In this section, I study the 1960s and 1970s cinematic adaptations of key gauchesque texts written from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1920s. The gauchesque is a literary genre concerning the gauchos, rural inhabitants of the pampas who were recruited by force to join the patriotic armies and were seen as the quintessential Argentines. For literary scholar Josefina Ludmer, this genre constitutes ‘a learned use of popular culture’ (2002, 3), for the orality of the gauchos (their colloquialisms and linguistic idiosyncrasies) is used by an educated author who seeks to include them in the modern (post-1880) Argentine state (2002, 8). I first provide a brief summary of the evolution of the literary and cinematic gauchesque to introduce the five films with gaucho characters that were shot and released in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Martín Fierro (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1968), Don Segundo Sombra (Manuel Antín, 1969), Santos Vega (Carlos Borcosque Jr., 1971), Juan Moreira (Leonardo Favio, 1973), and Los gauchos judíos (Juan José Jusid, 1975). As is advanced in the titles of the first four, these are biopictional films, a term coined by Janet Walker to refer to Westerns which focus on individual characters (2001, 14). I also do close analysis of these five films, relying on film studies theories on Westerns and concentrating on one of the main features of Argentine culture: the civilization-versus-barbarism dichotomy. Indeed, this dichotomy allows the exploration of these films and their interpretation of the nation-building process. Furthermore, following Pierre Sorlin, who suggests that ‘the success of a new film must be taken into account, although I admit the criticism is a very ambiguous one: bad films can be transformed by good publicity and vice versa, but we have no other method of assessment’ (2001, 36), I survey the critical and public reception of these films and examine the ways in which they contributed to nation building and the spread of nationalism. My analysis approaches these works as heritage films, that is, high-quality and mostly realist films that depict the cultural and literary heritage of Argentines.
While Argentine film produced after 1956 has traditionally been characterized by auteurism and modernity (Lusnich, 2007, 30), after 1968 several films depicted the national past as a way to strengthen Argentine identity. (p.74) As explained in the previous chapter, studios disappeared, leaving space to new production companies and independent producers, and allowing the emergence of fresh narrative forms. Nonetheless, because of the state’s involvement in protecting and regulating cinema, through laws that encouraged the representation of national topics, Argentine cinematic production after 1968 returned to the country’s foundational mythology. For Ana Laura Lusnich, many films presented ‘el campo y sus habitantes como reservorios de los valores tradicionales del trabajo, la virtud y la familia’ [the countryside and its inhabitants as reservoirs of the traditional values of work, virtue, and family] (2007, 33). But gauchesque films also show the disintegration of family and community as a result of the state’s arbitrary orders, that is to say, compulsory service on the frontier and corrupt authorities.
Starting in the late 1960s, Argentine directors looked back to the nineteenth century as a source of inspiration. This return to the past coincided with the Argentine Revolution’s emphasis on el ser nacional [the national being] as a defensive mechanism against foreign influences (Vázquez, 1967, 43). Reference to the behaviors and influences that shaped el ser nacional were evident in a speech by General Onganía published in La nación in July 1967:
Veneramos las tradiciones que forjaron los varones que hicieron nuestra patria, pero sabemos que la Argentina campestre, la Argentina fácil, el país de las vacas y el trigo ha quedado atrás. Constituimos hoy un país industrial, altamente diversificado y en extremo complejo que no puede continuar dando tumbos sin rumbo.
