Güemes, la tierra en armas
Güemes, la tierra en armas
Abstract and Keywords
I trace the development of Güemes’ bio-pic from its pre-production to its release. Particular attention is paid to its popular and critical reception. I analyse the film as a historical biopic and epic that engaged with the concerns among Argentines of the early 1970s. I emphasise Güemes’ representation as a martyred hero along with the role of women in the independence process.
After the huge popularity of El santo, Torre Nilsson decided to make another film in the same line of biopic/historical films that had proven so successful at the box office: Güemes, la tierra en armas.1 To do so, he expanded on the life of a secondary character who appears in El santo, who was also a veritable founding father of Argentina: Martín Miguel de Güemes (1785–1821), an upper-class creole born in what today is northern Argentina. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Güemes restlessly fought for the liberation of his patria chica [little fatherland] from Spanish rule, leading armies of gauchos. Starting in 1814, he supported San Martín’s military mission, protecting the northern border from Spanish troops. In 1815, he became the first elected governor in what is today Argentina, a position he held until his death. He was acutely aware of the need for political organization by means of a constitution so that the liberated areas would not fall into anarchy. Torre Nilsson, who had enjoyed remarkable success with Martín Fierro and El santo, here undertook a project that not only coincidentally depicted gauchos, but also included a founding father.2 Yet Güemes’s portrayal posed an important challenge as the filmmaker admitted: ‘considero que Güemes es una de nuestras figuras históricas poco conocidas’ [I believe Güemes is one of our lesser known historical figures] (‘Ante,’ 1971, non. pag.). Almost 30 years later, historian Luis Colmenares issued a similar statement (1998, 7).3 On the one hand, the public’s lack of familiarity with the salteño [inhabitant of the province of Salta] leader gave the filmmaker freedom in his depiction, given that he did not have to compete with an image of the caudillo already set in the minds of Argentine spectators. On the other hand, because of Argentines’ unfamiliarity with Güemes, Torre Nilsson faced the task of making him relevant to twentieth-century, urban, middle-class viewers: ‘Considero que al mismo tiempo de rememorar hechos históricos, la película es de gran actualidad porque presenta la lucha del pueblo por afirmar su independencia y buscar justicia. Güemes fue uno de los primeros caudillos populares’ [I believe that although the film revisits historical events, it is very relevant as it presents the people’s fights to assert its independence and seek justice. Güemes was one of the first popular caudillos] (‘Ante,’ 1971, non. pag.). The (p.160) director took special care to address the public’s lack of knowledge about Güemes and to present his enduring relevance for spectators at the beginning of the 1970s.
Güemes’s script was a combination of literary text and historical research. The film is based on the homonymous play by Juan Carlos Dávalos (1887–1956), one of Güemes’s great-grandsons. The film’s script was the result of a collaboration among Ulises Petit de Murat, Beatriz Guido, Luis Pico Estrada—all seasoned screenwriters—and Rodolfo Mórtola. Of particular importance among those involved in the writing of the script is Ulises Petit de Murat, who had won a Silver Condor—together with Homero Manzi4—for the screenplay of La guerra gaucha (Lucas Demare, 1942), set in the same region and period as Güemes.5 In an interview, Torre Nilsson mentioned having consulted several sources, including Bernardo Frías’s biography of Güemes, documents in the Archivo General de la Nación, and papers owned by the general’s descendant Luis Güemes (‘Ante,’ 1971, non. pag.). If these historical resources attest to the filmmaker’s concern to learn about the film’s subject matter, they did not limit his representation of the general. The film’s review in La nación, nonetheless, highlighted the constraints of representing the life of a real-life historical figure:
no cabe duda de que la posibilidad de recrear la trayectoria del legendario héroe norteño dentro de una estructura que responde a las exigencias de la continuidad argumental y de la unidad dramática está tremendamente restringida, sobre todo si se tiene el propósito de mantener una línea de extremada fidelidad a la documentación histórica.
[there is no doubt that the possibilities for recreating the trajectory of the legendary northern hero within a structure that responds to the demands of the continuity of the plot and dramatic unity are highly restricted, above all if the goal is to maintain a line of extreme fidelity to the historic documentation]
(‘Evocación,’ 1970, non. pag.)
Despite the reviewer’s apprehensions, the film compresses much of his historical information about his supporters, antagonists, and other social actors—at times, perhaps, at the expense of clarity.
Here we should pause briefly to consider the assessment of historical films. The issue of fidelity to the past en vogue in previous decades has been displaced by consideration of the mechanism at play in historical reconstruction. Pierre Sorlin asserts that as recreations of the past, ‘historical films are all fictional’ (2001, 38). That is to say, even when filmmakers strive for a truthful depiction of the past based on historical documents, what is represented in their films is not the actual past, but a version of it as conceived by the team involved in the film’s production. In addition, one of the subtypes of the historical film that informs Güemes is the biopic, which, according to Bingham, ‘finds itself in a liminal space between fiction and actuality’ (2010, 7). Thus, the delineation of a real life is not only compacted (p.161) in biopics but also, and more importantly, rendered cinematic by the imprint of those involved in the making of the film.
Like El santo, the shooting of Güemes demanded a huge production and hundreds of non-professional actors along with local stars.6 Preparations for the film began in September 1970 (‘Martín Güemes,’ 1970, 81). Because of the number of extras, horses, and uniforms needed, the film cost much more than Martín Fierro (Martín, 1995, 209).7 The costumes alone had a price tag of 10 million pesos, which amounted to 8% of the total budget (‘La ropa,’ 1970, non. pag.). Torre Nilsson acknowledged that Güemes was made possible by reinvesting earnings from El santo and that therefore ‘se ha solicitado muy poca ayuda oficial’ [we applied for less support funds] (‘Güemes: reencuentro,’ 1971, non. pag.). The film was shot on location in Salta, with some scenes in the picturesque, yet not easily accessible, Quebrada de Humahuaca, demanding extra logistical arrangements. Like El santo, the film’s shoot was accompanied by a promotional campaign in the main dailies. In January 1971, Clarín reported on ‘el fervor con que se está encarando y desarrollando el trabajo’ [the passion with which the work is being handled and developed] (‘Güemes: reencuentro,’ 1971, non. pag.). Gente also accompanied its preproduction with several articles and pictures.
