Cast & Crew
In 1933, Cuba has suffered seven years of terror perpetrated by a regime of corrupt politicians led by President Gerardo Machado. Threatened by a growing revolutionary underground, the senate passes a bill making all public gatherings a crime. One day a group of students, including Manolo Valdes, is caught distributing anti-government leaflets and chased by the political police called the Porra. Manolo escapes, but one student is shot and captured. Manolo, fearful that his identity will be revealed, goes into hiding, but first arranges with his sister China to signal him if the police do not come for him. The following day, China indicates that all is well, but as Manolo enters the university, he is killed by the police while China watches in horror. Later, China joins the underground, determined to take revenge on her brother's killer. At one of the group's meetings, she meets Tony Fenner, an American, and volunteers to participate in his plan to assassinate the Cuban leadership. Her first assignment is to withdraw money from Tony's account at the bank where she works. That same day at the bank, Porra agent Armando Ariete asks to examine all American accounts. China recognizes him as the man who killed Manolo, but maintains her composure. Later, Tony reveals his plan: The volunteers, consisting of Guillermo Mantilla, Ramón Sánchez, Toto Berenguer and Miguel, will tunnel from China's house to the cemetery. Tony will then assassinate a popular member of the government, and while all the other government officials attend his funeral, will explode a bomb underground, killing all of them. China warns Tony that because Contreras, the man he intends to kill, has a reputation for being better than the rest of the government, some members may object to his murder, but Tony will not make another choice. After the meeting, China and Tony, who have begun to fall in love, have breakfast and are seen by Ariete, who recognizes Tony's name from the bank. While work begins secretly on the tunnel, Ariete keeps close watch on China. One night, Ariete arrives at China's house, bringing food and flowers. Under the influence of too much rum, Ariete plays Russian roulette and then begs China to make love to him. Although Tony is prepared to intervene, Ariete passes out. As the digging continues, Ramon, a student, has second thoughts about killing Contreras when he remembers how, as a small boy, he used to play with his son. He becomes increasingly disturbed and wanders around the streets, begging people to prevent the murder. China and Guillermo find him, but he breaks away from them and is hit by a truck and killed. Later, at the bank, Ariete questions China about Tony, whose family was Cuban, and threatens to arrest her if she does not turn him in. Finally, the tunnel is completed, and Contreras is killed. Tony's plans fail, however, when Contreras' family decides to bury his body at a different cemetery. China offers to withdraw Tony's money from the bank so that he can leave the country, even though Tony, who is angry at his failure, does not want to leave. When China cashes Tony's check, she is fired, but before she leaves, she secretly gives the money to another employee to deliver to Tony. When she returns home, however, Tony is waiting for her, and when China tells him that Ariete is outside, he decides to die fighting and a gunfight ensues. Using dynamite that was intended for the bomb, Tony and China are able to drive the police away, but Tony is fatally wounded in the battle. Before he dies, however, he hears the city bells ringing, indicating that the revolution has begun.
Thomas Quon Woo
Lawrence W. Butler
S. P. Eagle
M. W. Stoloff
We Were Strangers
Huston had decided to leave his home studio before starting work on Key Largo (1948), the last film under his Warner Bros. contract. His resolve was only strengthened when the studio re-cut the film over his objections. When independent producer Sam Spiegel (who produced under the name S.P. Eagle at the time, partly to cover his Jewish roots and partly to distance himself from bad debts) heard Huston was looking for a producing partner, he made a pitch, and the two created Horizon Films.
At the time, Huston was already considering an adaptation of a story from New York Mirror reporter Robert Sylvester's episodic novel Rough Sketch and suggested it as their first production (Huston would later claim they came up with the project together, in a rush). The story, about a group of revolutionaries tunneling under a cemetery as part of a plot to assassinate corrupt officials of Gerardo Machado y Morales' dictatorship prior to the 1933 revolution, appealed to them as a way of snapping their fingers at the current atmosphere of Red-baiting in Hollywood and Washington. Despite the controversial story, they interested two Hollywood studios in signing production deals. According to rumor, MGM would have used it as a dramatic vehicle for dancer Gene Kelly. But Columbia Pictures offered the more lucrative deal, allowing Huston to go with his first choice for the male lead, John Garfield. MGM was so impressed with the pitch, however, that they offered Huston his own two-picture deal, to start after he finished We Were Strangers.
