The Motorcycle Diaries

By Christopher C. Happ
©2004, all rights reserved

I love motorcycles and history, especially that period from the end of World War II, through and inclusive of  the  1950’s.  I am a baby-boomer and was born into a world of Kruschev, Sputnik, Beatniks and Peaceniks. 

I remember the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy Assassinations.   I remember the 1960’s for the most part. When hearing of this film, I knew that it was portrayed as the account of the early influences on Argentinian-born Ernesto Che’ Guevara during his journey through South America in 1952. 

I had heard that the story is based on his diary and that of his friend and companion on the journey, Alberto Granado. Granado published the diaries, in a work entitled: Traveling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary.  New Market Press (1978,2004) Granado still resides in Havana. ( La Habana).

I have briefly studied the myth of Guevara; T-shirts with his  bereted-monochromatic  image in black, set against a deep red background, reminiscent of the views he espoused, began appearing in the early 1970’s, sometime  after his death in 1967.

I was unsure of what to expect.  I thought of my own hitchhiking journeys across the U.S.A., as a youth and that of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise in, On the Road. (1957) I thought that this film might be a crazed travelogue somewhere between that novel and Easy Rider. I was expecting lush scenery and the influences that formed Guevara’s socio-political views; the precursor, I thought, of his Marxist revolutionary evolution.  I wondered if the opening scenes of Easy Rider, ( 1971) in Bolivia were borrowed from this story or perhaps a strange sociopolitical cross-pollination had occurred, possibly spurred by word of Che’s execution five years earlier. 

The two-hour film begins with Che’s departure with his biochemist friend Granado.  In early scenes we see Guevara inhaling medicine occasionally from a bulbous aspirator that we later learn is his medicine for life-long asthma.  At one point in the film, he tells a young female leper that he was born with “shitty lungs.”

The movie catalogues their travels around South America, departing from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  They lamented that they had been born there and never ventured out to see their America. 

Their vehicle is  an old Norton 500 cc. motorcycle.  We see it leaning low with both Che and Alberto on its back, piled high with strapped-on bedrolls, small suitcases and bags;  quite a burden for a 10,000 kilometer trip.  Roaring off, the machine belching plumes of blue smoke; we see them take the first of many crashes, almost being hit by a bus.

The scenery is beautiful.  Some of the scenes in the Andes of Peru, look almost Norwegian during the foggy, winter weather.  We follow them through Chile, Machu Picchu, Colombia,Venezuela and the Amazon rain Forest.    The motorcycle  dies half-way through the film and they are relegated to traveling in the back of cattle trucks and by boat. 

There are only brief snapshots of Guevara’s experiences that may have crystallized his later philosophy.  There is a scene when young Che throws a rock at a mining company truck that he feels is exploiting workers; after hearing the story of strife of a husband and wife.   In the book referred to as, the Yankee Copper mines.   The mining couple told him that they were banished from their home due to their beliefs, the wife says, “ We are Communists.”

The movie is subtitled and there is not even a hint of any political diatribe from anyone. 

Che is painted as a compassionate, young idealist.  Much of the Spanish  language was unintelligible to me, I wondered if it was interspersed with Mezo-American language and dialect. 

A lot of time is spent at the leper colony at Huamba, in the Amazon.   Both Che and Alberto speak about getting closer to the people; manifested by their refusal to wear gloves while treating patients at the leprosarium.

There is one scene where Guevara is lying down reading a book intently, on the back, I could make out something about Communistas.  Perhaps this is where he was bitten by the revolutionary spirit.  Oddly on a line below that I could clearly see a line that read: Krishnamurti; referring to Jiddu Krishnamurti the Indian sage raised in England and thought to be a messiah by The Order of the Red Star.  Jiddu renounced this and spoke of the poverty and sickness in India.  Krishnamurti died only about ten years ago. 

Perhaps we are to believe that Guevara’s compassion for the poor and sick was bolstered by Krishnamurti’s philosophy. Jiddu was never a revolutionary and quite the pacifist, observer/philosopher in fact. 

The movie has its humorous moments, although the non-stop subtitling at times interferes with the visual mood.  This movie succeeds in giving us the feel of South America in the early 1950’s. 

Taken on its own, it only scratches the surface of Ernesto Guevara’s life and times but it is a good requisite to further study of the next fifteen years after the movie ends and sees Granado and Che going their separate ways, at the end.   In closing credits it mentions Granado’s founding of hospitals in Cuba and briefly mentions Guevara’s stature as revolutionary.

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