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Edgar Neville (1899–1967) and his Spanish Civil War film

 

Fascist Italy produced two feature films about the Spanish Civil War, Augusto Genina’s celebrated The Siege of the Alcazar  (1940) and Edgar Neville’s long–lost and forgotten Carmen fra i Rossi (Dec. 1939), also known as In der Roten Hölle and as Frente de Madrid.  Since the end of WWII, no known print of the Italian version of the film, or the Spanish version, has ever been found. More recently the surviving German dubbed version of the Italian film was unearthed and was shown for the first time since WWII at an Italian film festival in 2008.

In the late 1920's Edgardo Romrée Neville, the son of Spanish noblemen, educated in Switzerland and Spain, was a young diplomat in the Washington, D.C. Embassy of Spain, and thereafter in the Spanish Embassy in Los Angeles. He then worked in Hollywood as a MGM dialogue coach, actor and film assistant on over twenty films, including as Production Assistant on Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1930). He befriended Hollywood stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Mary Pickford, Laurel and Hardy, as well as Chaplin. 

He returned to Spain in 1931 where he continued his career in film. These were comedies and pure entertainment films. He briefly also served in the Spanish Embassy in London. He lived through the war years in Granada and Madrid, married, and had two sons. His close friends included both the celebrated playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca and composer Manuel de Falla. In 1936 he volunteered to go to the Front as a Falangist soldier, but was made a member of a propaganda company in Madrid. Later, he also produced for Franco three short documentary films, all with fascistic and nationalistic elements. Produced by the National Department of Cinematography, the films were entitled:The University City, on the destruction of the university when it was a war front in that area of ​​Madrid, one glorifying the Youth of Spain, and a documentary film in 1940 called Long Live Free Men! – Report of “checas” in Barcelona. “Checas” were installations that during the Spanish Civil War were used in the Republican/Red zone outside the laws to arrest, interrogate, torture, judge in a summary manner and execute suspects who sympathized with the Franco side. 

The reference book Popular Spanish Film Under Franco calls Edgar Neville "probably the most talented nationalist filmmaker of his generation."[1]

Spain’s leading author rights agency, Scenic Rights, states on it’s website that Neville is “considered one of the geniuses of the Spanish 20th century. He cultivated every genre: theatre, poetry, novel, cinema, painting…”[2]

Today, there are streets named after him in Madrid and arts theatres named after him in other cities and towns. His Spanish films are considered classics, as are his many plays and books.  

Between 1936 and 1939, Neville had written short stories for the Falangist magazine, Vértice. These were later published as a book called Frente de Madrid. The first of the stories about a Falangist soldier and his fiancée, Carmen, became the basis for the film directed by Neville for Mussolini Italy. 

In Italy the film title was called Carmen fra i Rossi(Carmen amongst the Reds). Given the subject matter, it was decided that a Spanish version of the film would be co–produced at the same time, to be called, as per the book title, Frente de Madrid (Madrid Front). 

The film marked the first–ever co­­–production between Italy and Spain. Besides language, the only difference in the two versions was that in the Italian film the male lead was named Alfredo and performed by the hugely–popular Fosco Giachetti; whereas in the Spanish version, actor Rafael Rivelles (famous for his outstanding Don Quixote film, amongst others) took the same role, but who was named Javier. Conchita Montes, who in real life was Neville’s long–time lover after his separation from his wife, interpreted the main character, Carmen, in both versions. She starred in many of his most renowned Spanish films in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

According to Spanish film author Felipe Cabrerizo, Neville's approach to making a war film was influenced by his knowledge and study of the Zöberlein film Stoßtrupp 1917. [3]The film were shot in Rome at the Cinecitta studio but exterior scenes of the University City of Madrid still in ruins were shot there and brought authenticity and realism that made it one of “most sensational hits of the year,” according to Spanish film distributor, Hispania Tobis. 

