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Review: ‘There Be Dragons’

History Lesson

Above: Dougray Scott plays a reporter in "There Be Dragons."

Roland Joffe has turned to history for inspiration in the past and now he turns to the Spanish Civil War for the backdrop of his latest film "There Be Dragons" (currently playing at Reading Gaslamp Theaters, Regal Rancho Del Rey, and Regal Parkway).

Joffe grabbed attention and awards for his directing debut, "The Killing Fields," a portrait of Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist/photographer Sidney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian translator and assistant Dith Pran (portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor). The two men were trapped in Cambodia during 1975 during the terror reign of the Khmer Rouge. The film offered a personal window onto a harrowing chapter in history.

Not buying Wes Bentley as a Spaniard in "There Be Dragons."

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Above: Not buying Wes Bentley as a Spaniard in "There Be Dragons."

"There Be Dragons" tries to do the same thing but with the Spanish Civil War. The press materials call it "an epic tale of revolutionaries and saints in a time of civil war; a story of love and heroism amid jealousy, hatred and violence; and a heartbreaking drama about the power of forgiveness to break the chains of the past." Hmm? Sound more like epic melodrama than history made personal. And maybe that's it's problem. It wants to be a huge tapestry and in trying to weave that epic portrait, it loses it's personal perspective.

As with "The Killing Fields," a journalist provides Joffe with his way into the history lesson. "There Be Dragons" begins with a London-based reporter Robert Torres (Dougray Scott), who visits Spain to research a book about Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), the controversial founder of Opus Dei. But Robert finds that his potentially most promising source - his estranged father Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) who was childhood friends with Josemaría -- proves uncooperative. This leads Robert to investigate his father's own past to uncover dark secrets. In predictable fashion, the flashback provides us with a pair of men that take radically different paths: Josemaría dedicates his life to his faith while Manolo chooses a more violent path as the Spanish Civil War breaks out.

Joffe has been able to bring history to vivid life in films like "The Killing Fields" and "The Mission." But with "There Be Dragons," the history feels more stilted, like he's delivering a lesson rather than showing us life. Part of the problem lies in the casting. Neither Wes Bentley nor Charlie Cox is very impressive. Bentley doesn't have the passion to make us buy Manolo's activism and Cox can't make us believe his man of the cloth. And neither one is very convincing as a Spaniard.

The Spanish Civil War is the tumultuous backdrop for "There be Dragons."

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Above: The Spanish Civil War is the tumultuous backdrop for "There be Dragons."

One of the things that made Joffe's "The Killing Fields" so compelling was that Ngor's real life experiences reflected aspects of his onscreen character. Ngor was a native Cambodian and physician; he was captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge and eventually came to the U.S. as a refugee. That gave resonance to the film and to his performance. Sadly, neither Bentley nor Cox can invest their characters with any authenticity or believability. They just seem like out of place Americans/Brits awkwardly trying to pretend they are Spanish. I don't believe that an actor must be like the role he is assuming but he has to find a way to inhabit his character so that he finds the truth of that role. Bentley and Cox fail to do that and that hurts the film significantly.

"There Be Dragons" (PG-13 for violence and combat sequences, some language and thematic elements) has the stilted feel of old Hollywood historical films that badly cast American or British stars as all sorts of foreign real life figures (John Wayne as Gengis Khan might be the worst example). But "There Be Dragons" does cover some interesting historical ground and at least has something on its mind and it's not as ploddingly bad as Robert Redford's recent historical outing, "The Conspirator." But Guillermo Del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth" use the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop in far more effective and compelling manner, providing far more insights than Joffe manages to give.

Companion viewing: "The Killing Fields," "The Mission," "The Devil's Backbone," "Pan's Labyrinth"

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 18, 2011 at 12:50 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Aaaarghhhhhhh!!! Beth, THE CONSPIRATOR happens to be one of the best if not the best new film I've seen so far this year! I haven't read the actual script, but what is on the screen happens to be some intelligent writing which we haven't seen in a long, long time! Even without the conteporary references about civilains in military tribunals, this would be an interesting film. When I saw it, the audience was enthralled. Robin Wright should receive an actress nom for her completely believable portrayal.

As for THERE BE DRAGONS, I hope it sticks around at least a week longer so I can see it, if it survives all the pre-summer fare. Now, PAN's LABYRINTH is a very good film and I believe it was robbed of the Foreign Language Film Oscar when it was up, but what blankity blank "insights" did THAT have on the Spanish Civil War??? Have you even heard of Ken Loach's 1996 film LAND AND FREEDOM??? Go rent it.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | May 18, 2011 at 10:24 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Haven't seen that Loach film but I like his work so I will check it out. Pan's Labyrinth had insights into the human spirit and into what can fuel the passion to make someone rebel or to risk their own safety for a cause. It provides emotional insights as opposed to historical facts. It was far more vivid and real than anything in There Be Dragons.

I had no affection for The Conspirator as a film. As a historical document it focused attention on a fascinating chapter in history but it was so dry and predictable in delivering its message. There is no gray area in this film, Redford takes sides from the opening moments and tells us who he thinks is right and wrong. It lacked art and subtlety.

I'm glad you enjoyed it and the audience was engaged because I do think it is a piece of history people should be aware of.

Thanks as always for your comments.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 19, 2011 at 7:29 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

If you remember, the main character, the army officer Aiken, isn't exactly enthusiastic about taking on the case. At the same time, the film challenges the audiences' emotions since Surrat is afterall, a Confederate sympathizer.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | May 19, 2011 at 10:18 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

He may not be enthusiastic but we never have any doubt that he will see the error of his ways and be the one to deliver the film's message. And it didn't challenge my emotions since it did not deliver any complexity or nuance. All the judges were painted as one-dimensionally bad people. Robin Wright was depicted as near saintly and a martyr. It was all bland paint by numbers for me. I knew exactly how everything was going to play out in terms of what message Redford wanted to deliver. It's fine as a historical document but deathly dull as a work of art... at least for me.

But I know others who love history so much and are so hungry for films about history that they really enjoy these types of films. And that's great. This style of filmmaking is just not my cup of tea.


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