Che’s Boots: Discipline and the Flawed Hero1
University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez
Che’s boots have a story to tell. As a scholar, I tell the story one way. But working within a literary nonfiction mode, I have something else in mind. So, let me adjust those hats on top of my head, like the traveling salesman in the children’s classic, Caps for Sale. These are like my interpretive wares, used to offer an allusive look at boots as a contested foundation—of either the romance of revolution, or of military discipline, depending on your point of view. (The vendor here, after all, wears caps of many colors, like Joseph’s coat).
Boots are symbols, and their interpretation is shaped by the viewer’s situation. This was impressed upon me while working among reggae musicians, and later living in Jamaica. Rasta-inspired singers who wear camouflage are interpreted as “rebels with a cause.” If I, as a so-called “white man,” were to wear camo in the United States, I might be seen as a right-wing lone ranger with an itchy trigger finger. That frame of reference keeps popping up in the news with disturbing regularity.
In Number the Stars, Lois Lowry uses images of soldiers’ glossy black boots as a signifier of Nazi authority in Denmark. The Nazi boots are windows on the abuse of power in numerous scenes. When soldiers search the Johansens’ apartment looking for the Jewish neighbors which the Johansens have hidden, an officer has to accept an alibi in the form of a picture. The “officer tore the photograph in half and dropped the pieces on the floor. Then he turned, the heels of his shiny boots grinding into the pictures, and left the apartment.”
Now to Che’s boots. Let’s start with an establishing shot of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che, Part One”—a close-up of Commander Guevara’s polished combat boot, during a 1964 interview with a British journalist. Now, adjusting those hats atop my head, I’m going to wave Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, and open it to “Alegría de Pío,” in which Guevara describes the “new boots” of the decimated troops (December 1956) as “enemies” which caused blisters, infections, and an inability to take another step.
Soderbergh and Guevara use combat boots to look beneath the surface of the romance of revolution. The polished boot below the chair in the black and white scene is part of the persona of the professional revolutionary—a mask, even. But Che shows you the underside of the revolution. The soldiers who, shortly before, jumped off a yacht, the Granma, are not ready for prime time. Rushing off to battle, they have not even taken the time to break in their boots. The boots exact a heavy price: at the worst possible moment (under fire), the soldiers are brought to a standstill by what should be the foundation of their combat gear. The boots have become their enemy, because the soldiers are too green. Stuck in the muck of a swamp near the beach, the pain of those blisters rubbing against stiff leather is perhaps even worse than the searing instant when the bullet pierces flesh. Their boots become like a millstone in the quagmire.
Soderbergh uses color and its absence as a way to interrogate the romance of revolution. Che’s meetings with reporters and diplomats in the film’s present are shown in newsreel-style black and white. By contrast, Che’s memories of the Cuban experience—triggered by exchanges with reporters, dignitaries, and fans—are in living color. So, in Soderbergh’s establishing shot, he frames the way in which Che is being staged, while being interviewed. On stage and on screen, the disciplined, polished professional revolutionary who sees the world in black and white (us vs. them) returns to his color memories. These reconstruct how the guerrillas in Cuba were often undisciplined, uneducated, sometimes criminal, and entirely unprepared for their revolution.
I’ll walk around that word discipline gingerly. Che was all about discipline, as was Bob Marley. These two “culture heroes,” from a Caribbean base, acquired global reach. If we read beyond the romance—into the dirt on the boots and the sweat on the brow--we can see the hard work, persistence, and long-range vision required to change one’s habits, much less “the order of things.” I could not do justice to their global reach while writing strictly within an academic discipline. As a creative writer and an interdisciplinary scholar, that kind of over-specialized discipline gives me just as much of a headache as wearing a tower of caps.
There’s nothing wrong with developing a discipline. Experience teaches just how crucial discipline is, in fact. But Che’s boots “speak” to a different kind of discipline. I’m interested in how Soderbergh translates this theme to audiences who come to his film with a view of Che that is either romanticized or demonized.
The Criterion edition of Soderbergh’s Che sketches the matrix out of which the film emerged. Benicio Del Toro, a Puerto Rican, had worked with Soderbergh and Laura Bickford on Traffic (1999). Del Toro and Bickford asked Terrence Malick to write a script about Che. (Malick was in Bolivia as a journalist in 1966 working on a story about Che). When Malick left to do “The New World,” Soderbergh agreed to direct, helping generate a new script with multiple interwoven timelines: Bolivia, Cuba, New York, Mexico City.