Huston had wanted to cast Garfield in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In fact, Garfield had been considered to play Curtin when the production was first discussed at Warner Bros. in 1941. When Huston finally got to make it after World War II, Garfield wasn't available, so the role had gone to cowboy star Tim Holt. Knowing they shared similar political views, Huston was eager to cast him as the Cuban-born revolutionary in We Were Strangers.
For the leading actress, Columbia had acquired the services of Jennifer Jones from independent producer David O. Selznick. Although the producer had devoted years to making her a star and would marry her later in the year, in one sense he treated her like most of the actors he had under contract. When he was between productions or in financial straits (or, in this case, both), he loaned her to other studios at the highest rate he could get. Jones wasn't pleased with the role of a young Cuban woman driven to revolution by her brother's death. She resented having to cut her hair and learn a Cuban accent for the role, and during production hated having to be dirtied up for the tunneling scenes. But she also gave herself totally over to Huston to be molded into his conception of the role, a practice she followed with most directors.
While its leads were not of Cuban descent, Huston fleshed his supporting cast with some of the best Latin actors working in Hollywood. Ramon Novarro, the silent heartthrob who had been absent from the screen for seven years, gave his first character performance in the film, finally facing up to the fact that age had moved him beyond the romantic roles on which he had built his career. Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz stole scenes effortlessly as a corrupt government official with a yen for Jones' character, while Gilbert Roland got to do more than just trade on his good looks as the poet revolutionary whose growing guilt over the innocents who could be caught in the crossfire seriously jeopardizes the group's plans. Huston and co-writer Peter Viertel scouted locations in Cuba, which gave Huston a chance to meet one of the country's most famous American inhabitants, Ernest Hemingway. They also convinced government figures that the film was critical of the previous regime, gaining permission to do second-unit work there.
The cast, of course, stayed in Hollywood, filming on the Columbia lot. During scenes in the cemetery, Huston, an incorrigible practical joker, planted a convincing dummy hand in a grave Jones had to dig through. She got him back at the wrap party by gifting him with a female chimp that immediately fell in love with him. When he took it home, it trashed the apartment he shared with his wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. His decision to stay with the chimp on their Tarzana ranch (Keyes was allergic to his many animals) helped bring an end to their marriage.
Huston's hopes for the success of We Were Strangers were dashed as soon as the film opened. A scathing notice in the Hollywood Review dubbed the film Communist propaganda, "the heaviest dish of Red theory ever served to an audience outside the Soviet." Columbia head Harry Cohn was so enraged, he barred the paper's reporters from his lot for six years. A few weeks later the Marxist newspaper The Daily Worker called the film "capitalist propaganda." More telling, however, were mainstream reviewers that dismissed the film as "passionless" (New York Times) and a disappointment coming from the director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Audiences must have agreed, as they stayed away in such large numbers the studio finally withdrew the film from release. Conservative criticism of the film helped fuel the efforts to blacklist Garfield for his involvement in liberal organizations which were considered Communist fronts. For his part, Huston would later dismiss the picture as a mistake, citing the lack of authentic Latin actors in the leads and a poor choice of source material.
Later critics and historians have seen much more of merit in We Were Strangers. Like many of Huston's best films, it deals with the poetry of failure, focusing on a group that undertakes a plan that ultimately falls apart. The painstaking detailing of the revolutionaries' efforts to tunnel beneath the cemetery prefigures the focus on the details of the jewelry heist in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). We Were Strangers also is one of several films in which Huston uses heat as a metaphor for the explosive situations in which the characters are caught. Politically, it was more astute than Huston thought at the time. Ten years after its release, Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces overthrew Batista, the dictator who had participated in Machado y Morales' overthrow in 1933, in an eerie parallel to the film's climax, in which the revolution finally breaks out.
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Huston and Peter Viertel
Based on the novel Rough Sketch by Robert Sylvester
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: George Antheil
Principal Cast: Jennifer Jones (China Valdez), John Garfield (Tony Fenner), Pedro Armendariz (Armando Ariete), Gilbert Roland (Guillermo), Ramon Novarro (Chief), Morris Ankrum (Bank Manager), Lelia Goldoni (Consuelo).
by Frank Miller
We Were Strangers
We Were Strangers
We Were Strangers might have raised eyebrows coming out when it did, after the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started brandishing its power to whitewash Hollywood movies of any so-called subversive ideas (indeed, the movie opens with Cuba's legislature caving in to silent bullying and unanimously outlawing public gatherings). Although We Were Strangers wraps itself in protective Americanisms, opening with a Thomas Jefferson quote ("Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God") and presenting Fenner as a freedom-loving American (we only learn later he's Cuban-born), it's a rare American movie with truly anti-authoritarian heroes. And even though it's set in the recent past, We Were Strangers isn't vague about its politics, as the Lon Chaney silent The Ace of Hearts, another terrorist drama, is. It salutes political commitment to egalitarianism and populism in the face of elitist repression as few vintage Hollywood movies do.
