Updated May 17, 2011 at 3:18 p.m. MDT. Additional information added in paragraph 15.
A new film on the Spanish Civil War falls short in portraying the brutal persecution that the country's Catholics underwent, says author Robert Royal, Ph.D.
“This is a part of Catholic history that has been long neglected,” he said, but “the movie is too nervous to tackle it.”
Released to theaters on May 6, the historical epic “There Be Dragons” was directed by Roland Joffe, known for his work in the acclaimed 1986 film “The Mission.”
“There be Dragons” shows the intense conflict that arose in Spain between the Nationalists attempting to protect the establishment and Republican revolutionaries seeking regime change in the 1930s. The film also highlights a young St. Jose Maria Escriva, who survived the war went on to found Opus Dei.
Royal – who heads the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. – said that although the revolutionaries' struggle for democracy at the time was legitimate, “the way the various factions on the Republican side pursued this is an outrage.”
“Spain is one place where brutality against the Catholic Church in the 20th century was really quite extraordinary,” Royal told CNA in a May 11 interview. Royal is an expert in comparative literature and author of several books, including a comprehensive volume on 20th century martyrs.
He estimates that there were around 6,000 Catholics killed in Spain during the civil conflict.
Entire seminaries and convents of women religious were “slaughtered,” Royal said, adding that in Madrid alone, there were over 1,100 priests killed.
“That was almost one third of the number of priests in Madrid,” he noted. Six hundred more priests were killed in the cities of Barcelona and Valencia combined.
“You're not talking about people who've done anything wrong – these people were just ordinary Catholics pursuing their vocation.”
“It's an astonishing thing,” he said. “Catholics don't know about this. When you tell them they're shocked and they can't believe it.”
Royal gave background to the bloody conflict, saying that the country “had a lot of trouble modernizing – there had been a long royalist tradition, a conservative side to Spain.”
However, “there came to power, through elections in 1936, a very strongly socialist tending, pro-Soviet Union government.”
Royal said that none of the Western leaders, including England and the United States, recognized the new government in Spain, “so there was a questions about the legitimacy of it.”
“The Republicans were the government of Spain until they were overthrown,” he explained.“The Nationalists including many generals in the army revolted against that radical government and, after military victory, took power. Seems like a small matter, but it's led to this mistaken impression of Republicans as isolated pockets of revolutionaries.”
He continued, “(t)hat has to be dispelled as a false impression to appreciate what really happened in Spain.”
“Lost in the political struggle is that an awful lot of innocent, ordinary, everyday Catholic lay people, clergy and women religious were just slaughtered.”
Royal clarified that “there were a lot of atrocities on the Nationalist side – but the Republican side is never tarred with the same brush.”
He gave examples of atrocities committed by the revolutionaries, citing mass graves outside of women religious' convents, desecrated art and destroyed churches.
“The utter blasphemy and disrespect shown – it just boggles the imagination.”
Royal said that the failure of “There Be Dragons” to accurately show what happened is indicative of a deeper cultural problem, which is the fact that “Christian martyrdom in the 20th century has been largely overlooked.”
Persecution of Christians “is part of the secular history of the 20th century that has been neglected,” he said. “You cannot understand the 20th century unless you understand that there were virulent anti-religious forces.”
“There's a lot of disappointment among Catholics about that movie,” he added. “It might have been better if they were willing to take a few chances to show how much more brutal and disrespectful” the revolutionaries were.
“The message that they're trying to portray is that reconciliation is possible,” Royal said, noting a positive aspect of the film. However, “to get the point of reconciliation the truth has to be told about what went wrong.”
“You can still forgive but the truth matters.”
Royal said that ultimately, the movie is simply “another evasion of a very important truth that needs to be told.”