Soderbergh’s descriptions of the high-pressure context in which the film was conceived, and shot, reveal how central discipline is to his creative process:
We had a start date approaching. I said we have to stop and think about this. Two weeks later, I said it needs to be two movies. We need to break it in half and do each movie in the way we feel is appropriate, and we’ve got to do them in Spanish. [Screenwriter] Peter Buchman and Benicio sat down and started from scratch to do Cuba.
“Part One, The Argentine,” and “Part Two, Guerrilla,” were shot back-to-back, beginning in July 2007, in reverse order: “Guerrilla” in Spain and then “The Argentine” in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Soderbergh had shot the framing sequence of Part One—a flash-forward to Che’s visit to New York in 1964 when he’s at the height of his rock-star glory—a year earlier. The budget was small, and the schedule was nerve-rackingly short—39 days for each film.
As Amy Taubin notes, “‘Che is militantly uncommercial filmmaking,” given audience expectations to be spoon-fed narratives and video game-like action sequences. “Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ is not a hagiography or a romance” and shows Che as all too human. Soderbergh keeps a disciplined distance, intent on showing Che in a social context, rather than as a heroic individual.
Soderbergh’s ‘Che sets out to elicit, through its very structure, personal responses to still contentious issues. These include the role of violence in social change; demonization vs. hagiography in treatments of / reception of iconic figures; and the very possibility of romantic heroism in an era of terminal political cynicism. Above all, both the film and its primary source text, Che’s Reminiscences, are about the importance of discipline, as well as its costs.
“Discipline is the structure which provides freedom,” it is said. The need for discipline is an obsessive refrain in Che’s text. Without self-discipline, there is no lasting freedom.
By opening with Che’s boots, Soderbergh immediately destabilizes the iconography of Che.2 Soderbergh wants to put the icon into dialogue with its origins, to reduce the icon to human dimensions. Where better to start than with the feet? Whether of clay, clad in polished leather, or the bronze base of heroic monuments…
Before we even see the boots, while looking at a black screen, Soderbergh gives another framing device: a reporter asks Che for a sound check. The visual narrative has not begun, but we have been made aware of the artificiality—the mediated nature—of Che’s encounter with the global context of his era. He has been asked to tell his version of Cuba’s revolution. Beginning with the polished boot suggests just how calculated this retelling is—if we know the real function of boots among the would-be revolutionaries (those fighting for their lives vs. those later giving interviews). The new boots are a handicap for the actual revolutionary, but for the professional staged revolutionary, they are an essential part of his arsenal.
Combat boots are part of Che’s persona in all his interviews. In one photo Che holds court with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1960, during the “honeymoon of the revolution.” Sartre famously referred to Che as “the most complete human being of our time.” De Beauvoir saw Che as the embodiment of the mythical “new man” that Che had hypothesized.
In this shot, Sartre “bows” before Che, almost as if he were looking at those boots. Of course, he is receiving a light from El Comandante, but the “bowing” posture is characteristic of the stance of many leftist intellectuals, who fetishized Che. (Sartre and de Beauvoir were on the platform beside Che, out-of-frame, in Korda’s famous “Guerrillero Heroico” photo). So, from 1959 on Che was performing the role of “professional revolutionary” for a steady stream of admiring visitors to Cuba. Che’s wife Aleida observed that Che’s boots “looked scuffled, as they always did,” when she glanced at him at a reception. The right boot above does indeed look like it has done some hard labor. Perhaps Soderbergh took some cinematic liberties with the immaculate boots that Che is shown buffing to a high sheen in a New York scene. Still, it is possible that Che projected a quite different persona while abroad, doing interviews and hobnobbing with dignitaries. At “home,” for those six years in Cuba (1959-1965), it would have been characteristic if the man who was averse to bathing, and took great pride in eating, dressing, and living just like the soldiers he commanded, would have worn “dirty boots,” as in the shots of the era, when he was seen cutting sugar cane, or some other “voluntary” labor.
Contemporary viewers of Soderbergh, or readers of Che’s writing, need to have a sense of the role that Che played for the international media, who were often fawning, but also at times hostile. In adapting Che’s writings from an “agnostic” perspective, Soderbergh seeks to revise the one-sided views of the hagiographers, and the demonizers as well.
Che did not write his book for intellectuals (most chapters were first published in Olivo Verde, magazine of the Cuban armed forces), and Soderbergh did not make his film for critics, or for either haters of idolaters of Che. Presumably Soderbergh made the film in part for the youths who wear Che T-shirts without knowing who he was, or what his image means, other than as a sort of “forever young,” perpetually cool symbol of rebellion. The director would surely agree with a critic who insists that “Che Guevara is not a free-floating icon of rebellion.”
