Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle Published in Spain

August 5, 2019
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Alvah Bessie’s 1939 memoir still reads like a compelling lesson in twentieth-century history—as does the rest of Bessie’s activist life.

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Alvah Bessie (Tamiment Library, NYU, 15th IB Photo Collection, Photo # 11- 0176)

As a historical document, Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle, whose translation was recently published in Spain, is comparable to Joris Ivens’s documentary The Spanish Earth (narrated by Ernest Hemingway), and André Malraux’s novel L’Espoir (filmed as Sierra de Teruel). Yet there are important differences. For one thing, Bessie put his own life on the line. For another, he transmits truths (with a few minor exceptions), whether they are comfortable or not. And he writes journalism, not propaganda. These are three virtues that rarely combine in books about the Civil War written for the general public.

Alvah Bessie managed to publish Men in Battle thanks to the intervention of Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met in Spain during the war. “Take it! It will be the best book about the American brigadistas in Spain!” the future Nobel Prize winner told his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Men in Battle arrived at bookstores in September 1939, coinciding with the Nazi invasion of Poland. It got excellent reviews. “It’s a true, honest, fine book. Bessie writes truly and finely of all that he could see … and he saw enough,” Hemingway wrote.

Today, the book still reads like a compelling lesson in twentieth-century history. The author transmits the reality of the war, the life and the death of the soldiers at the front, their feelings, the landscape—a world. Men in Battle reflects an experience that is both intimate and collective, framed through a sincere and realistic narrative of the war, as Bessie narrates the day-to-day of volunteers who fought and risked their lives with more commitment, imagination, and sacrifice than weapons, logistics, or organization.

Bessie, along with his companions, crosses the Pyrenees on foot, passes through Figueres and Albacete, and participates in the battles of Gandesa and the Ebro under the orders of the legendary Milton Wolff. The narration reflects the attitude of a free man who comes to fight because he believes in a cause—focusing not only on fear, reflections and surprises, but also the debates among fighters on international passivity, the obscene imbalance of forces between Franco and Republicans, the logistical and precarious armaments of the Republicans, along with the landscape, the cold, hunger, blood, and death.

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Charged with contempt of Congress, nine of the Hollywood screenwriters give themselves up to U.S. Marshal in December 10, 1947. From right: Robert Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr. Los Angeles Times photographic archive.

Bessie’s writing style is highly visual. He’d already worked as a journalist in Brooklyn; after the war, he’d be a Warner Brothers scriptwriter until he was blacklisted. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he served almost a year in prison, accused of being un-American. His case was far from exceptional. Many veterans of the Lincoln Brigade were marked for life by the FBI.

Bessie is a leading character in A War in Hollywood, the brilliant 2008 documentary by Oriol Porta, which opens with a statement by Bessie from 1981 that says it all: “Everybody was on the side of the Spanish Republic. And when the polls were taken, everybody was on the side of the Spanish Republic. I wanted to be involved in this fight as a soldier. … There was no romance, there was no glamor. I don’t recommend a war to anybody, for any reason whatsoever, unless you have to fight it—which we felt we did.”

For his script, Porta used Men in Battle, Bessie’s war notebooks, and his 1975 memoir Spain Again. Porta addresses the enduring legacy of the Spanish Civil War today while underscoring the role Hollywood played in the portrayal of, and mobilization around, the conflict in Spain—including censorship and other attempts to soft-pedal any criticism of the Franco regime. Porta’s film includes clips from España otra vez, the 1969 film directed by Jaime Camino and Román Gubern in which Bessie himself plays the role of an aging Lincoln vet who returns to Spain to attend a medical conference. The film was nominated for Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival that year. In fact, it was his experience making this film that inspired Bessie to write Spain Again, which appeared six years later.

In a speech he gave in New York City in 1941, Bessie reminded his audience of its obligation “to constantly understand and reinterpret … the facts and meaning” of the Spanish Civil War, because it “was a touchstone and a turning point.” After glossing the role of writers and artists around the world in the war, and mentioning the symbolism of the murder of García Lorca, he made the public stand up, to name one by one, the writers and American artists killed in that war.

On October 28, 1947, the Hollywood Ten refused to answer any questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “The true purpose of this Committee on Un-American Activities,” Bessie said in a prepared statement, “is to provide the atmosphere and to act as the spearhead for the really un-American forces preparing a Fascist America.”

“This body,” he went on, “in all its previous manifestations is on record as believing that support of the Spanish Republic was and is subversive, un-American, and Communist-inspired. That lie was originally spawned by Hitler and Franco, and the majority of the American people—in fact, the majority of the people of the world—never believed it. And I want it on the record at this point that I not only supported the Spanish Republic but that it was my high privilege and the greatest honor I have ever enjoyed to have been a volunteer soldier in the ranks of its International Brigades throughout 1938. And I shall continue to support the Spanish Republic until the Spanish people in their majesty and power remove Francisco Franco and all his supporters and reestablish the legal government Franco and his Nazi and Italian Fascist soldiers overthrew.” He spent a year in jail and saw his Hollywood career thwarted.

On April 12, 1950, Alvah wrote a long letter to his children Dan and Dave from prison. He told them about their legal situation, gave them encouragement and advice about what people could say in favor of him or against, he defended himself, he showed them the absurdity of the accusations made of him and emphasized the right of freedom of expression and thought.

Bessie wrote numerous reviews of novels or history books on the 1936-1939 war, including the works of Gabriel Jackson, Barbara Probst Solomon, André Malraux, Pasionaria, and José Bergamín, among others. But the harshest criticism was reserved for Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Alvah wrote that the long-awaited book was not the novel on Spain. The author, he wrote, had refined his “technical facility,” and “touched some moments of action with a fictional suspense that is literally unbearable.” “But,” he added, “depth of understanding there is none; breadth of conception is heartbreakingly lacking; there is no searching, no probing, no grappling with the truths of human life that is more than superficial.” Bessie’s opinion was shared by many of his Lincoln comrades. In Porta’s documentary, Brigadier Moe Fishman says the novel was “a love story that has nothing to do with our experiences.”

Alvah Bessie was also a prolific writer of protest letters. General Franco received at least two. One demanded freedom and amnesty for the ten trade unionists of Comisiones Obreras engaged in the “process 1001” in 1972, among them Marcelino Camacho, Nicolás Sartorius and the priest Francisco García Salve. Bessie took advantage of the opportunity to demand that the dictator grant a general amnesty for all Spanish political prisoners.

The second was a harsh letter dated September 28, 1975, about the last five executions of the dictatorship: Txiki and Otaegi from ETA, and Baena, Sánchez-Bravo and García Sanz, of the FRAP. In this letter, Bessie addresses himself to Franco as “el señorito Don Puto Francisco Franco” (freely translated as “F—ing Francisco Franco”). The letter opens: “Your murder yesterday of five heroic antifascist Spaniards signed the death-warrant of your putrescent regime.”

Almost two months later, on the night the dictator died, Spanish national television broadcast a special program given the uncertainty about the dictator’s state of health. Instead of the regular shows and news bulletins, the network showed an old American war movie, Objective, Burma (1945), by Raoul Walsh, starring Errol Flynn. No one paid attention to a curious detail: the author of the original story was a man who’d spent his life fighting Franco: Alvah Bessie.

Xavier Montanyà is a Catalan investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. A longer version of this article appeared, in Catalan, in Vilaweb, on January 13, 2019. English version by Sebastiaan Faber.

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