[We celebrate the traditions that were forged by the men who shaped our nation, but we know that the rural Argentina, the simple Argentine, the country of cows and wheat, has been left behind. Today we are an industrial country, highly diversified and so complex that we cannot continue wandering about aimlessly]
(Sidícaro, 1993, 333)
Onganía’s remarks conveyed the duality between what Argentina was and where it intended to go. From the late 1950s, both civil and military governments embraced developmentalism to expand the Argentine economy through industrialization and new services. Onganía’s version of argentinidad—Argentina as a Western Hemisphere, Catholic country—which adapted to the new sociopolitical challenges of the late 1960s was not shared by right-wing nationalists, who challenged his transnational connections, particularly with the United States.1 This division was further highlighted by the fact that the Argentine population was deeply separated between Peronists and his detractors, and also different types of nationalists (military, civilian, right- and left-wing), which rendered necessary a return to the national past that could help unite the Argentine population. The invocation of a glorious earlier period and the interest in argentinidad were two ways to do so. Regarding the first, in 1964 historian Tulio Halperín Donghi highlighted ‘el hecho de que la Argentina sigue eligiendo como objeto de sus ilusiones la imagen rediviva de (p.75) un pasado que juega mejor que su presente’ [the fact that Argentina continues to choose as object of its illusions the resurrected image of a past that works better than the present] (1995, 263). As a result of the official emphasis on the past and on nation building, the whole country adopted argentinidad: ‘se abrió entonces un proceso de nacionalización o de “argentinización” de vastos sectores sociales de clase media, para los cuales la realidad argentina aparecía de pronto, como recién descubierta’ [then began a process of nationalization or ‘argentinization’ of broad social sectors of the middle class for whom the Argentine reality appeared all of a sudden as if recently discovered] (Getino, 1998, 53). That process of ‘cultural discovery’ of the national past had a real impact on the Argentine cultural production.
Music and film were the two cultural fields in which argentinidad was performed for mass consumption.2 The depiction of national topics in film increased after 1968 with the passing of Law 16,995, which classified films as ‘A’ (high quality) or ‘B’ (of lesser quality) productions.3 Historians of Argentine cinema usually explain the emergence of argentinidad in films as a top-down process that was financed by the NIC and firmly controlled by the military authorities after 1966. My research findings diverge from this reading: two veteran Argentine filmmakers, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson and Manuel Antín, undertook the shooting of quality films based on literary gauchesque works, Martín Fierro (1968) and Don Segundo Sombra (1969), respectively.4 These films were made possible thanks to private investors. Though their ‘national’ topic certainly helped fast-track the approval of these productions’ scripts, their success both at the box office and among critics prompted the shooting of four other gauchesque films: Santos Vega (Carlos Borcosque Jr., 1971), Juan Moreira (Leonardo Favio, 1973), La vuelta de Martín Fierro [The Return of Martín Fierro] (Enrique Dawi), and Los gauchos judíos (Juan José Jusid, 1975). Although these films may be grouped together, they have significant differences. But what prompted this interest in the production and cinematic consumption of gauchesque films?
To understand this phenomenon, I propose to consider gauchesque films as heritage films. The term ‘heritage films’ was coined by Charles Barr in a 1986 publication to refer to high-quality British historical films of the realist mode produced during the period of the Second World War (1986, 11–12).5 Since then, the denomination ‘heritage’ has been applied to the production of other national cinemas. The gauchesque or Argentine heritage films of the late 1960s and mid-1970s are also historical/costume films. As such, they share the two features of the heritage genre identified by Andrew Higson: ‘One central representational strategy of the heritage film is the reproduction of literary texts, artefacts, and landscapes which already have a privileged status within the accepted definition of the national heritage. Another central strategy is the reconstruction of a historical moment which is assumed to be of national significance’ (1997, 27). Given Argentina’s short national history, most of the gauchesque films of the period 1968–1975 are based on literary works written between 1870 and 1910, an era which loosely coincides with (p.76) the consolidation of Argentina as a nation. An important aspect of heritage films that also pertains to the Argentine gauchesque is the relationship to the present in the invocation of the past. Belén Vidal explains that ‘the heritage film touches areas of cultural anxiety about issues of identity politics, appropriation and misrepresentation, all the more marked in film nations shaped by colonial domination and post-colonial self-determination’ (2012, 3). Argentine heritage/gauchesque films both represented the Argentine past and challenged its traditions, pointing to the omissions and victims of the nation-building process. This interest in the past thus sought to strengthen Argentine national identity, particularly as Argentina was striving to maintain its financial and cultural independence.
The tumultuous political events of Argentina in the 1960s certainly generated concern regarding the country’s identity and role among other nations, and impacted Argentine film production. On the one hand, the depiction of the gauchesque at a time when the official Argentine discourse stressed modernization might have signaled the perils of losing contact with the country’s foundational myths, most of which involved rural characters. On the other, revisiting the native past was one of the goals of the decolonization and liberation movements of the early 1960s. Frantz Fanon (1925–1962), a theorist of liberation, held that a colonized society is presented by the colonists as devoid of values (1963, 7), and that in the fight between colonists and colonized, attachment to the land provides the latter with a universal value that sustains their struggle. As a society searching for self-determination in a bipolar world—divided into capitalist West and communist East—Argentina could well relate to Fanon’s belief that the land constituted a purer reservoir of the national. This revalorization of bygone rurality implied a renewed attention to a foundational period that saw the publication of crucial literary works.