In the cast of Güemes, Torre Nilsson gathered seasoned performers. He selected Alfredo Alcón for the male lead role. Having incarnated both Martín Fierro and San Martín, Alcón blended elements of these previous characters to compose Güemes and admitted that ‘Este caudillo es un personaje tan rico, tan vivo, tan caliente, que no cuesta mucho querer ser Güemes’ [This strongman was such a rich character, so alive, so engaged that it does not take much to want to be Güemes] (Martín, 1993, 211). For La nación, Alcón was able to infuse his character with force and passion, achieving ‘una digna caracterización física’ [a dignified physical characterization] (‘Evocación,’ 1971, non. pag.). Alcón’s Güemes is a tall and well-built man, with abundant dark hair and a thick mustache and beard, both features of potency and virility. Güemes’s facial hair is unusual for army generals who usually keep their faces clean shaven, a difference that I will address later when I discuss the general’s physical description. In addition to playing the northern leader, in few scenes Alcón appears as San Martín. The female lead roles are played by Norma Aleandro (1936–) as Macacha Güemes, the general’s courageous sister, and Gabriela Gili (1945–1991) as Carmen Puch, Güemes’s beloved wife.8 This was Aleandro’s fourth cinematic role.9 For her part, Gilli had played the leading female role in a very popular soap opera, Yo compro esta mujer [I Buy this Woman] (1968).
Güemes enjoyed a strong reception. It was released on April 7, 1971, in the Atlas cinema and 45 other movie theatres in different neighborhoods in Buenos Aires and the provinces. Its premiere was a veritable spectacle in which ox-carts circulated along Lavalle Street in downtown Buenos Aires and numerous local celebrities were present. This cultural event was also attended by the Panamanian and Indian ambassadors. The film was nominated for (p.162) the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. Though Crónica reported that there was less applause than for Torre Nilsson’s previous two films, the review in La razón praised the director, the main actor, the dynamic script, and the remarkable scenes of war (‘Lúcida,’ 1971, non. pag.). For Radiolandia, Güemes was ‘una producción que necesariamente debe incluirse entre lo mejor del cine argentino de los últimos tiempos’ [a production that should necessarily be included among the best of recent Argentine cinema] (‘Admirable,’ 1971, non. pag.). The film had some rough transitions between scenes—the result of being edited in only a few weeks—and a certain repetitiveness in the several battle sections. For Erausquin, the film’s didactic goals conspire against its quality (2008, 167). The review published in La nación also praised the director, the cinematography, and the musical score, but pointed out the lack of a unifying theme: ‘Güemes pasa por el film como un ser misterioso, enigmático, que el propio film no se atreve a esclarecer’ [Güemes appears in the film as a mysterious and enigmatic being that the film itself dares not clarify] (‘Evocación de,’ 1971, non. pag.). My close analysis of this remarkable film includes its biopic features and a discussion of two axes that run through it: the role of women in the fight for independence and the general’s status as a martyr.10 This latter allows an exploration of Güemes as a blend of the epic and war films. These axes constitute strategies to address the audience’s unfamiliarity with this founding father and to present a coherent depiction of a nineteenth-century general.
Güemes, the Biopic
Güemes encompasses the early life of the founding father, but mainly focuses on his adult years. Multiple opening shots of gauchos riding at full speed and holding long lances during the day give way through a dissolve to the montoneras, army-like formations of nineteenth-century riders. Thus, the past seems to collapse with the present and vice versa. The next scene is set on the evening of June 7, 1821, when Güemes (Alfredo Alcón) is unexpectedly surrounded by Spanish soldiers, whom he courageously faces even though they outnumber his detail. He is wounded in the skirmish, but manages to escape in the hope of reaching ‘his people.’ A cut takes viewers to a scene in which the infant Güemes cries loudly, a trait that earns him the nickname ‘Tiger.’ The two scenes are connected by his ferocity. The film jumps in time, first to his childhood, where he is seen learning oral traditions and the taming of horses from his father’s manager, and later to his adolescent years, showing him and his friends as they throw rocks at Spanish soldiers overseeing a group of prisoners. These short scenes, which end in minute six of the film, present the founding father as deeply engaged with the customs of his native land and rejecting the yoke of colonial oppression. The next part is explained by his voice-over, narrating both his early training in the army at the age of 14 and his adolescent experience in Buenos Aires, which transitions smoothly to his adulthood, also in Buenos Aires.11 Creole lawyer (p.163)
Feliciano Chiclana (1761–1826) (Armando Etolaway) asks him about the position of the northern provinces regarding a possible rebellion against the Spanish Crown. The young and ardent Güemes replies that, based on his knowledge of the locals, the area appears ready for the fight for freedom.
From the beginning, the film exhibits the paradoxical status of Güemes and his sister Macacha (Norma Aleandro) as educated creoles who love their native land. Their father’s métier as a treasurer of the Spanish Crown gave him a comfortable lifestyle and allowed him to provide his nine children with access to a good education.12 The Güemes children explored the rugged northern terrain and developed strong links with it and its people. This commitment to both the land and its humble inhabitants is seen when the two Güemes siblings ride horses, a skill that will not only prove useful to both of them in their adult life, but also keeps them attuned to the local customs. Güemes and Macacha take part in the simple celebrations of the less affluent, wearing ponchos and bowler hats and are equally comfortable in this environment and the elegant ballroom. Their open-mindedness to both worlds—the educated and the poor—continues throughout the film as conversations in cabildos [town halls] and grand houses are interspersed with location shots of the siblings enjoying the outdoors and mingling with the locals. Their bi-cultural belonging constitutes a strategy that allows viewers in the 1970s—mostly urban—to identify with them: they are not so exotic and barbaric if, in addition to enjoying the vernacular forms, they are also at home among the sophisticated elites. I will expand on this when I deal with (p.164) Macacha’s character, but what is worth highlighting here is that in Güemes’s case, his ties with common folks allow him to relate to them and recruit them for the liberation cause. Moreover, his access to a broader perspective helps establish his role as a leader who knows that the aspirations for freedom must be carefully channeled in order to avoid anarchy. Güemes’s similarities with and differences from the gauchos are stressed when one of them says, ‘nosotros no tenemos la culpa de que usted hable tan lindo, capitán’ [we are responsible for the fact that you speak so well, captain]. His educated background justifies his leadership and earns him respect.
