General Francisco Franco, whose forty-year dictatorship—the longest of any in Western Europe in the twentieth century—effectively divided Spanish society into the victors and vanquished of the bitter fratricidal civil war of 1936—39, shared one passion with his fellow Spaniards, irrespective of their political allegiances: the cinema.footnote1 Not only were special film showings held for the dictator at his Pardo Palace outside Madrid, but Franco pseudonomously wrote a film script, La Raza, which reached Spanish screens in 1942, as well as occasionally writing film reviews—also under a pseudonym—for the Madrid newspaper, abc. Not surprisingly, the dictator’s film script was a vehicle for his vision of the causes and origins of the Civil War as seen through a family of anti-Republican and Catholic persuasions similar to his own, with the exception of one son who argues in favour of the legally established
La Raza was hailed by Catholic critics as depicting a ‘brotherhood of men united, in time and space, in the service of an eternal ideal inspired by the spirit of God. . .’ In this view, the family members portrayed in the film ‘incarnated the eternal principles of our race, religion, military spirit, chivalry and family values. . .’footnote3
From the moment of his civil-war victory over the Republic in April 1939, Franco imposed a military dictatorship in which the Catholic Church and the government’s pro-fascist political party (fet y jons) controlled all elements of social and political life. Morality, ideology, education, customs, indeed more or less everything fell under their stifling sway. Anyone who had opposed Franco in the Civil War could expect at best to be jailed, at worst to be shot.
The end of World Warii, and the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, resulted in the Spanish pro-fascist political party losing its previous dominance in favour of the Church and a form of social control known as National-Catholicism. Over and above the harsh physical repression of those who had supported the Republic before and during the Civil War, and the continuing suppression of any political or cultural dissidence, the post-war years brought additional hardships: nearfamine conditions and the international isolation of Spain for its support of the Axis powers.
In these years, going to the cinema was one of the few means of escape open to Spaniards.footnote4 The cinema was cheap, warm in winter and cool in summer. There were movie theatres in every neighbourhood of the large towns, and at least one in most of the rural villages. In these pre-television times, entire families could escape the tribulations of daily life, as well as the asphyxiating cultural climate, by going to the cinema. Parents with young children and babes in arms
In 1947, Spain, with a total of just over 3,000 movie theatres and an average capacity of 525 seats, was second in the Western world behind the United States in terms of cinemas per head of the population—one for every 8,666 persons as compared to 7,277 for the us.footnote5 The cinema’s popularity was obvious to those foreigners who visited the country in the post-war period. On his return in 1949, after thirteen years’ absence, Gerald Brenan, the British writer and historian of Spain, affirmed that no other West European country had as great a passion for the cinema as the Spaniards. In Madrid, he observed, there were few churches, but more than seventy cinemas, almost all of them doing a flourishing business.footnote6
This passion for the cinema was not new. It had existed under the Republic (1931—36) and during the Civil War, when, over and above domestic production, 500 films, most of them American, were imported every year. No sooner was the Republic declared than the us Consul-General in Barcelona, Claude I. Dawson, was expressing his fears to the State Department about the possibility of the new régime taking protectionist measures against Hollywood movies to protect Spanish film-making. In his confidential report he referred to the popularity of American films: