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Reporter who told world of Guernica atrocity and inspired Picasso is hero of new film
By Vanessa Thorpe
Sunday 8 November 2015
The British journalist who helped expose Nazi involvement in the Spanish civil war is at the centre of a US-Spanish made drama
The ruins of Guernica in 1937 after the town was bombed by German aircraft. Photograph: AP
Sandbags, rifles and the fatigues of the militia have been familiar sights once more in the hills and valleys of the Basque country this autumn and are only now being cleared away, almost 80 years after the start of the Spanish civil war. But this time it was all make-believe.
The life of George Steer, the British reporter who brought the horror of the bombing of Guernica in 1937 to the public in both Britain and America, has inspired a major English-language film, due out next year. Called Gernika, using the Basque spelling, it will be the first to depict the terrible events of 26 April on the big screen and it has been welcomed by the people of the region, many of whom have taken part as extras.
Steer’s reports for the Times and for the New York Times were famously inspirational in their own right. It was a French version of his account, carried in l’Humanité, that prompted Pablo Picasso to create the huge monochrome painting, Guernica, as testament to the suffering of his countrymen.
Filing his story the day after the notorious air attack, Steer wrote: “At 2am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.” Picasso began work on his great painting four days later.
Steer’s story will be at the centre of the film, shot this summer in the northern town, in nearby Bilbao and surrounding hills. The Winchester- and Oxford-educated journalist, renamed Henry, is played by British actor James D’Arcy, best known for his menacing role in the second series of the BBC television series Broadchurch. Fellow British actor Jack Davenport has also been cast in the film, a £4.2m joint Spanish and American production. The renowned Spanish actress María Valverde stars opposite them in a screenplay described as “a love story set against the infamous bombing”.
The film is a personal project for the Basque director Koldo Serra, and much of the detail in it comes from historical testimonies he began collecting in 2012. He heard directly from elderly survivors how, after the attack, impoverished villagers combed the debris for the valuable aluminium casings of the bombs.
The screenplay, an American and Spanish collaboration by three writers, revolves around the journalist’s encounter with a woman who works as an editor at the republicans’ press office on the northern front, as their forces try to hold back the nationalists under the general command of Francisco Franco.
Bomb damaged street in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War 1937. Photograph: Alamy
“Henry will have character traits of George Steer, Ernest Hemingway and [the photographer] Robert Capa,” Serra has explained, defending his decision to make his hero an American, not a Brit. “And while there will be considerably large, dramatic war sequences, the story is, at heart, an intimate one. Hopefully, it feels like Casablanca.”
Davenport plays a Soviet official advising the republicans. During the Spanish civil war, which raged until April 1939, nationalist rebels fought the republicans for control of Spain and, following an arrangement with Hitler’s Germany, German aircraft bombed the town of Guernica, a centre of Basque separatist thought and also the base for many republican fighters.
Official nationalist reports said there had been about 300 deaths. The Basques said more than 1,500 civilians were killed in an air raid that lasted nearly four hours. The exact number is still in dispute today. As Steer wrote the next day: “Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. Every fact bears out this appreciation, beginning with the day when the deed was done.”
The journalist, who was born in South Africa and who died in 1944 in Myanmar in a jeep crash, had gone on to write a book about the events in Spain. Its title refers to the symbolic Basque oak in the centre of Guernica. “You must read a book by a man named Steer: it is called the Tree of Gernika,” wrote the famous war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to Eleanor Roosevelt, her friend and the then US president’s wife, in 1938.
“It is about the fight of the Basques – he’s the London Times man – and no better book has come out of the war and he says well all the things I have tried to say to you the times I saw you, after Spain. It is beautifully written and true, and few books are like that, and fewer still that deal with war.”
A street in Bilbao bears Steer’s name.