The film demonstrates that Güemes’s command is not necessarily accepted without challenge and mistrust. For instance, when he lists the financial and social consequences of colonial oppression at a meeting of notables, his views are seen by his older interlocutors as an expression of his youth. When he follows orders not to fight against the Spanish royalists, his gauchos perceive the down time as an imposition of the Buenos Aires authorities. These contrasting portrayals of the general help to depict him as a ‘moderate’ rebel, willing to listen to others and be part of a larger collective effort. Despite these qualities, in November 1810, he and his gauchos’s heroic participation in the battle of Suipacha—the first victory of the patriotic liberation forces—is ignored in the report of the clash drawn up by the official envoy of the Buenos Aires revolutionaries. Shortly after, a scene depicts Macacha informing her brother, who is stationed in Tucumán, about unfavorable rumors that are circulating in Salta concerning his character and actions courting a young married woman. In the next scene, summoned by his superiors, possibly as a result of the rumors, Güemes leaves for Buenos Aires dressed in civilian clothes. Although he has been slighted and is clearly reluctant to interrupt his military actions against the Spanish troops, he is a disciplined soldier and follows orders to travel south.
The Buenos Aires interlude gives Güemes the opportunity to establish his hard-earned rank and to make a crucial new acquaintance.13 In one scene, he meets General San Martín (also played by Alcón). In shot reverse shots, San Martín confides in the northern leader his plans for the liberation of Perú and asks for his help, which Güemes enthusiastically agrees to provide, showing, as historian Lucía Gálvez asserts that, ‘El futuro libertador se apoyaba en el joven salteño’ [The future liberator relied on the young man from Salta] (2007, 82). Vindicated, his rank recognized, and in possession of fresh orders, Güemes returns to the north and meets General Belgrano (Alfredo Iglesias), who had censured his licentious behavior.14 The film shows Belgrano’s contrition and his willingness to work alongside Güemes, who graciously accepts his apologies and prioritizes Argentina’s liberation.
Once back in his native land, Güemes quickly reasserts his authority and rank. He first meets with Macacha, who celebrates his homecoming and expresses her belief that the armies will be ready to follow him. Next, a cut exposes the mood of the Spanish side: upon hearing a report about Güemes’s troops, the Spanish general Pezuela (José Labernie) asks, ‘Teniente Coronel? (p.165) ¿De qué toldería me habla? Esos son indios.’ [Lieutenant Colonel? Which tribe are you talking about? These are Indians]. Despite this arrogance, the film makes a point of showing that Güemes’s army is composed of enlisted men wearing uniforms and holding military ranks in addition to the gauchos.15 The battle of Tuscal de Velarde exposes the difference between the armies. The Spanish troops fight following traditional formation and with modern weapons—cannons and rifles—while the army led by Güemes charges the enemy full-speed on their horses at the shout of ‘¡Adelante, mis gauchos!’ [Forward, my gauchos!]. What Güemes’s army lacks in materiel is compensated for by the sheer courage and determination of its members. Once the chaos of the battle is over, a slow pan captures the casualties and the gauchos’ hurried collection of the enemy’s arms abandoned on the battleground. Contrasting with this silent scene, the next focuses on Güemes’s victorious army as extradiegetic music by folk singer Mercedes Sosa (1935–2009) celebrates their success, highlighting that ‘toda la tierra está en armas para correr al invasor’ [all the land is up in arms to fight the invader].16
Güemes emphasizes that the battle for independence left no one untouched and that the general’s armies were supported by an impressive collective effort. In a conversation between two Spanish generals, the participation of creole women in espionage is mentioned as well as the punishment that two female ‘spies’ will face for aiding the creoles’ side. Indian servants are also seen as active participants in the independence effort as they pass information about military actions to other humble informants. To highlight the relevance of this cooperative work, there is an extremely long shot of a man against the background of uneven terrain relaying information that will allow Güemes to be prepared for the enemy’s next move. Every contribution to the war is put in perspective: no matter how small, it is seen as valuable and important for the larger cause. The reliable network of spies working for the cause is matched by Güemes’s unconventional tactics of attacking the enemy at full speed and in unexpected ambushes that surprise and disconcert them. These assaults eventually push the Spanish troops to retreat from Jujuy and Salta, giving a new victory to Güemes who cements his leadership and authority in the region when members of the town hall offer him the position of governor.
In Torre Nilsson’s film, Güemes’s new title comes with additional responsibilities. The most immediate is that he must demand the people of Salta to make further sacrifice and contribute so that the war against the Spanish Crown can proceed. Assuming the leadership of the area also implies abiding by more traditional urbane customs than those which the caudillo has used in the countryside. For instance, at the inaugural ball to celebrate his governorship, the attendees wait for the governor to start dancing. Unaware of this social convention, a richly dressed Güemes is informed by Macacha that he should invite a lady to dance. The general stands out not only because of his attire but also his impressive height, connoting his special status as a military and civilian leader. His social interactions are interrupted by two (p.166) men who previously had a property dispute to inform him that they have amicably solved their differences. This episode reveals that the governor must oversee a broad range of issues, not just the direction of the war. His duties are multiplied. He must be ready for war, but also lay the foundations for new legislation, paying attention to the area’s resources and subsistence. On one occasion, when he surveys the material destruction brought by war, he renews his pledge to fight off the Spanish forces in order to restore the region’s economy.
In Güemes, the main character’s time as governor serves to show his personal life. He finally has the opportunity to meet his Spanish brother-in-law Román (José Vides Bautista). He also encounters Carmen Puch (Gabriella Gili), a blond-haired, blue-eyed young woman with whom he quickly falls in love. Güemes’s proposal to Carmen is similar in tone to his acceptance of the governorship: he lists the privations and sacrifices that are part and parcel of the life of a warrior of independence. Despite their bleak future, a besotted Carmen asks him for a patria, a sign of her trust in his ability and also of her commitment to his mission. Several scenes later, a montage of a close-up of a baby, a shot of a pair of military boots leaving a room, and a close-up of a pensive Carmen conveys the idea that the governor has seen his baby son, but has to leave him to take command of his troops. His departure saddens his young wife, shown crying silently while she rocks their son’s crib. The general’s role as a father is further stressed in a subsequent scene in which he finds two orphaned boys amid the devastation caused by a Spanish raid and quickly takes them in as his soldiers. Güemes is shown as both a private and public father who looks after his people. The ‘adopted sons’ will reappear later, conveying valuable information to Güemes about the size of the Spanish army that has invaded Salta. The boys have been trained as spies to serve the liberation side.