Soderbergh’s interrogation of the iconography of Che was also directed at those who read Che as an assassin.3 He includes shots of agitated protesters shouting “murderer” at Guevara when he arrives to speak at the United Nations. Depending on the point of view, viewers could see Che’s boots as a variant of Orwell’s authoritarian boot, stomping on the human race, or as a representation of the self-discipline and attention to detail that was characteristic of Che.
Let us think of Che’s boots through the legacy of romanticism, as a mode of artistic expression. An attitude of revolt was central to romanticism—romantic heroes revolted against tyranny and mindless conventions. Although earlier romantics were characterized by individual excess, increasingly romantic heroes engaged in political rebellion (Lord Byron et al). As romanticism as a movement faded, the romantic attitude re-emerged as figures in new kinds of narratives, within new styles (realism, modernism, etc.). One area in which these figures of romantic heroes seeking justice become particularly prevalent is in the literature of revolutions.
Looking at a Latin American version of this legacy, Cervantes’ Quixote serves as a template for two models of “romantic heroes” who engaged in quixotic revolutionary quests:
1. Re-writing scripts (largely utopian)
2. Tilting at windmills (most often dystopian)
Both of those tendencies are foregrounded in Che’s life. The compulsion to rewrite social scripts in order to achieve social justice is a constant. Yet his disastrous ventures in the Congo and Bolivia were dystopian examples of tilting at “giants,” without the support of the people which would be necessary for a revolution that actually changed social scripts. Both tendencies can be seen in how Guevara represented himself, as well as in Soderbergh’s revisionist adaptation.
In the scenes which take place outside Cuba, as Che is interviewed, speaks at the UN, etc., his interactions with the politicians and socialites are done in faux-documentary black and white. The color parts are structured as flashbacks—thematically triggered by the B&W scenes. These longer color scenes are what Che remembers as he explains the revolution to the international press. Through this dual method, the film interrogates both Che’s and the audience’s construction of, and investment in, the myth of the new man. In a core scene, Che listens to a blond reporter on TV as he polishes his boots in an NYC motel room. The reporter is talking about Guevara: “He has been called the brains of the revolution, and the power behind Fidel Castro, though he denies both assertions.” Brush brush—the very sound of the boots being polished seems simultaneously to take the shine off the romanticized image being projected on the screen.
The surface of this moment is very different from the roots of Guevara’s experiences, to which the film directs the audience’s attention. We seem to see Che at the height of his rock star power, but in December 1964, Che was, in fact, on the way out of Cuba. The scenes in New York show several important subtexts. Although Che receives treatment from the media and from the police normally accorded only to heads of states or entertainment superstars, he has become a prisoner of his myth. He moves with a police escort; he must walk the gauntlet of protesters who see him as a quasi-antichrist.
This black-and-white segment then cuts to two of the low points of Guevara’s life, the “tragic flaws” of the hero in this narrative. These Achilles heels were his asthma and his foreign-ness as a white/Argentine. It was in fact his “otherness,” challenged at a moment of debility during an asthma attack, which led Fidel to strip him of his authority on the battlefield. Thus, Fidel acted as a disciplinarian who demanded a sterner discipline from the young protégé who was both friend and apprentice.
The interview with which “Che: Part One” begins poses the question: what if Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress is successful? Will Cuba’s model of revolution then still have an appeal? Guevara does not answer, but draws on his cigar, and meditates. Cut to Guevara meeting Castro in Mexico City, 1955. After dinner, Fidel discourses about Cuban resources being diverted “to support the economy of the most developed country in the world.” Then Raúl Castro adds: “Martí said if the US takes the Spaniards out of Cuba, then we would have to take out the U.S.” This was, after all, what the boots were all about: taking the U.S.-supported dictator out of Cuba.
After Che and Fidel talk from a balcony about the immanent invasion of Cuba, the scene cuts to the pair aboard the Granma, looking at the Gulf of Mexico. Che’s “interview voice” notes that of 82 men on board, “only 12 would survive to witness our victory.” Here Soderbergh cuts to the perception of power in New York (December 1964). This glimpse of the apparent height of Che’s power shows him isolated inside the bubble of fame, and infamy. From within a police escort, protestors try to puncture that bubble: “Murderer! Assassin! Get out of Cuba, Che!” These opponents see not the glamour, but the boot that grinds, as in 1984 or Number the Stars.
