El Libertador: Accuracy (Un)Required

I am (usually) a literary and historical purist with a masochistic yen for watching adaptions. So, when the film Libertador came out (translated into English as Liberator, though even Wikipedia has an English-language article called “Libertadores” about these guys), I knew I had to see it. I mean, it’s about Simón Bolívar, and even though he and his pals mark the end of the colonial (outside Puerto Rico and a few other places), they are also a sort of liminal space between republics and colonies–and, of course, I’ve read Bolívar’s letters. A lot. I think I even had Carta de Jamaica (Letter from Jamaica, available online in Spanish and English translation) memorized for a while.

Liberator got eviscerated over at Rotten Tomatoes, so, before I rant about historical (in)accuarcies, I will say this: Édgar Ramírez is an amazing actor. He even made me cry when he hauled off with Bolívar’s impassioned speechifying. (One could say this is no biggie, since I usually cry whenever anyone dies, except for that time I watched Alborada, but I’d argue that making one cry simply from speechifying requires a good actor.) I’m not the only one to say this, either: even in critical reviews (at least on Rotten Tomatoes), Ramírez’s skill is pretty universally praised. So, you know, watch it for Édgar Ramírez, he’s worth it. (And he’s a stud, so there’s that, too.)

Do not, however, watch it for historical accuracy, because it sure isn’t there. I watched it first after I got home from a late shift and got into it enough to live-text it to my brother, S. (S is a good listener, even by text.) Now, admittedly I thought the first scene was ridiculous: we enter the film literally at Bolívar’s back, trotting along behind him (and his sword) as he sweeps through a palace and talks to random people about their offspring and/or current economic statuses, then pounces on a beautiful woman with big hair all over the place, who immediately starts disrobing him. Sexy time. Except, oops, now there are shouts and pounding and extra swords, and after Intense Sexy Words with the disrobed, sword-waving mistress, who demands that he Leave Now, Bolívar escapes. Boom. (Cut to corny flashback of Bolívar with his “mother,” the slave woman who raised him. Which is actually at least somewhat historically accurate–not the corny scenes, but the gist of the relationship.)

Copy of a painting of Manuela Sáenz, revolutionary. Tecla Walker (copiest) and Marcos Salas (original). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And I’ll start right here by point out that Manuela Sáenz, she of the big hair, deserves a lot better than she gets in this adaption. She’s a Venezuelan national hero, for crying out loud. She’s called “Libertadora”–not just for saving Bolívar from assassination (as inaccurately depicted in the film’s opening minutes), but also for her actions, politically and on the field, in support of independence. She was a determined and famous revolutionary who died in obscurity, because así es la vida, at least for women. And in this movie, Juana Acosta, who plays Manuela Sáenz, gets sixth billing in the credits, after Ramírez, María Valverde (playing Bolívar’s wife, who doesn’t even make it through an hour), Erich Wildpret (the film’s Antonio José de Sucre), Iwan Rheon (a Welsh dude playing an Irish guy, which is another issue), and Orlando Valenzeula (Francisco de Paula Santander).

So, Manuela Sáenz gets ripped off. A lot. She’s hardly present, and when we do see her, she is barely a shadow of her multifaceted, complex life. True, she and Bolívar had (or, at any rate, she remembered them having) a relationship pulled right out of the annals of “‘Sturm und Drang.'”12 which certainly suggests a somewhat wild nature.  However, to paint Sáenz almost exclusively as a heaving-bosomed, wild-haired madwoman Venus does both her memory and Bolívar’s a disservice. She participated in a couple of battles,3 and is known for her political acumen as well as, well, saving Bolívar–and for dumping her British husband to be with Bolívar. Because booooring. And true love and ¡Viva la Patria y Viva la Revolución!