Güemes’s paternalism and wisdom are displayed when a new Spanish army again invades northern Argentina. The film dramatizes the events that took place in 1818 when General Pezuela is replaced by General de la Serna (José Slavin) who, recently arrived from Europe and full of bravado, announces his wish to reach Buenos Aires and thus put an end to the independence movement. Given this threat, Güemes’s allies consistently harass and attack the advancing Spanish forces that, nonetheless, manage to arrive in Salta where, in a surprising turn of events, they are welcomed by the civic authorities. For Güemes, this amounts not only to a personal betrayal, but also treason against the cause of independence. In response, he orders that the population move south in an exodus and destroy the crops and all property that they cannot take with them. The film conveys that the exodus is equally painful to those who leave behind their property and their dead and to Güemes himself, who witnesses the human cost of the war. Nevertheless, his decision to displace so many proves wise when, despite the size and equipment of the Spanish troops, the invaders find themselves besieged inside Salta without provisions. Unable to survive, they (p.167) must retreat to the north without having fought a single battle, an indisputable psychological triumph for Güemes.
The creoles’ achievement is short-lived, however. Once the Spanish leave Salta, Güemes returns as governor with the intention of creating an army—independent from the national authorities—that would eliminate once and for all any risk of future Spanish invasion. To this end, he instructs all ablebodied men to enlist, a decision that is met with some resistance as the local population is impoverished after years of ferocious hostilities that have caused great loss of human life and greatly damaged the local economy. The pockets of opposition finally close in on the general: one night, while he visits his sister, he is surrounded by Spanish forces. In a repetition of the opening scene, Güemes realizes that he has been betrayed when a small detachment of the Spanish army ambushes him. Wounded, he manages to ride away from the disloyal city. His commitment to the cause of independence is shown when, despite his agony, he rejects an offer to switch sides in exchange for medical attention, in effect signing his death certificate and making himself a sacrificial victim. As Gálvez explains, ‘fue el único general que se sacrificó y murió peleando por la libertad de su tierra’ [he was the only general who sacrificed himself and died fighting for the freedom of his land] (2007, 14). This chronological analysis of the film will now be complemented by an examination of two aforementioned axes which show the creative liberties taken by the scriptwriters and the film director.
The Role of Women in the Fight for Independence
One of the innovations of Güemes is its staging of the independence process in northern Argentina as a comprehensive endeavor supported by the brave work of several prominent criollas. Reviews of El santo had criticized Torre Nilsson for the characterization of San Martín’s wife as submissive and traditional. The director and his writing team seem to have taken this critique to heart and radically changed their approach to the representation of women in Güemes, in which women of all classes are seen to participate in all aspects of the fight for independence. Some gather information about Spanish troops to pass along to Güemes and his allies, while others cook. The film shows that collaborating with the war effort made them vulnerable. Two captured ‘spies’ receive the harsh punishment of 200 lashes. While this chastisement is not shown, in another scene, a woman tied to posts dies of injuries sustained at the hands of the Spanish, who suspected her of collaborating with the independence movement. Other women help the cause by following Güemes’s orders to migrate, even though in doing so, they must uproot their lives and face poverty. Thus, women are seen as agents who take part in the revolutionary movement as well as victims of the war.
Of the women presented in Güemes, two deserve particular attention: Juana Azurduy (1780–1862) and Macacha Güemes.17 Juana was married to the guerrilla Manuel Ascensio Padilla (1774–1816). Both were educated (p.168) creoles—Juana was a former nun and Manuel was a landowner—living in what is now Bolivia and who joined the independence process in 1809. From 1811, they had been part of the Auxiliary Army of the North and received orders from General Belgrano. According to Mónica Martín, Azurduy’s casting was decided unexpectedly. Torre Nilsson had hired singer Mercedes Sosa to perform two of the film’s songs, but ‘su rostro indígena le despertó tantas resonancias que sobre el pucho ordenó A Mercedes además la quiero de actriz. Tiene que ser Juana Azurduy’ [her indigenous face awoke in him so many resonances that he decided on the spot that ‘I want Mercedes as an actress, too. She has to be Juana Azurduy’] (1993, 210). While one can detect a certain historical guilt in the filmmaker’s decision to present an ethnic Azurduy, Sosa was, in the early 1970s, the face of the nueva canción latinoamericana [new Latin American song], a popular trend of performers including Jorge Cafrune (1937–1978) and Violeta Parra (1917–1967).18 A very popular singer since her discovery in 1965, Sosa was a representative of ‘deep Argentina,’ that is to say, the marginalized north. Consequently, her inclusion may have also been a way to attract a wider public as folk music was popular (Feijoó and Nari, 1996, 11).
Although Azurduy only appears in a few short scenes, her role is significant, demonstrating leadership and courage. In the first scene, she proposes to attack a Spanish battalion at nightfall, but her husband Manuel (Armando Yapura) disagrees, saying that the men will do a better job if they sleep longer. The small army of gauchos led by Azurduy and her husband are betrayed and attacked, proving Azurduy’s gut feeling to have been correct. She is seen valiantly fighting with a sword, but Manuel is killed and his head mounted on a pike. Juana then commands the gauchos to rescue it. In the film, she lovingly kisses it and supervises Manuel’s burial. In her final scene, Juana is dressed in military uniform and is decorated by General Güemes. Illa Carrillo Rodríguez rightly notes that
In this sequence, Azurduy appears as a resilient woman whose entry into the political brotherhood of the embryonic Patria entails donning the sartorial symbols of quintessential (military) masculinity and sublimating ‘feminine,’ private emotions—the pain for her husbands and children’s deaths—into a masculinist, patriotic ethos of courage
Slightly canted and reverse shots of the military leaders are used in the scene in which Güemes addresses Azurduy as Lieutenant Colonel, officially recognizing her merits and presenting her as a crucial part of the independence army.