The fact that Huston might have wanted American audiences to see We Were Strangers as an allegory for this country's political system isn't the main reason the movie has had such a low profile (it skipped the VHS era entirely). That probably had more to do with the fact that a generation of Cuban rebels emerged in the years after We Were Strangers came out, and they were Fidel Castro's Communists, who ultimately saw America as an imperialist threat, not a freedom-loving big brother. Perhaps Columbia saw the movie as an after-the-fact, Mission to Moscow-style embarrassment, a salute to an enemy-to-be. With U.S. relations to Cuba still not normalized, Columbia apparently kept a lid on We Were Strangers during the Cold War, and the movie slipped into obscurity.
It may have ended up there, anyway, frankly. The suspense in We Were Strangers is rather tepid, thanks to a lackluster set of characters. Garfield seems a little distracted - for good reason, since he was being harassed by HUAC himself - and he and Jones's characters carry out a romance that, even by 1940s standards, is chaste (they're talking about marriage before we ever see them kiss). Meanwhile, the movie supplies a cardboard, catch-all villain in Pedro Armendariz's Ariete, a thuggish police higher-up who not only guns down China's brother in broad daylight, he also tries to seduce her and - gasp, he's a sweaty boor to boot. Although the movie's murder preparation sequences, in which the quintet of revolutionaries digs a 100-yard tunnel from China's basement to a cemetery crypt, get tense at times, it's a bit silly that the villain who'll stop at nothing knows where China lives and has seen her with known agitator Fenner, yet never catches on to the fact that four men are in her basement working away with picks and shovels. Despite shooting some action in Latin America (perhaps even Havana itself), the movie's dramatic credibility also suffers from Garfield and Jones never leaving the studio backlot. Doubles fill in for them in longshots while some unconvincing back projection puts the city behind the stars for tighter shots. Although the print transfer is fine despite what looks like watermarks in one early scene, a splice at one dramatic point is another jarring moment.
The movie's saving grace is Gilbert Roland, who brings much needed heart and pizzazz to his role of philosophical dockworker Guillermo, perhaps the most dedicated of the revolutionaries. The movie's title comes from a touching little speech he delivers about the unity and bond of the disparate group of schemers (look also for Huston giving himself a Hitchcockian cameo, as he often did back then, as a teller in the bank where China works). But robust Roland and occasional diversions like the Huston cameo can't make up for the movie's inability to ever really hit a stride. It culminates in a forced Garfield shootout ending (it feels plucked from a gangster picture) and the even more ludicrous, sunny resolution that follows.
Since, 56 years later, We Were Strangers is more interesting to consider offscreen than on, a documentary extra covering Garfield's political defiance, Huston's wheeling-dealing (reportedly borrowing production funds from MGM, in exchange for then directing The Asphalt Jungle and The Red Badge of Courage for the studio) and the movie's political fallout could have enhanced the disc's appeal. There is none.
For more information about We Were Strangers, visit Sony Pictures. To order We Were Strangers, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
We Were Strangers
'John Huston' wanted Marilyn Monroe for a part in this movie. He made this movie about Cuban rebels at the time Monroe had a contract with Columbia. But producer: 'Sam Spiegel' didn't want to give money for a screen test of Monroe.
The film's working title was Rough Sketch. When the film was released, some viewers protested that the picture was Communist propaganda. The Hollywood Reporter review called it "the heaviest dish of Red theory ever served to an audience outside the Soviet" and "a shameful handbook of Marxian dialectics." In a May 12, 1949 Los Angeles Examiner article, the Los Angeles district of the Federation of Women's Clubs is quoted as saying to Columbia head Harry Cohn that the film "can certainly be interpreted as a call to direct action by revolution against today's governments that are friendly to the United States." Modern sources report a rumor that Gene Kelly was slated to star in the film. Director John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel, whose pseudonym was S. P. Eagle, were partners in Horizon Pictures.