By Phil Hall | July 4, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 240: Che!” (1969 biopic starring Omar Sharif as Che Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro).

LAST SEEN: We are unable to confirm the last public screening of this film.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was never commercially released for home viewing.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, but not likely at the moment.

In the four decades since his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara continues to fascinate and puzzle a world in desperate search of heroes. With his shaggy hair, brooding gaze and fascinating mix of intellectualism and armed rebellion, Guevara is the ultimate anti-hero.

Later this year, a new Guevara biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh is coming to theaters. But bootleg video fans in need of a Guevara fix can easily hook up a film from 1969 called “Che!” Or maybe that is not the best idea if you are rabid, humorless Guevara fan. “Che!” has a well-earned reputation for being one of the worst movies of the 1960s. If anything, you can come away from “Che!” learning very little about the enigmatic revolutionary and learning too much about bad filmmaking.

The main problem with “Che!” was the film’s obvious unease about embracing an individual who openly espoused Marxist revolution. Even in the hippy-dippy late 1960s, Hollywood was not about to wave the red flag with lusty abandon. To appease the still-conservative Middle America moviegoers while appealing to the left-of-center youth who made Guevara a martyr, “Che!” tried to do the impossible by extracting the eponymous subject’s politics from nearly all of the film. As a result, Guevara comes across like a causeless rebel – he’s fighting for vague ideas, not for a clearly-defined political agenda.

Also, “Che!” is not a thorough biopic. It opens during the Cuban revolution, when Guevara was part of Castro’s ragtag army in their war to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. No hint of Guevara’s past is brought up, outside of the fact that as an Argentine he prefers his country’s tea to Cuban coffee. The film also avoids Guevara’s role in the Cuban government under Castro, ignores his failed attempt to create a Marxist revolution in the Congo, and barely considers his actions that led to his demise in the Bolivian jungles. Call it “Che!”-lite.

The result of that strategy makes the film completely confusing in regards to understanding what made Guevara tick politically. But, in a strange way, that is a blessing since it allows the viewer to enjoy some unexpected camp – after all, how often do you find Che Guevara and Fidel Castro being played for unintentional laughs?

For no clear reason, it was decided to cast Omar Sharif as Guevara and Jack Palance as Castro. Sharif’s presence may have made some box office sense – he was, after all, the star of major hits including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl.” The fact he bore little resemblance to Guevara was addressed with ridiculously heavy make-up that was so obvious it actually called attention to the fact he was heavily made-up. Compared to nearly everyone else in the movie, Sharif’s Guevara could easily have been mistaken for a Madame Tussaud wax statue that came to life – albeit one with a distinctive Egyptian accent (Sharif, mercifully, made no attempt to sound Latino).

But Sharif had competition in Palance’s Castro. No one ever accused Palance of being a subtle actor, and he lived up to his reputation of excess in this completely inappropriate performance. Rolling his eyes behind large classes while chomping cigars wildly, Palance’s Castro seems closer in spirit to Groucho Marx than Karl Marx. Or perhaps the ghost of Shemp Howard has channeled in, as one key scene finds Sharif’s Guevara using oversized pliers to pull a tooth from Palance’s Castro’s mouth. Fortunately, the dentistry bit doesn’t knock off Palance’s conspicuously false nose – the artificial schnozz is so amateurish that doesn’t even have the same skin tone as the rest of the actor’s face.

As with Guevara, the film’s Castro never talks Red politics until late in the movie – and even then, he comes across more as a stooge to the Soviets than a serious Communist ideologue. Thus, you can watch “Che!” and have no clue just why Castro and Guevara went to war to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, and why they scared the s**t out of John F. Kennedy and every administration that followed.

So what do you have in “Che!” instead? Well, you have a bunch of motley extras in nondescript soldier uniforms running about in a jungle setting, occasionally shooting guns into the distance. You have repeated scenes of extras being tied up, blindfolded and shot in firing squads. You have white actors in thick greasepaint who are supposed to be Cubans. You have people looking straight into the camera and talking about the Che they knew and either loved or hated. You have snippets of newsreel footage laced with clumsy recreations of actual events (including Palance’s Castro giving dramatic speeches to cheering masses). And you have some rather well-known Puerto Rican landmarks doubling (none-too-convincingly) as Cuban landmarks.

You have…basically, a mess.

The ultimate curiosity, however, came in the source of “Che!”: 20th Century-Fox. At this period, the studio was focusing heavily on old-fashioned entertainment, so having something even slightly daring was out of character. The studio opted to bring in Richard Fleischer as director. Fleischer was an erratic artist who was capable of making fine films (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Compulsion,” the much-maligned “Doctor Dolittle,” “The Boston Strangler” and the cult favorite “Soylent Green”). In “Che!”, however, Fleischer was off his form and created a work that was visually flat and dull. Outside of the Sharif-Palance clowning, everyone in “Che!” plays their roles with a painfully earnest seriousnes – which, of course, makes the whole thing even funnier.

“Che!” opened to incredibly hostile reviews. Vincent Canby in the New York Times employed Popeye-worthy imagery by declaring the film had the “consistency of strained spinach.” Penelope Gilliatt in The New Yorker was more somber, noting the film “hasn’t an ounce of political or historical sense in its nut.” And Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic’s legendary film critic (and not one to exaggerate his opinion) stated: “The film is so bleached, so thoroughly castrated, there isn’t much fun in mocking it.” A decade after its release, “Che!” was included in the Medved Brothers’ snarky classic “The Fifth Worst Films of All Time” (that’s where I go those juicy critical reviews).

“Che!” was also a box office dud, and 20th Century Fox wasn’t particularly eager to remind people that the film existed. The film has turned up occasionally on television, but to date there has been no U.S. home entertainment release. A British company called Optimum Home Entertainment is selling “Che!” on DVD for UK audiences, but an easy search of the Net can easily locate U.S. bootlegs of fine quality (if you don’t mind a Fox Movie Channel logo popping up occasionally on the screen).

If “Che!” does not justice to its subject, at least it provides some warped distraction. And I suspect that Guevara himself would have found this nutty Yankee tribute to be worth a good revolutionary laugh.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure

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