Another strong female character is Macacha Güemes. Early in the film, she is seen riding with her brother and, later the same day, leaving an upper-class ball given for another party in which the popular classes celebrate. These signs of transgression prefigure others: even though she is a staunch supporter of independence, she marries a Spaniard. Marriage and motherhood, however, do not stop her wandering across enemy lines and involving herself in revolutionary activities. First, she visits her brother, unchaperoned, (p.169)
in Tucumán to report the disparaging rumors about him that are circulating in Salta.19 Later, she crosses enemy lines to pass him information about the Spanish army. In a third scene, she rides at night to report to Güemes about the retreat of de la Cerna’s troops even though she is pregnant and not feeling well. Macacha acts as her brother’s eyes and ears when he is not present and complements his work. Like her brother, she relates to the locals, helps the poor, and cheers up and encourages wounded soldiers. Her diverse roles speak to adaptability and service on the home front. Her riding alone and crossing enemy lines, her initiative to gather and relay information, and her words in favor of the liberation all contribute to characterizing her as being as firmly committed to the independence cause as her brother. However, in one scene, when she displays too much resourcefulness, her brother reminds her of the need to obey his orders and continue with her not-very-glamorous-yet-essential tasks of taking care of the injured, feeding the children (future soldiers and/or citizens), and mending the gauchos’ ponchos. These traditional female chores are considered by Güemes to be essential to the war effort and remind viewers that the fighting affects everyone: not only the soldiers who participate in the battles, but also the wider community, those who nurse the wounded, bury the dead, and help reprovision the troops.
Macacha is also located at the intersection of several privileged groups. Her upper-class education in Salta and her marriage to a Spaniard provide her with access to both the authorities who favor independence and the royalists. In one scene, she is introduced to the Spanish general de la Cerna, who notices (p.170) her discomfort when she hears him disparage the creole revolutionaries. Nonetheless, he is eager to make her acquaintance and even attempts to flirt with her before rebuking her for being the sister of a traitor. Macacha holds her ground and reminds him that she is the wife of a Spanish citizen. This scene is significant for two reasons. First, it exposes some of the prejudices that the real Macacha must have endured in her ‘privileged’ life while also living for years under the domination of Spanish troops during the successive invasions that Salta underwent. Second, it establishes her privileged position as a conduit for communication between both sides. When General de la Cerna later realizes that in anticipation of his and his army’s arrival, the locals have destroyed crops and water supplies and killed their cattle, he remembers Macacha’s husband and calls him to take a letter to Güemes. Consequently, Macacha serves as a much-needed liaison between adversaries.
Macacha’s main contribution, then, is her ability to cross borders, which gives her an unusually broad perspective. As discussed above, she is seen participating in the social life of both the upper and lower classes, and preferring the latter. Later, she appears in the countryside among poor children, and also next to her brother at the inaugural gala. When he inquires why the ball has not begun, she is the one who answers him. All of these scenes demonstrate that she is at ease in many different milieus. Her freedom to mingle enriches this character, who is portrayed not only as fully informed about all aspects of the process of independence, but also as an autonomous female. Twice in the film, she acknowledges her husband’s consent and support, which provides her with an uncommon degree of autonomy, and places her always in physical and mental proximity to her brother. I will return shortly to Macacha and Güemes’s close relationship, but now I proceed with the examination of another important role played by Macacha.
In Güemes, Macacha is also intercessor between the caudillo and Carmen Puch (Gabriela Gili). One day, while riding with her brother, Macacha follows his gaze as he briefly sees a young lady dressed all in white. She is aware of his interest and tells him that Carmen admires him. The subsequent scene shows the two women walking by a riverside being surprised by Güemes’s arrival. A point of view shot closes in on Carmen’s adorable face: with blue eyes and blond hair, she looks angelic. The next scene shows Güemes and Carmen enjoying a picnic during which he proposes, mentioning the tumultuous times in which they are living. They are later seen dancing as if to indicate that they have married. The brevity of these scenes (they last less than two minutes) suggests that the fight for self-determination overshadowed the founding father’s personal life. When Carmen next reappears, she is shown for mere seconds with their first-born son. She will again be seen fleetingly when, years later, Güemes plays with his two sons, closing the depiction of his family life in the film. Her short screen time responds to the conventions of the war film noted by John Belton: ‘Women pose a variety of threats to men in war films. The mere appearance of a wife onscreen introduces an emotional element that is often realized in terms of the man’s vulnerability’ (p.171) (2012, 200). Carmen’s presence is kept to a minimum to avoid affecting the founding father’s dedication to his fight for freedom. Carmen’s domesticity offers a stark contrast with Juana Azurduy. Curiously, the scenes of Juana’s decoration and Carmen rocking the crib are juxtaposed as if to emphasize the multiple roles of women during the wars of independence. They are both also represented as ethnically different: Carmen is a white, upper-class creole while Juana is a dark-skinned warrior, conveying differences in strength and socially imposed roles.
A Martyred Hero
The second axis that informs Güemes is the main character’s agony. Güemes’s injury frames the depiction of his life, from the first scene and featuring in one of the concluding ones. Güemes’s enemies wound him, debunking his reputation as an invincible warrior. Nevertheless, in his final days, he shows his undiminished mental strength and commitment to the cause of liberation. He orders that he be moved by his faithful men to a safer location. Even in unbearable pain, he is aware of his surroundings and those who are by his side until his final minutes. For instance, when he realizes that Dr. Castellanos (Rodolfo Brindisi) is attending him, he remembers that the doctor is to be married that day. He then asks why his usual doctor—Redhead—has not been called and his men hesitate to admit that he was unreachable given that the royalists have taken control of the area.20 This news disappoints Güemes, who declares that this is the eighth invasion suffered by Salta.
In Güemes, the caudillo’s pain parallels the continued incursions endured by his province. Earlier, I mentioned that a facet of the leader’s identity is his love for his native land, a topic on which I shall elaborate further here. His affection for the land extends not only to the rough landscape, but also its fauna—especially the horses—and inhabitants, both his upper-class peers and his humbler neighbors. This connection is found in the cult of the Pachamama practiced in Salta as well as in other Andean areas, which stresses that ‘all human beings are connected to the soil’ (Matthews-Salazar, 2006, 71). The Güemes-land symbiosis is also exemplified when the leader decries the economic consequences that years of war have had on his region. The film’s circularity stresses the never-ending Spanish raids. Therefore, because of Güemes’s strong rapport with the land, the bullet that penetrates his body could be construed as an allegory of the Spanish infiltration of northern Argentina. If the founding father is weakened by an injury, so too are Salta and its population every time they face a new Spanish invasion. Yet the land is also personified in the spirit of the gauchos, who descend from the same mother earth as Güemes. These brothers share the same determination to keep on fighting the Spanish enemy.
