In late 1962, when I was still in high school pupil and already a film buff, I went to a movie knowing it would be the last one I would ever see. It was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a three-way battle of wills among the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union, and we were sure that World War III was about to erupt — if not tomorrow, then the next day, and we were all going to perish in a nuclear holocaust. Anxiety ran high, and it was no accident that two movies depicting the nuclear annihilation of humanity reached the big screen two years later: Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
It was no easy matter deciding which film to watch before the world was destroyed. In the end, I chose (and pardon the cliché, but I remember it as if it were yesterday) Richard Quine’s “The World of Suzie Wong,” in which William Holden played an American artist who moves to a brothel in Hong Kong and falls in love with one of the women who works there. Although the film had been released two years earlier, I did not see it when it came out because of its R-16 rating. I was too timid at the time to try to persuade the cashier or the usher that I was of age (and I didn’t look old enough). So I saw it two years later, at the Sderot moviehouse (yes, there was once a movie theater on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard), which was mainly a second-run theater. It was not the last movie I ever saw. As everyone knows, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved without a nuclear holocaust.
A 54-year trade embargo yielded more than the funny “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer tries to smuggle Cuban cigars into the United States. Cuba played a major role in many American movies, but there were two Cubas in American film — pre- and post-Fidel Castro. Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, and Havana in particular, served as a haven of crime, corruption and hedonism even in movies made before the 1959 revolution, and continued to do so in movies set in the Batista era.
In American movies, Cuba, like other Central and South American countries, was “beyond the border” both geographically and symbolically. For example, in the 1955 film version of the musical “Guys and Dolls” (based on two stories by Damon Runyon), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando), bets his friends that he can take the straight-arrow Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission (Jean Simmons) on a dinner date in Havana and get her drunk (but falls in love with her in the end). In 1959, before the revolution, the British director Carol Reed collaborated again with author Graham Greene (after their excellent 1949 film “The Third Man”) to create the comedy “Our Man in Havana,” about an introverted vacuum-cleaner salesman (Alec Guinness) who is recruited by British intelligence to set up an espionage ring in Cuba.
Before the revolution, some Hollywood suspense movies and film noir were set in Batista’s Cuba. The trashy, nearly-forgotten 1959 movie “Cuban Rebel Girls,” the last appearance on screen by Errol Flynn (who died the same year aged 50, ruined by drug and alcohol abuse), may have been the most bizarre movie made in the transitional era between the Batista and Castro regimes. Flynn wrote the screenplay for the film, in which he played a war correspondent who helps Castro in his fight against Batista. (The movie was made with Castro’s assistance). It was directed by Barry Mahon, a friend of Flynn’s who went on to direct pornographic movies. Flynn’s costar was his 17-year-old girlfriend, Beverly Aadland.
Films set in the Batista era continued to be made after the revolution. A major part of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) takes place in Cuba, where Michael Corleone expands his business interests. In 1990, Sydney Pollack directed “Havana,” about a gambler (Robert Redford) who travels to Havana to organize a large poker game and falls in love with a Swedish woman (Lena Olin) along the way. This attempt to make a Cuban-flavored “Casablanca”-style romantic melodrama was a flop. And in 2005 the Cuban-born American actor Andy García directed “The Lost City.” Set in Havana in the late 1950s, it depicts the difficulties of a bourgeois family in making the transition from the Batista regime to that of Castro.
Several spy films set partly in Cuba were made in the Castro era. The best of these was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz” (1969). Based loosely on the Leon Uris novel, it takes place in the days immediately preceding the Cuban missile crisis. In several ostensibly parallel story lines containing personal, familial and national acts of treachery, it depicts an affair between a married French intelligence agent (Frederick Stafford) and a member of the Cuban resistance (Karin Dor), who is the mistress of a high-ranking member of Castro’s government (the excellent John Vernon). Another subplot depicts the Cuban official’s visit to New York, where he tries to stir up enthusiasm for Castro’s revolution among the residents of Harlem.
Quite a few films portrayed Cuban immigrants to the United States as well. Indian director Mira Nair’s “The Perez Family” (1995) was a comedy about several Cuban refugees who pretend to be related in order to better their odds with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The character of Che Guevara appears in some of these films. The ridiculous “Che,” made by 20th Century Fox in 1969 and directed by Richard Fleischer, with Omar Sharif in the title role and Jack Palance as Castro, is well-deserving of oblivion. Better movies in this category include “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004), directed by the Brazilian director Walter Salles, starring Gael García Bernal and based on the journals Guevara kept as a young man, and “Che” (2008), Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic starring Benicio del Toro and following Guevara’s life from his involvement in Castro’s revolution to his death.
We must not forget about “Buena Vista Social Club,” the spectacular Wim Wenders documentary immortalizing old-time Cuban musicians who remained faithful to traditional Cuban music. One of the most important artists with a connection with Cuba was the cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who was born in Spain but followed his father to Cuba when he went into exile during the Franco era. He directed documentaries for Castro, but left for Paris after two of his movies were banned by the regime. He worked with directors ric Roehmer and François Truffaut (including on the latter’s “The Story of Adele H.” and “The Last Metro”). He also worked in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award in cinematography for Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978). Almendros was the cinematographer for Robert Benton’s 1979 “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Alan J. Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). In the 1980s Almendros, who died of AIDS in 1992, aged 61, directed two powerful films during the 1980s about the Castro regime’s persecution of homosexuals (“Mauvaise Conduite” [“Improper Conduct”]), and of dissidents (“Nadie escuchaba” [“Nobody listened”).
Another important documentary was “Cuba Si!” (1961), directed by the French documentarian Chris Marker, which was photographed “rapidly,” according to the opening title sequence. According to the preface to the screenplay, it was “aim[ed] at countering the monstrous wave of misinformation in the major part of the press.” Several high-quality films were made in Cuba itself, including “Memorias del subdesarrollo” (“Memories of Underdevelopment,” from 1968, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Set in 1961, shortly after the failed U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, the movie depicts social and cultural alienation through the story of a writer whose wife and parents have fled to Miami. He is hesitant to write another novel in the failed reality in which he lives.
What will Cuba look like, cinematically speaking, once diplomatic relations with the United States are restored? Will movies still depict the injustices of the Castro regime and the suffering of Cuban prisoners and refugees, or will they go back to depicting Havana as a setting for romantic comedies or even musicals? The 2012 “7 Days in Havana” — seven short films, each directed by a different filmmaker, including Laurent Cantet (France), Benicio del Toro (Puerto Rican), Gaspar Noé (born in Argentina, works in France) and the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. The film as a whole depicts Havana from various human, social, cultural and political angles. Perhaps this is one way to deal with Cuba’s history from Batista’s time through the Castro era and the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States, which is certainly good news for those who enjoy a good Cuban cigar.