Militant worker interviewed by Guzmán


Worker in Part III who appeared in earlier parts of the film.

"El pueblo organizado es inteligente."

La lucha sigue. The band plays "Venceremos."


Battle of Chile: Struggle of a People without Arms

by Victor Wallis

4-disc DVD set (Icarus films, 2009). $44.98 home use.

Battle of Chile: Struggle of a People Without Arms

  • Part I. The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975)
  • Part II. The Coup d'etat (1976)
  • Part III. People's Power (1978)

Special features: Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997)
Interview with director Patricio Guzmán.

Foreword (2010)

THE BATTLE OF CHILE became an instant classic. It richly deserves the wider audience that its DVD release will now make possible.

I know of no more eloquent depiction of working people acting collectively on their own behalf and in furtherance of a larger vision. Chile’s workers were militarily suppressed after Pinochet's 1973 coup, but their exemplary resourcefulness, solidarity, and commitment will now be kept more fully alive.

This is, of course, just part of what the film is about. The rest, as recounted in Parts I and II, involves on the one hand the heavy machinations of the bourgeoisie (U.S. as well as Chilean) to abort the workers’ gains and, on the other, the complex divisions and debates that emerged on both sides of the central clash of forces. The associated strategic issues were discussed in my original review, which appears below without alteration except for the addition of stills from the film.

The more universal dimensions of the whole experience are the focus of Part III, which became available two years after Parts I and II (not in time to be included in my review). The present release carries the further advantage of featuring Patricio Guzmán himself as the narrative voice for all three parts. Compared at least to the earlier English-language narration that I heard, the effect is to reduce the occasional impression of an overbearing commentary and to let the filmed material speak more for itself.

Part III brings us into close-up contact with the workers, the pobladores (residents of popular neighborhoods), and, at one point, the peasants. We encounter again some of the faces from Parts I and II, but this time with an opportunity to dwell on them. We also meet more workers speaking to us from their worksites. And we witness a remarkable exchange about land-takeovers between a representative of the politically cautious Unidad Popular (UP) government and a community of embattled peasants with a no-nonsense spokesman.

Peasants confront UP official about land takeovers.

The issue for the workers here, as throughout the film, is how much to take the process of change into their own hands. The question of expropriating unused farmland is posed in the most urgent practical terms, as being essential to maintaining food supplies for a population put at risk – and challenged in its commitment – by the bourgeoisie’s concerted disruption of all normal economic activity (especially transport).

The debate of the peasants with the government official mirrors a similar clash in Part II, at a union meeting (mentioned in my original review), between a temporizing young Communist leader and an impassioned older worker who is fed up with legal restraints that block workers from taking control of production.

Another unforgettable moment in Part III is a female factory worker at her worksite remarking that “el pueblo organizado es inteligente” (“the organized people are intelligent”).

Throughout, we see reminders of this intelligence being put into practice, as workers and peasants mobilize tractors and pick-up trucks to provide transit services, and as pobladores staff neighborhood depots to assure equitable distribution of scarce consumer goods.

Toward the end of Part III, moving to the nitrate mines of Chile’s arid North, we glimpse a lively lecture from an educator/organizer,  and we are shown with pride some of the improvised spare parts that have been crafted, on site, to replace embargoed imports from the U.S. The film’s closing shot is of a wide expanse of desert, conveying desolation, but with the voiced expression of a distant hope.

At a number of points throughout Part III – which Guzmán himself describes as a tribute to the workers – we hear the strains of the UP anthem “Venceremos” (“we will win”). Most typically, it is played by marching bands, which we see accompanying big demonstrations. But as the end approaches, we also hear it just on the soundtrack, mournfully intoned by an Andean flute as the camera rides along a few yards behind a young worker loping past several desolate city blocks – walls adorned with UP graffiti – hauling a rickety wagon with an undefined cargo. The grit, the love, and the pathos of the people’s struggle are fused in this shot.

In CHILE, OBSTINATE MEMORY, filmed in 1996 (six years after Pinochet’s forced withdrawal from power), Guzmán – who has been living in Paris – makes a return visit to Chile, bringing THE BATTLE OF CHILE with him for its first-ever screenings within the country. In a remarkable scene near the beginning, a band of young musicians marches through the streets of Santiago – using the score brought back by Guzmán from composer Sergio Ortega’s Paris exile – playing the long-forbidden strains of “Venceremos.” The reactions of startled onlookers – ranging from rebuff to resonance, the latter alternately joyous, melancholy, and defiant – evoke the full span of emotions that marked the clash of a generation earlier.

The rest of the film is part nostalgia-cum-disclosure, and part a rekindling of the perennial political debate. We meet, for example, the father of assassinated cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva (to whom THE BATTLE OF CHILE is dedicated) and also Ignacio Valenzuela (Guzmán’s uncle), who tells how he received each day’s harvest of film footage until all 20 hours’ worth could be smuggled – thanks to Swedish Ambassador Harald Edelstam – out of Chile. But above all we see reactions – both from contemporaries and from much younger people – to the film itself.

The polarization of basic loyalties is undiminished. Some of the coup’s defenders voice respect for Allende at the level of personal integrity – his willingness to die rather than surrender – but their deeper reactions signal the void of political understanding that was created by the coup regime. The notion that workers on their own had the capacity and the will to keep the economy going – with the “respectable” elements of society doing all in their power to disrupt it (as happened in October 1972 and again in mid-1973) – seems to fall outside the mental categories of the bourgeoisie. As one elegant female student says of the workers: “Why did they occupy the factories? They should have been working.”

The confrontations in THE BATTLE OF CHILE are a head-on challenge to bourgeois prejudice. For those who survived the coup’s aftermath with their sensibilities intact (including some who were too young in 1973 to understand what was going on), the effect of the film’s revelations is overwhelming. Guzmán doesn’t spare us the raw emotions of these viewers.

It remains true, however, that for all the affection some of its protagonists may inspire in us, THE BATTLE OF CHILE is also – as Guzmán wished it to be – a great analytic film. The latter aspect facilitates the political reckonings that have been going on ever since (some of which were reflected in my 1979 remarks). But it is the fusion of analytic clarity with emotional intensity that has given the film its lasting resonance.

One of the conservative viewers in OBSTINATE MEMORY describes the Pinochet coup as the first hammer-blow in the “fall of communism.” THE BATTLE OF CHILE allows us to turn this around and to see the activation of Chile’s workers as the first glimmer of “21st-century socialism”: a succession of popular movements throughout Latin America which, as in Chile of the 1970s, would win elections but which would also go further and would push more strongly against the limits of bourgeois legality.

1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it was also the year of the caracazo, the crushed popular uprising in Venezuela which nonetheless was the opening salvo in the Bolivarian Revolution.* The latter process has been characterized by its leader Hugo Chávez (a former mid-level military officer) as “peaceful but armed,” and with a conception of socialism distinguished from earlier state-centric versions precisely by its emphasis on direct empowerment of workers.

Fittingly, Venezuela’s oil workers in 2002 replicated the feat of Chile’s copper workers in 1972, in rescuing both their own industry and the country’s elected leadership from a politically driven “strike” by capital.

Note for introduction

* My remarks about Venezuela are based on Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution (London: Verso, 2005); D.L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (London: Pluto, 2006); and the 34-minute documentary film The Bolivarian Revolution: Enter the Oil Workers (www.globalwomenstrike.net, 2004).

Go to page 2: Battle of Chile review

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.