Review: ‘A War in Hollywood’

Chronicles the film industry's portrayals of the Spanish Civil War and the experiences of Alvah Bessi.

“A War in Hollywood” chronicles both the U.S. film industry’s shifting portrayals of the Spanish Civil War and the unique life experiences of Alvah Bessie — surely the only volunteer American combatant in that conflict who later suffered the brunt of the House on Un-American Activities’ witch hunt as one of the notoriously blacklisted Hollywood Ten. First feature directorial effort by Spain-based docu producer Oriol Porta is a solidly crafted mix of personal narrative, archival clips and latter-day interview commentary that’s well-suited for international broadcasters.

Pic paints the Great Depression as a period during which hardships and FDR’s leadership encouraged liberal activism, though the many drawn to Communist Party membership (then at its peak of popularity Stateside) later found their youthful ideals used to tar and feather them. Bessie (who died in 1985) was among numerous Abraham Lincoln Brigade members who eagerly journeyed to battle fascism in Spain, returning from that dangerous, enthralling if unsuccessful sojourn to write scripts for Warners (including Oscar-nominated “Objective, Burma!”) in the ’40s.

But that career died when he was called before HUAC in 1947. After a prison term, he turned to journalism and print fiction. In 1967, he visited Spain for the first time in three decades to work on Jaime Camino’s “Spain Again,” the fictionalized tale of a U.S. doctor likewise returning to the country long after fighting Franco’s forces there.

Interspersed with this life saga are excerpts from Hollywood’s various takes on the Spanish Civil War and analysis of the politics behind them. “Blockade” (1938) was the only such feature made during the conflict itself, one that met with considerable opposition from U.S. conservatives inside and outside the industry. During WWII, it became much less controversial as a narrative element, since fighting fascism was now a nationwide patriotic concern.

Leading international anti-Franco voice Ernest Hemingway didn’t like the film adaptations of his “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the latter notably suffering from new “friendly” U.S. attitudes toward Spain, which forced a watering-down of its political content. Arthur Laurents discusses “The Way We Were” (admitting Streisand’s character was “a semi-disguised version of me”) and Walter Bernstein talks about “The Front” — two movies that dealt with ’30s radicalism and McCarthyism.

“A War in Hollywood” also deploys considerable archival news footage to illustrate the times. Excerpts from Bessie’s letters, diaries and books on the matter are read by Lluis Soler. Assembly is pro.

A War in Hollywood

Spain - U.S.


An Area de Television production in association with TVC, TVE, ICAA, ICIC. (International sales: Area de Television, Barcelona.) Produced by Lisa Berger, Cristina Mora. Executive producer, Oriol Porta. Directed by Oriol Porta. Written by Porta, Llorenc Soler, Isabel Andres.


Camera (color/B&W, HD), David Garcia; editor, David Gutierrez; music, Carles Pedragosa; sound, Javier Garcia, Fernando Novillo, Pere Aguilar. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Documentaries of the World), Sept. 5, 2009. Running time: 92 MIN.


Walter Bernstein, Dan Bessie, Moe Fishman, Roman Gubern, Arthur Laurents, Patrick McGilligan, Susan Sarandon, Lluis Soler. (English, Spanish dialogue)
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