Inextricably linked to fighting until the end, another of Güemes’s identity traits highlighted in the film is his willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause of liberation. Scholar Cornell West defines identity in relation to death (p.172)
and explains that ‘it is because we have, given our inevitable extinction, to come up with a way of endowing ourselves with significance’ (1992, 2). As Güemes shows, it is the goal of liberating the patria that gives direction to the general’s life and it is this goal that is postponed when a critically injured Güemes learns that the Spanish have again occupied the city of Salta. He laments, ‘Otra invasión … ¿no se cansarán nunca los desgraciados? Llevan roída esta provincia hasta el esqueleto’ [Another invasion … Will these wretches never get tired? They have gnawed this province to the bone]. In these lines, the province of Salta appears personified and degraded by Spanish exploitation, a matter that concerns the general even on his deathbed. In a key scene, he asks Macacha to deliver news of San Martín’s advances. His sister replies, ‘si son buenas’ [if they are good], to which a hopeful Güemes replies, ‘tienen que serlo’ [they have to be]. He also spurs his sister not to give up, a command that he also delivers to his men. As the general gradually loses consciousness, a potent voice-over speaks of ‘toda la tierra en armas’ [the whole land up in arms] in which men and women are united to expel the invaders who oppress them and their land. Güemes’s demise injects the film and his deeds with a sense of direction. Mónica Silveira Cyrino holds that ‘In the modern epic film, the hero must be sacrificed not just to protect his family and friends but also to liberate his entire society and to restore his people’s endangered freedom’ (2011, 32). In Güemes the death of the hero stands as a powerful challenge to his society and his people to continue his fight and free themselves from the Spanish armies.
(p.173) The film’s ending also affects the characterization of this biopic about a martyred hero. Bingham holds that ‘biopic’s audiences expect results—artwork painted, songs written, battles won, scientific breakthrough made—in short, accomplishments that justify the film’s production’ (2010a, 46). But in Güemes, the dying general admits, ‘No puedo descansar. No he hecho nada todavía. No estuve con Belgrano ni en Tucumán ni en Salta. No estuve ni el Vilcapugio ni en Ayohuma’ [I cannot rest. I have not done anything yet. I was not with Belgrano either in Tucumán or in Salta. I was not in Vilcapugio or Ayohuma]. These words, however, leave out his numerous accomplishments of arming and successfully leading his gaucho militias for years. In addition, his patriotic virtue revolves around his contribution to a pre-national cause, that is to say, supporting the organization of the former Viceroyalty of the River Plate into a political unit with a constitution. Therefore, if as Bingham holds, ‘the classical biopic is about values and endorsement—a free pass to the cultural pantheon’ (2010a, 53), Güemes exposes the admirable deeds that make the salteño general a true founding father. Erausquin believes that his portrayal in the film is unconvincing, although she does note the character’s qualities of integrity, courage, honesty, leadership, and charisma (2008, 168). Most of these qualities are evident in the leader’s final hours when he rejects two offers of medical attention and endures a painful death.
While the film highlights the general’s self-effacement, it also shows his transcendence. In his final moments, Torre Nilsson’s Güemes asks that his death not be announced. These words suggest a humility that has surpassed the general’s life and shaped the historical memory about his role in the formation of Argentina. Contemporary historians such as Colmenares and Gálvez concur that Güemes’s actions were first acknowledged by Bartolomé Mitre (1821–1906), a liberal statesman, who wrote the initial histories about the Argentine founding fathers. Yet in the late twentieth century and early decades of the twenty-first, Güemes’s importance remains unfamiliar to most Argentines (Colmenares, 1998, 326; Gálvez, 2007, 15). I have found no documentation suggesting that Torre Nilsson chose Güemes as his subject because 1971 was the sesquicentennial of his death. However, several publications about the salteño general coincided with the film’s release, such as Historia de Güemes by Atilio Cornejo, which first appeared in 1946 and was reprinted in 1971, as was La gloria de Güemes by Martín Figueroa Güemes, first published in 1955. In addition, Jacinto Yaben’s Los capitanes de Güemes was published in 1971, and between 1971 and 1972, the last three volumes of Güemes’s life written by Bernardo Frías were finally published—the first three tomes having appeared in 1902, 1907, and 1911 respectively (Colemares, 1998, 8–9). Thus, Torre Nilsson’s film could be seen as part of a broader campaign of dissemination of the salteño leader’s achievements.
Besides portraying and celebrating the general’s courageous deeds, Güemes also projects the founding father’s mission as one that has lived on after his death. The film’s voice-over foretells a whole land up in arms that will rise to fight against oppression. By casting respected actor Alfredo Alcón, who had (p.174) played San Martín, and by framing the general’s death as that of a martyred hero, Torre Nilsson elevated Güemes to his rightful place in the pantheon of Argentine founding fathers. The final voice-over appeals to the community, to the anonymous and suffering faces of men, women, and children, boosting their morale to fight against present and future oppressors. So far I have addressed Güemes’s two organizational axes: the role of women in the struggle for independence and Güemes’s martyred status, but what remains to be seen is the way in which these axes sought to make connection with Argentine audiences of the 1970s.
