Chile’s most famous silent film, this is the story of freedom fighter Manuel Rodriguez and his guerilla war against royalist forced during Chile’s war for independence.
If anybody ever deserved a biopic, it’s Manuel Rodriguez. Freedom fighter, soldier, master of disguise and, oh yes, he wore this uniform:
Well, fortunately, filmmaker Pedro Sienna agreed and made El húsar de la muerte a.k.a. The Hussar of Death.
Before we start the review, it’s important to know where we stand in relation to this film’s narrative. In the United States, most mainstream studio films are intended for both domestic and international distribution and are constructed with that fact in mind. Action and romance are emphasized and historical details (if any) are carefully established so that everyone can follow the story.
This is not the case in every film industry. All around the world, movies are made for mostly domestic consumption. Facts, details and situations that are deemed “common knowledge” for the region are not explained and the viewer is expected to come into the film with a certain degree of familiarity with its historical themes.
Of course, these domestic films sometimes make a hit overseas. For example, some in Japan were surprised that Rashomon did so well in the United States as many of the elements would have been opaque to foreigners. These days, if a film is meant for success overseas, it is carefully crafted to appeal to as broad a swathe of humanity as possible, though, of course, there are always surprise hits.
The Hussar of Death was intended for Spanish-speaking audiences of Latin America and it expects its viewers to have at least a passing familiarity with the main events and figures of the Chilean War of Independence. We are not carefully told who Bernardo O’Higgins is, we are not shown the events leading up to the rebellion against royalist forces. We are thrown into the deep end of the pool because any Chilean viewer worth their salt would know these things.
I bring this out because I do not consider this to be a flaw in the film but an important bit of context that non-Chilean viewers must be aware of to get the most out of this picture. In short, you’re going to have to do your homework.
Or copy mine! Here is a super brief account of the Chilean War of Independence, the setting for The Hussar of Death.
Chile was one of Spain’s New World colony and its political structure was rocked by a one-two punch. First, Luis Muñoz de Guzmán, the Royal Governor, died suddenly in 1808. Before a successor could be named, Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces invaded Spain and he declared his brother, Joseph, king instead of Ferdinand VII. This obviously did not go over well with many Spanish citizens at home and abroad and it made revolution a tempting option for colonists.
There were multiple factions, scandals and feuds in the Chilean government but the 1810 May Revolution in Buenos Aires inspired an independence movement in Chile. In 1814, royalist forces defeated pro-independence troops in the Battle of Rancagua and took Santiago. José de San Martín, a major figure in the Argentine independence movement, and Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the founding fathers of independent Chile, sent Manuel Rodriguez to wage guerilla war against the royalists while they reorganized their army.
Obviously, I am skipping a ton of important stuff but this should be enough to get us going.
(People who are all excited about intrigue and death in that show with the dragons and the thrones and the people who refuse to wear hats in the snow really need to embrace some Chilean history. This is juicy stuff!)
The Hussar of Death tells the story of Manuel Rodriguez’s colorful guerilla campaign and showcases his charisma and idealism. And yes, he does indeed wear a black uniform with skulls later in the film. Fancy!
The royalists think they have won the day but there is one freedom fighter they cannot seem to defeat: Manuel Rodriguez (Pedro Sienna, who also wrote and directed the picture). A master of disguise and a cunning tactician, Rodriguez enjoys the support of the common people of Chile and is able to deliver threatening messages to the very heart of the royalist government.
Rodriguez’s mission is to be General San Martin’s stealth strike force while the army is reorganized and he does a splendid job of stealing important papers, conducting raids and generally making life difficult for the royalists while offering hope to the demoralized pro-independence movement. During one of his missions, Rodriguez spots and falls head over heels for Carmen de Aguirre (Clara Werther), the daughter of a wealthy royalist household.
There is romance but the heart of the film is Rodriguez’s friendship with his biggest fan, a small boy played by Guillermo Barrientos. The little fellow was caught playing soldier by royalist troops, who beat him and contemptuously called him “el huacho pelao” which, if I am understanding this correctly, would translate to “soldier boy” in English. (Spanish speakers, please feel free to chime in with correction or clarification, I am genuinely curious to see if I got this right.)