The consolidation of Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century was inextricably linked to its rural past, which was eminently portrayed in Argentine literature. After years of internal strife, the final decades of that century and the first of the twentieth were a time of unprecedented national growth based on a solid economy that relied on agricultural exports. For instance, the area for cultivation increased from 100,000 hectares to 25 million between 1862 and 1914 and Argentine export revenues increased from US$1 billion in 1886 to US$4 billion in 1895, and to US$15 billion in 1914 (De Lima-Dantas, 1985, 37). This remarkable progress was accompanied by a demand for more workers, paving the way for massive immigration wave from Europe which, in turn, fueled an amazing demographic boom over six decades: from 1.8 million in 1869 to 11 million in 1930 (De Lima-Dantas, 1985, 38). Even though there were some darker episodes during this period, such as the displacement and extermination of indigenous communities to keep up with the demand for land, compulsory military service for the rural poor, and deplorable housing for immigrants, these decades were unquestionably recognized as the Argentine Golden Age. The publication of key literary (p.77) texts—the two parts of Hernández’s epic, El gaucho Martín Fierro in 1872 and La vuelta [The Return] in 1876; Juan Moreira in 1879; Santos Vega in 1885; Los gauchos judíos in 1910; and Don Segundo Sombra in 1927—helped further consolidate Argentina as a distinct and independent nation with its own literary canon. These works provided a unifying mythology built around the ‘true Argentines,’ the gauchos, and were crucial in shaping new generations of Argentine citizens. Anthropologist Ingrid de Jong explains that the period 1870–1920 was a time in which a national past was defined, in which Hispanic and indigenous features were deployed so as to make immigrants good Argentine citizens (2005, 406). Several decades later, the Argentine heritage films of the late 1960s and early 1970s were adaptations of these literary works of the foundational period. Because the literary and filmic texts all have gauchos as central characters, it is necessary to briefly analyze their importance as well as that of the gauchesque.
The gauchos were rural inhabitants of the River Plata region. The term, which seems to be a deformation of guacho [bastard], was attributed by the puristas to vagabonds and outlaws, or by the Romantics to those who represented the true Argentina and displayed wit, generosity, and common sense (Shumway, 1993, 85–86). The debate about the gaucho continued until very recently. For instance, in 1989 historians Jorge Gelman, on one side, and Ricardo Salvatore and Jonathan Brown, on the other, debated the gaucho’s origins and role in a journal article. While the former proposed to investigate whether the gaucho was the result of the progressive expulsion of peasants from their lands and their flight from the massive conscription of soldiers before and after the May Revolution (1989, 741), the latter emphasized their natural mobility and independence (1989, 741). These differing opinions, which stem from an analysis of the same records, show that the gauchos retain the controversial status first attributed to them in colonial and post-independence times. For literary scholar Rosalba Campa, gaucho represents ‘un holgazán gozador situado al margen de la sociedad’ [a lazy enjoyer found on the margins of society] (2004, 312). Nonetheless, the gauchos acquired relevance in the successive military campaigns of the nineteenth century. They began to be commemorated as warriors in gauchesque poems and novels.
