process.

(23) As a military man, San Martín mostly interacted with men who were his superiors, peers, and subordinates.

(24) Montevideo had already been besieged by Spanish naval forces.

(25) These lines were written by San Martín in a letter to the Mendoza representative, Godoy Cruz. See Ricardo Levene, El genio político de San Martín.

(26) Tzvi Tal observes that the film ‘reinforced the social and political status quo, recycling sacred myths concerning personal sacrifice, patriotism, and decorum’ (2004, 25).

(27) For more on San Martín’s life in the years 1812–1822, please see John Lynch’s ‘San Martín: Argentine Patriot, American Liberator.’ See also Ricardo Rojas’s El santo de la espada.

(28) Gonzalo García states that in the 1970s, the Peronist Youth would challenge Lanusse’s professionalism, chanting: ‘Generales de cartón, generales son los nuestros: San Martín, Rosas, Perón’ [Cardboard generals, generals are ours: San Martín, Rosas, Perón] (n.d., non. pag.).

(29) Here I am referring to El Cordobazo, the uprising that took place in May 1969 and visibly shook Onganía’s regime.

(30) Born in Tucumán in 1882, Rojas had access to a solid education and was (p.158) particularly interested in the legacy of Spanish colonization and indigenous topics. In 1908, he was assigned to visit European centers of learning to conduct research on the teaching of history. Upon his return, he published La restauración nacionalista (1908) which, according to Luis Emilio Soto, ‘propone una terapéutica que exalta los valores vernaculares, partiendo de su íntimo conocimiento del pasado’ [proposes a remedy that exalts native values, departing from his intimate knowledge of the past] (320). Rojas penned La Argentinidad in 1916. He coined the term ‘Eurindia’ (1924) to denote Latin America. He served as Chancellor of the University of Buenos Aires 1926–1930 and after the 1930 coup that deposed President Hipólito Yrigoyen (1927–1930), he denounced the authoritarian government and was imprisoned in Ushuaia (Delaney, 2002, 628).

(31) Rojas described San Martín’s continental plan in 1812, saying: ‘Él quiere unir a todos los americanos en un pensamiento común “la independencia de América”’ [He wants to unite all (Latin) Americans around the same thought: (Latin) American independence] (1940, 57).

(32) Rojas’s celebration of the gauchos was not, however, a sign of an egalitarian ideal. As Delaney notes, ‘it could be argued that in exalting the Argentine folk as avatars of argentinidad, Rojas dignified the common people by granting them a central role in the historical evolution of the nation. He was, however, unwilling to grant these same individuals the status of full, participating citizens. Instead, for Rojas, the masses or folk served as passive—and unthinking—vessels of an indefinable spirit or essence’ (2002, 653).

(33) This sentence is part of a longer allocution that can be found in Arturo Capdevilla’s El pensamiento vivo de San Martín (34–35).

(34) Pablo Giussani writes: ‘Gran parte de la violencia que ensangrentó a la Argentina en los últimos años 60 y en la década del 70 fue una contienda entre dos simétricos totalitarismos militares que asimilaban toda actividad política a las leyes de la guerra y que mantenían utilitariamente regimentadas a sus respectivas civilidades en papel de escuderos’ [The majority of the violence that bloodied Argentina in the last years of the 1960s and in the 1970s was a battle between two symmetrical military totalitarianisms that reduced all political activities to the laws of war and keep their followers pragmatically regimented in their role of squires] (1984, 85).

(35) Tzvi Tal states ‘el gobierno peronista traspasó el acento a los símbolos de la lucha por la independencia, a los que eligió—para comodidad de sus objetivos—del Panteón Nacional que había sido consolidado por el discurso oligárquico’ [the Peronist government shifted the emphasis to the symbols of the fight for independence, that those were chosen— to conform with its objectives—from the national pantheon that had been established by the oligarchic discourse] (2005, 171).