The Italian version opened on December 23, 1939. Mussolini saw a private showing of the film on January 15, 1940. “Mussolini confessed to the actor Fernando Fernandez de Cordoba in the meeting that both had the next day on the occasion of the opening of the Sperimente di Cinemagrafia Center: ‘Yesterday I saw the Frente de Madrid. It's good.’ With the Duce, the Italian criticism coincided, which gave the film a triumphant reception after a huge opening in 25 major Italian theaters.”[4]

In one key scene in the book – and used in the film –the corpse of a Falangist disguised as a Red is searched, in whose pocket is found a paper that said: "Please do not bury me with the Reds, Arriba España!" The book’s narrator thus concludes this episode with the following reflection: "Therefore, when thinking about future Spain, there was always a large part of the enemy who could be denied all rights except rehabilitation, and that it was unfair to confuse [them] with the complete apparatus of the Comintern squads – with the murderers, with the fanatics, with all the dregs of the underworld, covered in stripes, and whom we should throw into the Mediterranean.” Neville’s belief that the foot soldiers, misled by a foreign, malevolent Bolshevik leadership, should be allowed to help rebuild a re–united Spain after the war, was written into the film script in the penultimate scene. In it, the two enemies speak of a new Spain after the war, and Javier embraces the Red militia man in death.

This scene was shown at the film’s premiere on 23 March 1940 at the Palacio de Musica in Madrid, and caused a huge scandal during its four week run. The film was withdrawn and the scene was immediately censored by the Franco regime – such reconciliation was too premature, if not unwanted, by the victors. 

Nazi Germany also had a German synchronized version of the Italian version of the film dubbed, and released under the title In der Roten Hölle (In the Red Hell) in late 1942 by DIFU, the Deutsch – Italianische Film Union distribution company.  During the Spanish Civil War, there was scant interest by the German government to produce films about that war due in part to the secret role of the Legion Condor. After the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, propaganda about the New Order in Europe and the common foe (“World Enemy Number 1”) was called for, and Neville’s film was authorized for Third Reich cinema–goers.

In the review of the film in Berlin on 23 November 1942, the influential Film–Kurier Tageszeitung was surprisingly sympathetic to Neville’s treatment of reconciliation:

“In the context of this gripping human and often thrilling plot, how strong the influence of the Spanish Civil War could be on men who oppose one another as enemies – who for years lived aside one another peacefully through shared memories and experiences that bound them together – is shown.

Portrayed is a Red, who passes over the trenches to ask a soldier of Franco about the fate of his comrades, and how these two dying men from opposing camps reconcile in the No Man’s Land; and by contrast, how others are portrayed in the propaganda war – as a war between two different peoples.

The Director Edgar Neville has successfully brought both the human and political together and bound them as one element.”

The censored ‘reconciliation’ scene no longer exists in the surviving film print, but two press photos of that scene, starring Fosco Giachetti and Rafael Rivelles respectively in the Italian and Spanish versions; show the Falangist comforting the Red soldier with an arm around his shoulder. The Red soldier was played in both versions by Carlos Muñoz. 

Although we can never be sure what the censored dialogue of that final scene between the two soldiers said, the words of Alfredo in this scene in Neville’s book were:

One day Madrid will be covered with flags. And legions of young men in blue shirts will parade through the streets; they will take the same step, the same direction and have the same interest, and it will not be known to which class they belong or from which side they were in this war. Madrid will be filled with joy of  happiness ... 

Neville died eight years before did Generalissimo Franco, so did not live to see the post–Franco reunification of Spain under the monarchy of Juan Carlos. But his In the Red Hell stands as testament to the ferocity and brutality of that war, the real threat of Bolshevism, and to his dream of a new Spain after victory. 

--- William Gillespie, author of Karl Ritter, 2ndedition ©2014,and The Making of the Crew of the Dora, ©2016. 

 

footnotes:


[1]  Steven Marsh, Popular Spanish Film Under Franco, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

[2]  Scenic Rights, a Focus Group company.

[3]  Cabrerizo, Felipe: Tiempo de Mitos – Las coproducciones cinematográficas entre la España de Franco y la Italia de Mussolini (1939–1943), Diputación Provencial de Zaragoza, 2007, pg.60. 

[4]Ibid; p. 56