The gauchesque genre comprised literary works that centered on the gauchos. According to Nicolas Shumway, Bartolomé Hidalgo (1788–1822) was the first author who not only promoted the gaucho as a national type but also, and more importantly, imbued the word with populist tones that marked him as belonging to the rural lower class (1991, 65).6 While Shumway explains the two theories regarding the origins of the gauchesque (that it was an expression of the popular classes and a literary form produced by educated men), Josefina Ludmer stresses two key features of the genre: ‘the fiction of the written reproduction of the Other’s oral word as the Other’s word’ and ‘the construction of the oral space’ (2002, 55). For Ludmer, El gaucho Martín Fierro, published in 1872, constitutes the genre’s initial work. Persecuted by (p.78) the government because of his political sympathies, author José Hernández (1834–1886) penned a poem showing his concern for the gauchos, who were victims of every type of abuse (quoted in Shumway, 1991, 288). Seven years later, when La vuelta de Martín Fierro was published, the writer’s situation had changed and so had his view of the gaucho. No longer a victim of persecution, Hernández gave up the rebellion that runs through the first book, and in so doing, brought his gaucho into the sphere of legality (Ludmer, 2002, 43). Now considered a citizen, in La vuelta his knowledge of the countryside is seen as a valuable asset for a nation that relied heavily on agricultural exports (Shumway, 1991, 309). Nevertheless, inspired by Hernández’s violent gaucho, other writers adapted this figure for a different genre: the folletín, the serialized novel. At the end of 1879 and through January 1880, Eduardo Gutiérrez (1851–1889) published in installments Juan Moreira, a novel about a gaucho who is betrayed and resorts to violence to avenge himself. Unlike Martín Fierro, Moreira was unable to accept legality; thus Stephen Hart proposes that his textual death could be interpreted as a ‘cleansing of the body politic’ (1999, 680). Hart explains that, ‘ejected from the body politic, the gaucho functioned as a rhetorical figure in which the subaltern was given voice only to have it eventually silenced by death’ (1999, 680). Despite its dark ending, Juan Moreira enjoyed such a wide circulation among a middle-class readership that it eventually was presented on the stage by the Podesta-Scotti theatrical company (Hart, 1999, 676).7 Hernández’s character also influenced another type of gaucho, the payador [singer]. This character is the protagonist of the poem Santos Vega, which first appeared in 1885, written by Rafael Obligado (1851–1920). Obligado also presented his gaucho as a symbol of argentinidad. For Beatriz Sarlo, this poem inaugurated the topic of loss in Argentine literature, darkening the optimistic outlook for Argentina’s future (1996, 3). The gauchesque poems and novels were well-liked and consumed among the popular classes, by native Argentines and immigrants, rural and urban (De Jong, 2005, 410).
From its beginnings, the gauchesque served as a potent symbol of Argentine national identity. First, it was a co-optation of the rural poor by members of the educated elite, who saw in the gaucho the potential to represent Argentina. The authors of gauchesque shared an essentialist criollista vision of national identity, particularly after large numbers of non-Hispanophone European immigrants arrived in Argentina. Decades later, nationalist writer Leopoldo Lugones (1878–1934) also drew inspiration from the gaucho and caudillos in La guerra gaucha (1905), which centered on the figure of Martín Miguel de Güemes.8 In a later essay, El payador (1916), Lugones compares Martín Fierro to Greek mythological heroes and seals the poem’s status as a national classic (Romano, 1991, 127).9 When, in 1910, Argentina celebrated its first hundred years of independence from Spain, the first literary anthologies contributed to the canonization of some gauchesque works.10 Imbued with the festive atmosphere of the Centenary, even Russian-born Alberto Gerchunoff (1883–1950) penned a gauchesque work, Los gauchos judíos, composed of (p.79) vignettes of life among Jewish immigrants who had settled in the Argentine countryside. In the 1920s, the launch of the journal Martín Fierro further established the appropriation of the gaucho by urban writers, particularly after the publication in 1926 of Ricardo Güiraldes’s novel Don Segundo Sombra, an evocation of times gone by and of the legitimacy of the gaucho, now become a mentor. This brief overview shows that by the 1920s, the gaucho had ‘shed his heretic overtones, being transformed into an emblem of national identity that was available to everyone, disconnected from a particular political persuasion and increasingly devoid of the xenophobic resentment that had accompanied his rise as a symbol’ (Goebel, 2011, 40). It was at this juncture that the gaucho was further popularized in films.
