I recently watched the Steven Soderbergh – Benicio Del Toro double team double feature, Che and Che II and as a Che-lover I found them engrossing. There was a lot to love about the films and a lot to like about the story it told.
I was also fairly convinced by a kind of even handedness in what the films chose to represent and what they did not. Many of the criticisms made of Che were included. There were suggestions of totalitarianism, of hopeless vanity, of his censoriousness, his doctrinaire inflexibility and his social awkwardness. Mostly they are understated I’d say but so were were the virtues.
What struck me was the absence of the puppy. Deep, deep in Che lore is the story of an ambush which required strict silence on the part of the revolutionaries. Unfortunately the platoon mascot, a cute little puppy, had tagged along and chose an ill-timed moment to whine and cry. Without saying a word Che ordered his men to kill the puppy and they did.
I was sure the puppy would be there. To me the puppy is a trope of Che’s inability to forgive, to offer the smallest mercies. He didn’t spare the puppy, and after the revolution he didn’t spare the enemies of the revolution. The puppy merges into the figure that reclined on the prison wall, cigar in place, and watched those enemies of the revolution being shot, one by one.
Che the lawman doesn’t get much screen time in the films. Without that vision of Che the hanging judge there’s too much romance at work and the revolution (and its purity) is undone by sentimentality. The revolution was real but it wasn’t made real by flags or posters or t-shirts. It was made real by people who died.