One of the ways in which Argentine filmmakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s created a sense of nationhood amid the deteriorating economic conditions and political unrest of those years was by depicting the heroic deeds of the nation’s founding fathers. In this section, I examine two films by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, El santo de la espada (1970) and Güemes, la tierra en armas (1971), that deal with the brave actions of José de San Martín (1778–1850) and Martín Miguel de Güemes (1785–1821), respectively, during the wars of independence in South America.1 I also analyze Bajo el signo de la patria (René Múgica, 1971) and Juan Manuel de Rosas (Manuel Antín, 1972) and explore the production and reception of these films as examples of what Higson calls ‘quality films,’ that is to say, films produced thanks to the support of state regulation and for middle-class audiences. These films also constitute cinematic products that resorted to product differentiation given that their topic—the representation of the Argentine founding fathers—did not compete directly with Hollywood films. In other words, El santo de la espada (henceforth El santo), Güemes, la tierra en armas (henceforth Güemes), Bajo el signo de la patria (henceforth Bajo el signo), and Juan Manuel de Rosas (henceforth Rosas) focus on Argentina’s founding fathers in order to attract domestic viewers. More importantly, because of their exploration of Argentine history, these films engage with both past and contemporary forms of national identity.
My analysis will approach these films as historical and a blend of several subtypes: the biographical film, the war film, and the epic. Biographical films or ‘biopics’ represent the lives of great men. Dennis Bingham, who has studied the Hollywood biopic, asserts that the genre is linked to the studio era (2010a, 11) and that the 1970s was ‘the weakest [decade] for biopics’ (2010a, 24). This assertion is crucial to understanding that these four films constituted part of an original Argentine trend of making films that were unlike those produced in Hollywood. The biopic is also ‘a prestige genre, with films made in hopes of winning awards and earning respect’ (Bingham, 2010b, 77).2 Winning respect for Argentine film production was also a long-desired goal of the NIC authorities in the 1960s; thus the biographical genre was (p.132) embraced by some Argentine filmmakers, whose previous films had been more experimental. These historical films also deploy features of the war film, a genre that was used prominently in the 1960s and 1970s to represent the experiences of the first and second world wars and Vietnam. The themes of heroism, sacrifice, and patriotic virtue are also found in the depiction of the nineteenth-century war of independence waged against Spanish forces in what today is Argentina. As war films, they are examples of visual memorials: ‘In the absence of the personal witness, as most veterans are now dead, the arts provide this service’ (Kelly, 2004, 28). Remembering those who made great sacrifices in the violence that led to the nation’s foundation constituted an attempt to unify the Argentine national community in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
El santo, Güemes, Bajo el signo, and Rosas are also examples of the epic genre. This is a genre traditionally associated with the great feats and myths of antiquity and the Roman Empire, and has been expanded to encompass films set in more contemporary periods that present heroic deeds and impressive achievements of both individuals and collectivities. The epic not only deals with national heroes; it also requires enormous sets and many extras, and offers astounding sights. Because of the amount of human effort involved in producing this type of film, by the early 1960s, Hollywood deemed them too expensive (Burgoyne, 2011, 5). While some Hollywood war films inherited elements of the epic, epics were mainly produced in Europe after the mid-1960s.3 In Argentina, epics about the national past were produced from 1970 to 1972. Dina Iordanova describes the features of epics of national pride: ‘these epics are usually produced and publicized with the ambition to showcase glorious national history; such projects remain of utmost significance within the context of the producing nation and are mostly suited for internal usage’ (2011, 113). In addition to portraying a celebrated past, Robert Burgoyne identifies the rise of freedom, particularly during times of crisis, as a central element of this genre, which is a ‘vehicle of national ideology and aspirations’ (2011, 6). Consequently, the topic of self-determination figures prominently in these films released in a turbulent period (1970–1972).
Here it is important to briefly reflect on the relationship between historical films and national cinemas. In Waving the Flag, Higson mentions several strategies to which national cinemas resort in order to compete with Hollywood. One of them stresses ‘cultural specificity’ (1997, 4–5), that is to say, finding a niche that Hollywood has not yet addressed. This approach clearly applies to El santo, Güemes, Bajo el signo, and Rosas, which deploy the cultural specificity of nineteenth-century leaders to win a considerable share of the domestic market. Furthermore, Higson points to narratives that represent the nation: ‘many films […] explore narratives of nationhood, and in many cases they will imbue the experience of a shared culture with a profound sense of tradition and invoke a collective memory of an undisputed national past’ (1997, 7). In a politically unstable Argentina, these historical films constituted an excellent way to bring together the diverse members of the (p.133) Argentine community. Discussing American biographical films in the 1930s and 1940s, Marcia Landy writes that ‘historical films employed major stars and celebrated significant events in the building of national identity. These films frequently served as a form of collective morality as well as source of morale’ (2001, 8). The casting of local stars to shore up national identity is evident in all four Argentine historical films. Moreover, by engaging with the national past, these films disseminated a sense of nationhood in Argentina at a time of political crisis. My analysis underscores their representation of the birth of the Argentine nation, addressing matters such as the right to self-government, the contrast between a country’s political and economic independence, and Argentina’s role in Latin American politics, which were of interest to viewers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As historical films, they not only describe bygone times, but also constitute important reflections on the society and times in which they were produced.
(1) For Gustavo Aprea, these films present elements of school textbooks (2012, 5).
(2) At the time of writing, two British biopics competed with each other in several categories at the 2014 Academy Awards: The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) and The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014). While the former won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, the latter won an Oscar for Best Leading Actor.
(3) For more on epics produced in Europe, please see Mark Jancovich’s ‘An Italian-made Spectacle Film Dubbed in English.’