Almost parallel to the consecration of literary gauchesque works, Argentine cinema began representing the gauchos, in both silent and sound films, in the 1920s. Argentine scholar Elina Tranchini groups many of these films under the denomination of criollismo, explaining that ‘el primer eje discursivo del criollismo fue el literario, el género chico y el zarzuelismo criollos, el circo criollo y el drama gauchesco’ [the first discursive axis of criollismo was the literary, the minor genre and the creole zarzuelismo, the creole circus and the gauchesque drama] (1999, 113). The gauchos were first shown onscreen in two silent historical films directed by Mario Gallo: Juan Moreira (1909), starring Enrique Muiño (1881–1956), and Güemes y sus gauchos [Güemes and his Gauchos] (1910), which inaugurated the folkloric drama (Lusnich, 2007, 28). Another silent film, Nobleza gaucha [Gaucho Nobility] (Humberto Cairo, Eduardo Martínez de la Pera, and Ernesto Gunche, 1915), narrates the story of a peasant named María who is kidnapped and taken to the city by a rich landowner, Don José, despite the fact that she loves the gaucho Juan. Juan follows her to the city and recues her, but Don José pursues them, later dying in an accident. A third film, Santos Vega (Carlos de Paoli, 1916), was the first cinematic adaptation of Obligado’s poem and a veritable success (Tranchini, 1999, 125).11 The Golden Age of Argentine cinema (1933–1956), which coincided with the first decades of sound cinema in the country, was when the state acknowledged the gaucho as part of the national heritage (Félix-Didier and Levinson, 2009, 57). Two versions of the gauchesque poem Juan Moreira were shot in less than 13 years: the first directed by Nelo Cosimi in 1936 and the other by Luis Moglia Barth in 1948; the latter was the weaker (Jakubowicz and Radetich, 2006, 73).12 In addition to starring in dramas, the gaucho was also a figure in lighter stories: Leopoldo Torres Ríos directed ¡Gaucho! (1942), a comedy with a plot similar to that of Nobleza gaucha. That same year, La guerra gaucha [The Gaucho War] (Lucas Demare), a faithful adaptation of Lugones’s text, was a resounding success and became a model for future first-class historical films (Félix-Didier and Levinson, 2009, 58–59).13 In 1947, Moglia Barth also directed a version of Santos Vega vuelve [Santos Vega Returns] permeated with supernatural overtones (Jakubowicz and Radetich, 2006, 73). Lusnich attributes this interest in biographical films set in the past and involving both popular heroes and historical characters (p.80) to the film policies under Perón, which discouraged films from depicting the present (2007, 32).14 The portrayal of gauchos in Argentine film stopped after the late 1940s. Only in 1961 did Rubén Cavallotti direct El romance de un gaucho [A Gaucho’s Romance], based on a story by Benito Lynch (1885–1951) published in 1930. El romance was an isolated later gauchesque film, as was the comedy Un gaucho con plata [Gaucho with Money] (Angel Acciaresi, 1970).
Corresponding to the cinematic interest in the gauchesque, around the mid-twentieth century, the literary Martín Fierro was the object of new interpretations and editions. Ben Bollig judiciously notes that essayist Ezequiel Martínez Estrada (1895–1964) proposed that Hernández’s protagonist was a representative of the ‘intrahistoria’ [interhistory], the inner history of societies (2012, 8). In the 1950s, writer Leopoldo Marechal (1990–1970) asserted that Martín Fierro was a symbol of the Argentine people, alienated from his own destiny (Romano, 1991, 128). In the following decade, a daring publishing move made books accessible to a mass reading public. The Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires (EUDEBA) published Martín Fierro with a cover illustrated by painter Juan Carlos Castagnino (1908–1972) that sold 170,000 volumes in just three months (Ulanovsky, 1997, 177). The publishers’ goal was to reach the middle-class youth (Terán, 1993, 72). This interest in Hernández’s poem may have paved the way for its first and, so far, only cinematic rendition.15 In the late 1960s, Martín Fierro was a representative of argentinidad that provided the basis for a national reimagining. This notion of argentinidad was full of democratic ideals put forth in the 1910s by the nationalists, who saw the gauchos and caudillos as the true Argentines.16 For instance, Alejandro Vázquez linked argentinidad to democracy, explaining the importance of ‘libertad para la nacionalidad y libertad para el individuo, pero dentro de una estricta solidaridad americana’ [independence for the nation and freedom for the individual, but within a strict Latin American solidarity] (1967, 167). The literary character Martín Fierro certainly epitomized the idea of freedom at a time of a profound schism in Latin America between the countries which were veering toward communism and denounced American imperialism, and those which sought to remain autonomous. The release of Torre Nilson’s Martín Fierro inspired a corpus of films produced from the late 1960s to the early 1970s that constitute the filmic gauchesque. As in other types of heritage film, in the gauchesque, ‘the past returns, in the film image as in other manifestations of contemporary culture, through reconstruction rather than preservation, mediated by generic motifs and textual references’ (Vidal, 2012, 18). The reconstruction of times gone by allowed the reimagining of the Argentine national community through the visual. By depicting Argentine heritage and highlighting argentinidad, this type of cinema was, at first, consensus-seeking, in the sense that it served to build shared ties among domestic spectators. Santos Vega and Juan Moreira turned away from the realist mode of narration to stress the subversive potential of the gauchos’ stories, absorbing some of the tensions of the Argentine community in the early (p.81) 1970s. In doing so, these films were profitable and prestigious, and thus successfully carved themselves a niche in an Argentine domestic market inundated with foreign films.
