Slain Latin American guerilla leader regaining popularity

Just think of the royalties Ernesto Che Guevara would earn if he weren’t a long-dead socialist revolutionary.

Thanks to a new wave of Che biopics and books, and a thriving industry for Che merchandise, the Latin American guerilla leader is poised to again become as big a pop-culture hero as he was in 1967, when he was killed in Bolivia at age 39.

Forget the human rights record and cratering economy of Fidel Castro‘s Cuba. And forget that radical politics became an uncomfortable issue for Hollywood after 9/11.

Che was a dashing radical who stood up for the poor and downtrodden.

“He represents that hopeful ideal of the early days of the Revolution, before the economic ruin, corruption and jailed poets,” says author Eva Menendez, whose novel “Loving Che” was just published.

Walter Salles‘ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” acquired at Sundance by Focus Features and rumored to be heading to Cannes, retraces Che’s journey across Latin America at age 23 — before he became Castro’s comrade in arms.

Terrence Malick, who plans to start shooting his own “Che” biopic next summer, will tackle the whole messy trajectory of Che’s life, including his later years as a guerilla leader in Latin America and Africa.

Even Brett Ratner flirted with a Che biopic, adapted from a bio by John Lee Anderson. Josh Evans wrote a script, but the option on the book lapsed.

Several Che docs are also under way, including one by Italian journalist Gianni Mina on the story behind “Motorcycle Diaries” and the making of the film.

These films aren’t likely to ignite the same emotional responses in the U.S. as they will in Latin America. To most Americans, he’s a blank screen, reflecting any political ideals people choose to project on him.

But judging from the thriving online Che memorabilia trade, his name is as much of an icon as any American movie star. Amazon.com has more listings of books by and about Che than it does for Elvis.

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