The Motorcycle Diaries

Written by James Ball. Edited by Eleanor Winn.

Everyone who has an interest in revolutions has heard of the name ‘Che Guevara’, and is aware, to some extent, of his role in Cuban revolutionary history, just as people have heard the names of Robespierre and Danton in the French Revolution, and Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 Russia. To those who don’t know the name, you would have certainly seen the iconic image of him. His face has become a symbol of civil protests (posters of him being plastered on Paris walls in 1968 being one example) as well as being recognisable in popular culture; appearing on t-shirts, lighters and mugs. But how much do we know about his youth? Where did he obtain his revolutionary ideas? How did this student doctor evolve into the depiction of civilian demonstration? The Motorcycle Diaries (a film by Walter Salles) answers some of these questions by exploring the early life of Ernesto Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado as they travelled from the south to the northern peninsula of South America on an old 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, whilst delving in to the story of how Guevara, a wealthy student in Buenos Aries, developed into someone passionate about fighting for peoples freedom in the corrupt nations of his home continent.

The film follows the adventures of these two young doctors as they travel the continent, meeting the people (Granado attempting to sleep with a woman in every village), seeing famous sights and blagging accommodation and meals on the cheap. The two friends have an intriguing friendship continuously swapping ‘the leader’ and ‘the led’ roles, but with a constant aim to see the world and hear people’s stories, as well as a constant problem with their motorcycle (the “Mighty One”). This pursuit leads them to local markets, mines, Machu Picchu and to a Peruvian Lepers Colony where their experiences ‘awaken within them the men they will later become’. Humorous scenes with them battling the elements and the bike, are combined with increasingly more emotional scenes, where you begin to see the changing perspectives of the two men. Emotive scenes in the explored destinations add a more serious tone to the film, yet one is still forced to smile during them, as we begin to admire el Che and Granado. Their care for people is captivating. Prime examples include when the pair befriend leper patients, shaking them by the hand without any gloves (which is against doctor regulations) and seeing Che swimming across the 2 mile Amazon River to reach the segregated leper island to say goodbye. The admiration we begin to feel for the two protagonists is shared by all, with the doctors of the colony building them a raft, named the Mambo-Tango due to Che’s original style of dance, as a way for them to continue with their journey.

When Guevara and Granado finished their trip, which is depicted as the pair arriving in Columbia aboard the Mambo-Tango, el Che had formed anti-capitalist, communist ideologies and began to see South America as a single entity rather than a collection of nations. These ideas shaped his political future in Guatemala, Cuba and Bolivia.

Salles accurately portrayed the diaries of Guevara and gave us an insight into what happened in South America that formed the revolutionary we are familiar with today. Early emphasis at the beginning of the film was put on Che’s relationship with his girlfriend Chichina and the $10 she had given him to purchase a swimsuit from north of the border. In a trip consisting of reoccurring problems with the “Mighty One”, Granado is constantly pushing Che to use this money to repair the bike, but to no prevail. As a result, the bike didn’t make it any further than Peru. Yet the money didn’t even make it past Chile. In a touching end to the film to demonstrate the ideological evolution of Guevara, we see him hand over the money to a poor communist couple forced to wander the Chilean desert in search for mining work. This couple were exploited at the Chuquicamata copper mine in the day whilst enduring freezing cold temperatures at night due to inequality and repression throughout the continent. This moving ending is supplemented with a montage of people who touched el Che and influenced his disdain for American capitalist exploitation, imperialism, and treatment of civilians in Latin America; problems that only armed revolution could resolve.

Not only is The Motorcycle Diaries of historical interest for those keen to understand one of the most controversial revolutionaries in history, it is also a thoroughly enjoyable watch, containing humour, friendship and touching moments of compassion by both men. The high standard of cinematography, acting and native Latin music further add to the film’s quality, in a way that I am sure will inspire many to journey through South America. Perhaps even on a motorcycle? It is clear to see why it won best foreign film and was an Academy Award Winner in 2004, as well as being a film I personally recommend all to see.