(1) Federico Finchelstein mentions that the right-wing movements, such as Tacuara, opposed the succession of civil and military governments (2014, 100–11).
(2) Folk music became very popular. It vindicated ‘actors previously made invisible by the power structure (above all, Argentina’s indigenous population), and critical commentary on the socio-political conditions of his time’ (Vila, 2014, 14).
(3) Belén Vidal points out that heritage films are also considered quality films (2012, 1).
(5) Barr refers to wartime films such as That Lady Hamilton (Alexander Korda, 1941), This England (David Mac Donald, 1941), and The Young Mr. Pitt (Carol Reed, 1942).
(6) Historian Ariel de la Fuente defines gaucho as ‘the poor inhabitant of the countryside’ (2000, 76) and explains that ‘labeling the majority of rural inhabitants of the provinces as gauchos or bandits was the product of their Federalist affiliation and participation in the rebellions against the authorities’ (2000, 77).
(7) Guido Podestá also mentions the representation of Juan Moreira as a pantomime (1991, 7), but notes that Gutiérrez faced critiques for his narrative about an unredeemable criminal (1991, 10).
(8) In his analysis of La guerra gaucha, Juan Carlos Ghiano notes that the work ‘exalta episodios que no fueron esenciales para la liberación de la patria, aunque colaboraran de manera eficaz en la defensa de la frontera noroeste’ [exalts episodes that were not essential to the liberation of the nation, even though they contributed effectively to the defense of the northwest border] (1967, 19).
(10) In 1893, the Real Academia Española asked Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo to put together an anthology of Spanish-American works which first included Martín Fierro as an epic poem (Degiovanni, 2007, 55). Fernando Degiovanni explains the different approaches of two collections—la Cultura Argentina and la Biblioteca Argentina—in the first decade of the twentieth century as they decided on their lists (2007, 14–21).
(12) For Eduardo Romano, other films from Artistas Argentinos Asociados touch on the gauchesque, such as Ya tiene comisario el pueblo [The Town Already has a Police Chief] (1936), Viento norte [North Wind] (1937), El cabo Rivero (p.82) [Sergeant Rivero] (1938), Huella [Trail] (1940), and Fortín alto [High Fort] (1941) (Romano, 1991, 109).
(13) La guerra gaucha received three Silver Condors: for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Paula Félix-Didier and Andrés Levinson note that surveys organized by the Film Museum in 1977, 1984, and 2000 found La guerra gaucha to be one of the most beloved Argentine films (2009, 52).
(14) Lusnich also mentions Facundo, el Tigre de los llanos [Facundo, Tiger of the Prairies] (Miguel Paulino Tato, 1952) as one of the biographical films of the late 1940s (2007, 46). Given that Facundo was also a gaucho, his biopic could certainly be included with other gauchesque films.
(15) Bollig mentions the cartoon version of Martín Fierro (Fontanarrosa, 2008) (2012, 15).
(16) Alejandro Vázquez relied on Ricardo Rojas’s definition of argentinidad: ‘el alma de la argentinidad vibraba entonces por instinto, y aunque los gauchos iletrados y los caudillos violentos no discernieran bien las doctrinas, eran ellos los que servían el destino esencial de nuestra nacionalidad’ [the soul of argentinidad vibrated then by instinct, and even though the illiterate gauchos and the violent caudillos did not clearly understand its doctrines, it was they w who served the essential destiny of our nationality] (1967, 164). Oubiña and Aguilar use the term nacionalismo to refer to the same phenomenon (1993, 92).