Güemes attests to an epochal trend that highlighted Argentine women’s contributions to the nation-building process and to national culture. Sociologists Feijoó and Nari explain that during the 1960s, middle-class women succeeded in attaining freedoms that were not available to previous generations of Argentine women (1996, 8). If Argentine women were more visible in both previously male-dominated professions and more traditional ones, their public roles were part of wider societal changes. Feijoó and Nari also state that ‘the expansion of public opportunities for women in politics, education, and work can be understood in the context of the mobilization and radicalization of Argentine society as a whole’ (1996, 12). These changes were accompanied by women’s participation in cultural production. In 1969, historian Félix Luna (1925–2009) teamed up with composer Ariel Ramírez (1921–2010) to produce a cantata entitled ‘Mujeres argentinas’ (Feijoó and Nari, 1996, 11). Sung by Mercedes Sosa, the cantata is a set of eight pieces that honor and celebrate eight prominent Argentine women, from nineteenth-century militia leader Juana Azurduy to twentieth-century poetess and educator Alfonsina Storni. Two years later, in Güemes, women are portrayed from home-bound Carmen Puch to openly militant Juana Azurduy, with a mid-point represented by Macacha. By featuring and commemorating women who took part in the independence movement, Güemes presents an inclusive view of the nation-building process. Macacha’s roles in the private and public sphere are stressed throughout the film.21 Norma Aleandro’s performance imbues this character with both strength and sensibility.22 As I have argued before, Macacha’s courageous participation in the independence movement put her on equal footing with her brother, as recognized in her nicknames ‘madrecita de los pobres’ [mother of the poor] and ‘ministra sin cartera’ [minister without a position]. Thus, as a maternal and public figure, Macacha embodied a positive role model for Argentine women in the early 1970s. Moreover, Güemes also depicts those unnamed women who took part in the independence process. From the humble Indian house servant to the upper-class criolla, the film captures multi-class female involvement in the fight for independence. While most women did not participate in battles, they were involved in the gathering of intelligence and the provisioning of troops. As the film also shows, siding with the independence forces could earn them harsh punishment, albeit less severe than that imposed on men (the firing squad). The presentation of women as active participants in the (p.175) process of liberation also frames that conflict as one of basic rights: men and women fought together to reclaim their freedom from the shackles of Spanish colonialism. In this regard, the nineteenth-century women depicted in the film could be considered pioneers for the female political militants of the late 1960s/early 1970s, who faced the relegation of topics related to gender equality in the prioritization of national liberation.23
Closely related to women’s participation, another axis (Güemes’s brotherhood with the gauchos), which I develop elsewhere, proves a fruitful avenue for the exploration of the sociopolitical issues of Argentine society in the early 1970s.24 On the one hand, the idea of brotherhood could have been deployed to strengthen the military establishment and Onganía’s relationship with his brother in arms, other generals. Here it is important to consider Tzvi Tal’s opinion of Güemes: ‘La versión de Torre Nilsson expresaba las preferencias de los generales, que se proponían permanecer en el sillón presidencial por un tiempo indefinido’ [Torre Nilsson’s version conveys the preferences of the generals who put themselves forward to sit in the presidential chair for an indefinite period of time] (2005, 175). This statement, however, does not take into account the fact that the Argentine army was divided into Reds and Blues from the late 1950s. Moreover, between the end of 1970 and January 1971—when the film was written and produced—Onganía’s political control had come to an end. A downturn in the economy and heightened armed violence at the hands of the guerrillas led to his being replaced by General Marcelo Levingston.25 On the other hand, the idea of brotherhood could have appealed to the leftist guerrilla militants. According to historian David Rock, ‘The Montoneros sought to exploit history for political purposes. Their own crude versions of historical revisionism contained a much stronger emphasis on the role of the ‘masses”’ (1987, 218). Thus, the idea of brotherhood could also have been deployed to attract leftist militants, notably the Montoneros, whose name was taken from the nineteenth-century federalist cavalry militia, the montoneras.26 Whereas the term montoneras does not refer only to Güemes’s armies, they certainly were a precursor of those from which the leftist militants adopted the name. In addition, Rock explains that the Montoneros valued strong leadership: ‘Among the great historical heroes of the Montoneros was José Artigas, the leader of the independent struggle in Uruguay. In [El Descamisado] Montonero publications depicted Artigas as the patriarchal landowner who was the ‘defender of the poor’ (1987, 219). Like Artigas, Güemes was also a defender of the underprivileged gauchos, a trait that may have endeared the northern general to Argentine leftist militants.
Nonetheless, the representation of a close rapport between the general and his gauchos seen in Güemes precedes the tumultuous 1970s. Here it is crucial to remember that the film is an adaptation of a play written by Juan Carlos Dávalos, which was first performed in 1926 and first published in 1935. Dávalos was not only a fellow salteño but also, and more importantly, a descendent of Güemes. As such, he sought to exalt the heroic deeds of both the most prominent salteño general and the people of Salta, an intention that (p.176) has led Marcela Sosa to assert that in the play, ‘La figura circular de los gauchos reunidos en torno a su general, en el desenlace, es un símbolo de la imagen identitaria que traza de sí la cultura salteña en la que confluyen por igual historia, tradición y poesía’ [The circular figure of the gauchos gathered around their general at the end is a symbol of the identitarian image that the salteña culture has of itself in which history, tradition, and poetry meet] (2003, non. pag.). Sosa’s remarks also pertain to the film in that close-ups on the dead general alternate with those on the gauchos in the concluding scenes of the film. Besides Dávalos’s influence on the cinematographic book, it is also relevant to highlight Ulises Petit de Murat’s role as a scriptwriter because of his previous participation in the cinematographic book of La guerra gaucha and his prominent role in the film industry as a critic. For Julia Bermúdez, Petit de Murat’s scripts ‘resaltan las gestas, epopeyas y próceres de nuestra historia, que exaltan el coraje del gaucho y honran al ser argentino’ [highlight the deeds, epics, and founding fathers of our history, which exalt the gaucho’s courage and honor the Argentine] (2012, 18). Petit de Murat thus glorified Argentine nationhood as a result of the fraternal union of leaders and the masses, all representatives of argentinidad. Brotherhood also extends to non-salteño viewers. As I argued earlier, Güemes was shown as part of the educated creole elite. As such, he was trained in and lived beyond his patria chica, an experience that must have broadened his horizons and, as illustrated in the film, allowed him to meet and socialize with fellow independence leaders, such as San Martín. As a fighter for the birth of the Argentine nation, Güemes is considered a founding father whose relevance transcends that of his area of origin and who is relevant to all Argentines.
Güemes’s fight for an independent and sovereign nation resonated deeply with the leftist Peronist youth who believed that Argentina was being torn apart by its alignment with the United States and other capitalist Western nations. In the context of national liberation, they resented neocolonialist policies, as became evident in El Cordobazo. Güemes defended the northern border from Spanish advances, a strategy that could be read in the early 1970s as protecting the Argentine nation’s integrity from Marxist infiltrations. It should be remembered that in 1967, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928–1967) was captured and assassinated in Bolivia while leading the Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia [National Liberation Army]. Regardless of whether Argentine viewers in the 1970s were concerned about neocolonialism or Marxist infiltration, the period was one of heightened anxiety about the legitimacy of Argentina as a nation, as had been the 1820s, when after ten long years of war, the idea of a ‘nation’ was still a utopia. The previous parallel between Güemes and Guevara leads to the discussion of the film’s second axis: the martyred hero.
