There Be Dragons, directed by Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, 1984), follows the story of two men during the Spanish Civil War. Manolo (Wes Bentley) and Josemaria (Charlie Cox). The two are childhood friends but quickly take very different paths as they seem to split over class and wealth issues. Josemaria becomes a priest and virtually a saint by the end of the film, while Manolo takes a darker course and joins the communist army as a spy for the fascist military. As the war goes on, Josemaria is forced to flee Spain to save himself from the persecution of the Red Army. Manolo follows the communists, acting as a mole but soon finds himself falling in love with a Hungarian revolutionary, Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko), who thwarts him sending Manolo into a spiral of anger and self doubt.
Although this film seems set for some classic storytelling through the memoirs of Manolo (Wes Bentley), it definitely falls short of expectations. You would expect a film titled There Be Dragons to really delve into the difficulties and inner battles of the story’s characters. There are certainly lots of key issues set to be tackled at the beginning of the film. However Roland Joffé seems only to frustrate this and portray a very black and white picture of a saintly priest and a fascist spy, one rich one poor, one who loved his father and the other who hated his father.
This seems to be the main underlying message of the film, the importance of getting on with your Dad, which considering the film is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, probably shouldn’t be the main issue. That’s until you realise that Josemaria is the man who founded Opus Dei, the Catholic organisation Dan Brown painted a rather dark picture of in The Da Vinci Code so perhaps getting on with your Father is more metaphorical than it first appears. There Be Dragons was also part funded by Opus Dei as a more positive response for the Da Vinci code demonisation, although director Joffe maintains he was given independence to make an unbiased film.
The characters seem rather plain and any depth in character and their relationships is also very flat. The story is framed by Robert (Dougray Scott), a writer who comes to see his father (Manolo) in Madrid but who refuses to see him. Unfortunately so little attention is paid to Robert’s character that any sentiment or feeling attempted to be portrayed in the film’s twist is lost. This isn’t helped by a rather blank performance by Dougray Scott who, for me, again fails to live up to expectations.
One positive that can be taken away from this film is its realistic scenes of the Spanish Civil War. The confusion and disaster of war is depicted quite well by Roland Joffé. The Spanish civil war has rarely been seriously dealt with on the international film stage. Although Joffé seems to have created several impressive scenes of the civil war, it almost seems a shame that this historical event wasnt depicted in a film with more flare than There Be Dragons.
The script also leaves a lot to be desired, as clunky wiritng provides flat, almost plain dialogue between characters. The effects of this are particularly felt during the begining on the film, where a complicated story, shown through flashbacks, makes the beginging seem even slower than it is.
Overall Verdict: Some great portrayals of scenes in the Spanish Civil War but against a backdrop of confused storytelling and a plain script. I would argue Roland has not done justice to his title, There Be Dragons.
Reviewer: George Mowles-Van Der Gaag