Cuban Story (1959) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Errol Flynn and a producer named Victor Pahlen were spending time in their favorite Cuban casinos in 1958 when Castro's rebellion was nearing success. Although both men had enjoyed the good life in Batista's Cuba, they realized that they were sitting on a unique opportunity, so they stayed in Cuba, hung out with the revolutionary troops, and took to the streets with silent cameras to record history as it happened. The result of that footage was this unique fifty-minute documentary called Cuban Story. It was written, edited, and directed by Pahlen. Errol Flynn did some "narration" for the film, which basically means that he offered some thoughts on camera for about five minutes. Flynn may have been inebriated at the time, and his health was poor enough to cause him to wheeze noticeably when he did his brief monologues. He would be dead within a year.

Except for the five minutes when Flynn talks directly to the camera, the visuals consist entirely of 45 minutes of silent newsreel footage of inconsistent quality. That newsreel portion of the film is also supposed to be narrated by Errol Flynn, but it is not. Oh, it was all delivered in the first person as if it were Flynn speaking his thoughts, but the lines were actually spoken by someone else pretending to be Flynn, albeit with a completely different voice and accent! The soundtrack for the newsreel footage consists entirely of the faux-Flynn narration and several stirring reprises of "Adelante, Cubanos" ("Onward, Cubans"), Castro's revolutionary anthem.

Flynn and Pahlen had seen the cruelties of Batista's reign firsthand, so they took a decidedly pro-Castro stance in their documentary. That attitude may seem shocking when the film is viewed by Americans today, but it was not unusual at all in 1958. Castro was then widely considered to be liberating his people from a murderous dictator. In fact, Castro's uprising was popular enough, and Batista was unpopular enough, that Castro's revolution even received contributions from rich, idealistic Cubans, who obviously did not suspect that the freedom fighter would soon turn die-hard Marxist and expropriate the very land which had generated those contributions. Castro was also considered to be a hero by many Americans, possibly even a majority of Americans in 1958. Director Sydney Pollack claims that he was thinking of America's attitude toward Castro when he started working on his film, The Interpreter. Pollack told an interviewer:

ďI remember when I was a kid in New York, and Castro first came to power. There was a ticker-tape parade in New York, and he went on television and everybody in America worshipped him. He was speaking English, and he was this great freedom fighter who had liberated his country. And, slowly, heís become a guy you canít write anything bad about, you canít do this, you go to jail. Thatís what happened with all these guys. What really fascinated me was what would happen if any of these dictators came face to face with who they were before they became corrupt.Ē

Unfortunately for Victor Pahlen and his film, Castro's relationship with the West soured after his victory, and Fidel soon began to cement his alliance with the Soviet Union. By the time Cuban Story was ready to screen, its pro-Castro tone had made it anathematic anywhere but Russia, so the film was screened exactly once, at The Moscow Film Festival. After that it was forgotten, completely unseen for more than 40 years until recently unearthed and released on DVD with an introduction by Victor Pahlen's daughter, Kyra.

By any objective standard, it is a weak documentary. The narration is shallow and soporific, the Flynn impersonation is a sleazy and ineffective trick, and the incessantly repeated theme song will stir memories of riding through "It's A Small World." Some of the footage is actually in good shape, but other parts are deplorable. The DVD box says it all: "The picture and sound quality of this DVD will at times be below contemporary standards." If that's how their marketing guys spun it on the box, you can guess how an objective reviewer might have phrased it. None of that really matters, however, because the film consists of priceless and historically significant footage which had been lost for four decades and still can't be seen elsewhere. If you are interested in the Cuban revolution, this film is actually worth seeing.

Since the value of this film lies in the rarity of the footage, it makes sense to summarize the film with a small gallery:

Flynn shows where Cuba is! He provokes some unintended laughter by tossing the globe away after he is finished with it, causing it to bounce noisily off camera. Flynn playing in George Raft's casino in the Batista days. The blonde to his right is his very young (14 or 15) girlfriend Beverly Aadland.

Above and right: Errol Flynn and Fidel Castro, together at last.

Rare footage of a beardless Castro.

The usually brooding Che Guevara caught in a rare moment of merriment.

  • The DVD consists solely of the film and a very brief introduction by Victor Pahlen's daughter, Kyra.




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The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Cuban Story is a C+. You might just as easily call it a D, because it is actually a terrible documentary, but in my opinion that simply doesn't matter because the footage is a priceless and historically significant record which had been lost for four decades and still can't be seen elsewhere.

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