The martyred hero is the quintessential sacrificial victim of war. In her article ‘Sovereignty, Identity, Sacrifice,’ Jean Bethke Elshtain holds that ‘the death of a warrior pro patria was interpreted as self-sacrifice for others, a (p.177) “work of caritas”’ (1991, 550). In Güemes, the general’s death is framed as his ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom (when he valiantly faces the besieging Spanish forces and is wounded in the melee) and honor (when he rejects the Spanish offer of medical treatment). The hero’s death not only respects real events but also fulfills a generic requirement. As Silveira Cyrino explains, ‘it is a common strategy of the modern epic film to use this kind of polarizing “us vs them” imagery to encourage the viewing audience to identify with the chief hero figure(s)’ (2011, 26). This ‘us vs them’ imagery is deployed to show the untold effects of Güemes’s passing, most notably the gauchos’ orphanhood. The film captures the general in a static portraiture shot that closely resembles that of the dead Che, lying on a stretcher. Both Güemes and Guevara sport dark hair and a beard, are seen lying horizontally, and are surrounded by several people, though in Che’s case those around him are his captors. Beside the physical resemblance between leaders, their martyrdom was also inspirational for the leftist guerillas. Despite their death, Güemes and Guevara represent the triumph of the will, which, in the former’s case, appears as the command that is passed to the land and its inhabitants to continue. This determination to awaken others to fight is also a topic that may have resonated with the leftist guerrillas. As Giussani explains, the Montoneros’ revolutionary narcissism was based on heroism and martyrdom (1984, 43). In spite of these potentially subversive topics, Güemes did not encounter problems with censorship. In the next two chapters, I will discuss two other historical films: Bajo el signo de la patria and Juan Manuel de Rosas, which center on the representation of another national hero, Manuel Belgrano (1770–1820), and the controversial ruler Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793–1877), respectively.
(1) Mónica Martín hints that Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s main motivation for making Güemes, la tierra en armas was the fact that he had already spent all the profits from El santo and needed another blockbuster to maintain his jet-set lifestyle (1993, 207).
(2) Güemes concludes a trilogy of films concerned with the nineteenth-century foundational Argentine past.
(4) According to Marcela Sosa, Homero Manzi and Ulises Petit de Murat planned to adapt Davalos’s La tierra en armas for the cinema in 1941, but the project fell through (2003, non. pag.).
(6) The film’s producer was Torre Nilsson’s brother-in-law, Juan Carlos Ciancaglini.
(p.178) (7) Estela Erausquin explains that the costumes worn by Norma Aleandro also demanded a great deal of attention (2008, 167).
(8) Norma Aleandro and Alfredo Alcón were a real-life couple for four years, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.
(9) She had participated the year before in Los herederos (David Stivel, 1970), which she also co-wrote. This film had a mixed reception abroad but the same cast had good ratings in the TV program Cosa juzgada (1968).
(10) I address a third axis in my article ‘La representación de un líder popular: Güemes, la tierra en armas.’
(11) Both Luis Colmenares and Lucía Gálvez describe how during the English invasions, Güemes took part in seizing an English ship, the first such seizure effected by riders (Colmenares, 1998, 20; Gálvez, 2007, 45).
(14) Gálvez claims that Güemes became sentimentally involved with Juana Inguanzo, the wife of one of the caudillo’s subordinates (2007, 73–78). In the film, this character is shown only briefly and her name is not mentioned, so few spectators would be aware of the nature or extent of Güemes’s transgression.
(15) By 1818, Güemes had an army of 6,610 men, and organized the Command in Chief, artillery, and cavalry. In addition, the army had a gun powder and bullet factory, a hospital, and a tailor’s shop (Colmenares, 1998, 99).
(16) Historian Aníbal Aguirre Saravia sees Güemes as ‘el símbolo de toda una provincia que se levanta contar el invasor español aun poniendo en peligro sus intereses económicos’ [the symbol of a whole province that rises against the Spanish invader, even jeopardizing their own economic interests] (‘Martín Güemes,’ 1970, 82).
(19) Barrancos holds that women were accompanied in public, a custom that was maintained well into the twentieth century (2007, 71).
(20) The true cause of Redhead’s unavailability was that he was traveling with Belgrano, who was sick.
(21) In 1995, one of the main streets in the bourgeois area of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires was renamed in her honor. There is also a Centro Cultural Macacha Güemes in the city of Escobar, Gran Buenos Aires. In 2011, Ana María Cabrera published a historical novel entitled Macacha Güemes.
(22) While not a star proper, her work in television, theater, and cinema—as an actress in the popular La fiaca (Fernando Ayala, 1969) and as scriptwriter for Los herederos (David Stivel, 1970)—marked her as an independent and resourceful woman, qualities that she displays in her interpretation of Macacha. Today, Norma Aleandro is considered the Great Dame of Argentine cinema. She starred in Argentina’s first Academy Award winning (p.179) film, La historia oficial [The Official Story] (Luis Puenzo, 1983) and in the Academy Award nominated El hijo de la novia [Son of the Bride] (Juan José Campanella, 2001).
(23) Feijoó and Nari state that ‘While the image of a combative, loose haired Evita Perón was being developed—eventually to evolve into the image of the Montonera Evita—with enormous success among militant women, the specific gender component of her struggle was being neutralized’ (1996, 21).
(24) See my article ‘La representación de un líder popular: Güemes, la tierra en armas.’
(25) Pablo Giusani refers to the army’s division: ‘Después del Cordobazo, sin embargo, comenzó a cobrar insistencia en el seno del ejército argentino una corriente militar liberal que, con Aramburu como figura alternativa, se fue distanciando de Onganía en busca de una apertura política’ [After El Cordobazo, however, a liberal military group began to rise within the Argentine army and, with Aramburu as an alternative, started distancing itself from Onganía in search of political change] (1984, 33).
(26) The word can refer both to montón (crowd) or montados (mounted).