Our enthusiastic young fellow has reclaimed the insult, proudly calling himself el Huacho Pelao and declaring that he and his stolen bugle would like to join Rodriguez in battle. Rodriguez uses him for covert work and messages and Sienna has nice chemistry with Barrientos, so it’s all very cute.
The film ends (spoiler alert even though this is historical fact) with pro-independence forced routing the royalists but Manuel Rodriguez has become too popular. Threatened, the new leaders of Chile order him shot. The final scene is el Huacho Pelao and other friends of Rodriguez recovering his body from the ditch where it fell and giving it a decent burial. Then as now, revolutions are a messy, nasty business.
The Hussar of Death does not shy from the actual death scene but it does play a bit coy as to the cause. I’m not sure if this is out of respect for Bernardo O’Higgins (who is generally reckoned to have arranged to extrajudicial killing) or if Pedro Sienna simply wanted to avoid opening a can of worms.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, Chile had been making films as early as 1902 but production did not reach its peak until the 1920s. In total, Chile produced nearly one hundred silent narrative pictures and documentaries but only a handful of the fiction films survive. (Alas, none of the four Chilean silents directed by women are among the survivors.) The Hussar of Death was considered lost until a print surfaced in 1959. It was in deplorable condition and was missing some title cards but, fortunately, director-star Pedro Sienna was still alive and assisted in the restoration work.
As is often the case with films about patriotic historical figures, The Hussar of Death takes a more formal approach to its characters, story and filmmaking. Closeups are relatively scarce compared to other films of this period and the camera keeps such a polite distance that we can see everybody’s toes most of the time. However, we are treated to threatening notes tied to knives and thrown through windows, conspiracies, threats of blood and murder against the pro-independence movement and, most dramatic of all, a pig’s head sent to an official.
Sienna also wisely launches the film in the aftermath of O’Higgins’s defeat, a dark time for the independence movement and the perfect cue for our guerilla hero to show up and help rescue the situation. Many modern biopics feel compelled to show the protagonist’s childhood then they pull that annoying fadeout… two years later thing again and again and again… fadeout… and again. The result is that a great number of based-on-a-real-person films feel choppy and lack a powerful narrative. By skipping to the good stuff and trusting his audience to understand, Sienna makes his film more urgent and interesting.
The film clearly had a limited budget (we never see more than twenty soldiers in any given scene) but Sienna is able to sidestep this disadvantage by focusing on Rodriguez’s clever asymmetrical warfare, his friendships with his comrades-in-arms and his more flamboyant, Robin Hood-esque derring-do.
The Hussar of Death was Pedro Sienna’s penultimate film as director and star and the first film in which he is the credited screenwriter. Soon after, he abandoned film to work in theater and to focus on writing. (I am extremely curious about his science fiction novel entitled La Caverna de los Murciélagos.) Sienna has the intense, gloomy quality that I just love in a silent leading man and he seems to have fun inventing Manuel Rodriguez’s various disguises. (Sienna was apparently went in for flamboyant fashions in real life as well.)
Before concluding I should note that The Hussar of Death is challenging to watch due to the decision to superimpose the title cards over the action. (Which furthers my theory that this film was intended only for local consumption.) As you can see from the screencaps, there is a considerable amount of image blowout, the white letters can be challenging to read. Here’s hoping that a new restoration or transfer is on the way because I think this film has the potential to be a festival crowdpleaser.
The Hussar of Death can be a challenge but it is well worth your efforts. It covers a fascinating period of history and showcases the talented, brooding Pedro Sienna. I recommend it to anyone who wants to expand their international silent film viewing.
Where can I see it?
Available for free and legal viewing on the website of Chile’s national archive. There are no English subtitles, so viewers who are not fluent in Spanish will want to have a plan in place. Translation apps or help from friends are both good paths to take. (If your friends agree to help, be sure to serve good snacks! Interpretation is hard work.)
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