The voice of a female TV reporter is superimposed over Che greeting dignitaries inside a motel. The scene cuts to the image of this blonde reporter’s face on a black-and-white TV, her voice now tinny. A brushing sound intrudes; the camera cuts to Che, brushing his black boots as he watches this report about himself as the “brains of the revolution.” The boots here are part of the media circus, on one level, so Che has become a part of the society of spectacle. But brushing the boots also reminds Che of where he came from and why he is here and why the soldier’s discipline remains essential during the afterlife of the revolution.
There is a great irony in the next cut, which shows Guevara suffering from an asthma attack in the Sierra Maestra. The intertitle is “CUBA MARCH 1957. 398 miles from Havana.” This is the pre-mythic Che. The next chapter (“10 days with asthma”) details the consequences of Che’s often debilitating asthma in the early days of his would-be career as a revolutionary in Cuba. This weakness, along with his insecurity about being a foreigner, threatened to derail what we now see as his destiny.
Che is still a volatile subject, especially among those determined that no word should be uttered about him other than “murderer.”4 In the Criterion commentary, Jon Anderson criticizes Soderbergh for stopping short of showing the arrival in power, and the executions of Bautista henchmen that took place that first year. But people can discern from the structure of the film itself that Soderbergh is not taking sides. He presents a human portrait which allows people to draw their own conclusions as to what Che was made of, or what he was capable of.
The scene with which Soderbergh chose to end Part One takes place just after Che comments to journalists that the revolution has many moments of madness. After winning the last battle, Che rides shotgun in a jeep, his boot on the dash. A red Chevy convertible filled with soldiers passes. Che commands that they be stopped and walks to the shiny convertible—still in his battle fatigues and boots. He reprimands Rogelio, who justified himself by saying that he took his fancy ride from a sniper—the hired assassin of those clinging to power. Che sends Rogelio and his cohorts back to return the stolen car, remarking that he would rather walk than arrive at the seat of power on stolen wheels.
As he turns around, the Intertitle says “Jan. 2, 1959. 184 miles from Havana.” Power is much closer now. But the “moral of the story,” as Che remarked to the woman who asked him about being a symbol, is that the “eyes of the world are upon us.” Discipline is needed most precisely at the moment of victory. The aims of the revolution cannot be met without self-discipline. The education projects begun in the Sierra Maestra will require “stern discipline.” This was dramatized earlier when two renegade soldiers who stole from a peasant and raped his daughter are executed—on the demand of the people.
In Soderbergh’s “Che,” the meanings of Che’s combat boots are fluid. In the midst of battle, the new boots can be “enemies” that give away the lack of professionalism of the soldiers. In Havana, the scuffed boots were a sign of authenticity. In New York, the polished boots were a military man’s means of expressing order and self-discipline. But on the road to Havana, as a parting shot, a different reading is possible. Sometimes the boots must do some stomping, so that those who wear the uniforms of authority will walk with dignity.
About the Author
Gregory Stephens is Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, where he teaches Creative Writing, literature, film, and grad seminars in Cultural Studies, Literary Nonfiction, and Composition Theory and Practice. Before grad school Stephens was an award-winning songwriter in Austin, Texas. He is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley (Cambridge UP). His book Trilogies as Cultural Analysis: Literary Re-imaginings of Sea Crossings, Animals, and Fathering appeared in September 2018 (Cambridge Scholars Press). The monograph Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance, which combines ethnography and literary nonfiction, is in production with Intermezzo. In the Fall 2018 semester Stephens is on leave and teaching Spanish at Missouri Western State University.
1. This essay’s sometimes allusive style (“working by suggestion rather than explicit mention”) operates within the modes I teach in Creative Writing Studies. See my “Transferable Skills and travelling theory in creative writing pedagogy” (2018). Those seeking an academic structure in the analysis of Che should consult my study “Sacrifice, Faith, Mestizo Identity: Three Views of Che’s ‘New Man’” (2016).
2. I define Iconography as “the process by which people or images are blown up to larger than life proportion, and take on a life of their own, often having little or nothing to do with the original.”
3. But it seems some assassins can be romantic heroes, which is how conservative patriots read American Sniper.
4. See Soderbergh attempting to reason with audiences in Miami or New York in this YouTube video.
Sage, Tyler. “Innocents Abroad: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014).” Bright Lights Film Journal (August 5, 2015).
Stephens, Gregory. “Sacrifice, Faith, Mestizo Identity: Three Views of Che’s ‘New Man’.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 34.1 (2016): 168-195.
—. “Transferable skills and travelling theory in creative writing pedagogy.” New Writing 15.1 (2018): 65-81.