Frontispiece, Constitución de Cádiz, 1812. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But, heaving bosoms and big hair and all, Manuela Sáenz is at least there. The same cannot be said for Simón’s many siblings (and their children, for they too were legion). Nor can it be said for some of the great pre-Revolution moments. To me, at least, their absence is a loss. Liberator is awfully short, for a movie covering as much territory (political, physical, and temporal) as it must–yet there is no real mention of the little detail that, oh gosh, Napoleonic soldiers just took over Spain and are getting lost in Portugal right now. As a result, the Cortés of Cádiz doesn’t even get a mention. In the midst of profound political turmoil, Spanish progressives banded together and formed a congress, created a constitution, and brought in reps from across Spain and its colonies. Unfortunately, they were neither inclined towards progressivism on racial politics nor on colonial ones (taxes and representation are always a problem), and the Spanish American representatives–who included the soldier and hero José de San Martín from restive Río de la Plata (Argentina), though he hung out with other, more liberal, groups as well4–returned home, and, as my undergraduate notes tell me, began forming the great revolutionary juntas, and with them the revolutionary armies that would fight and win against the forces of the declining Spanish empire.5 The constitution, though it came and went, affected everyone in the Spanish-connected world. It was a Really Big Deal, and it doesn’t even get a mention.

An imagining of San Martín and O’Higgins in the Andes: El paso del Ejército Libertador por la cordillera de los Andes, Julio Vila y Praves. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bolívar’s great Trek Across The Andes in Winter threw me for a loop at first: it looked just like all the paintings (mostly done after the fact) of–José de San Martín, Bernardo O’Higgins, and their great Ejército de los Andes (Army of the Andes), crossing the Andes. In the middle of the night I thought it was very moving and messed up; then I thought that it should have been San Martín and O’Higgins, who, of course, crossed the Andes, met Bolívar and his army on the other side, and liberated Perú, whether they wanted it or not.6 (Accoridng to my notes, Potosí and Lima didn’t. Nothing like actually profiting from the sucky old system to make one fight to keep it.)7 I was also patently confused: why on earth didn’t the film at least mention all that great Peruvian liberatin’, when it was so very important, not only to O’Higgens and San Martín, friends and allies, nor even just to Simón Bolívar, but to continental history as well? How could the movie just neglect to menion that there was this tremendous battle and Spain really got its hide tanned, thanks to the combined might of San Martín, O’Higgins, their underlings and Army, and Simón Bolívar and his?

Paso del ejército del Libertador por el Páramo de Pisba, in the Colección Museo Nacional de Colombia. Francisco Antonio Cano, 1922. (One assumes the real thing, also on the Páramo de Pisba, looked considerably more horrific.) Image from Wikimedia Commons.

So, I was thrown for a loop, and since I am irrationally fond of San Martín and especially O’Higgins (wearing of the green and all), I went fact-checking. Bolívar’s trek across the Andes in winter was even more suicidal, even stupider, even more valiant, than is portrayed in The Liberator. It was also, oddly, a space in which Bolívar’s decency (and his heroism) shone through, though one might not have expected to find it there–and, alas, it never appears in the film. Bolívar and his men, including a pack of hapless Brits, crossed in July, the height of winter. His men, many of whom must have been desperately poor already, ended up largely barefoot, and many died of exposure.8 The British and Irish fared singularly badly, though evidently some–including O’Leary–survived.9 Marie Arana, Bolívar’s biographer, cites the heroism of the women who followed Bolívar’s army–not only did they continue with little daily activities such as birthing babies, but they cared for the flagging (and dying) soldiers, as well.10 (In other words, that random squalling baby heard during the crossing in Liberator is historically accurate!) Finally, Bolívar himself was not above his men (and their women): if they could not stand he supported them, and if they could not walk he carried them.11 Richard Vowell, writing of his memories of the campaign, said that Bolívar “was … invariably humane in his attentions to the sick and wounded on a march”12–the sort of thing one would expect a film like Liberator to showcase, yet the clearly horrific march has no time for Bolívar’s humanity, or his compassion.

Face of illness: José María Espinosa’s 1830 portrait from life of Simón Bolívar. Sketch. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The last scene jolted me right out of my chair and had me screaming at Netflix, which obviously didn’t care: Simón Bolívar was not killed in an extrajudicial assassination, but rather died of illness. Because I am thorough, and because Simón Bolívar is so important to so many people (and soy estadounidense, and so I don’t necessarily get it), I verified. It is historical consensus that the man died of TB–perhaps not a glamorous death, but one could, I think, say that he sacrified his own health for love of his country.The only dissenting voices I could find were those of the doctors Paul Auwaerter, John Dove, and Philip Mackowiak, who in their article “Simón Bolívar’s Medical Labyrnth: An Infectious Diseases Condundrum” suggest that the poor libertador may have been suffering from paracoccidioidomycosis or bronchitis, along with a touch of arsenic poisoning, which they suggest was likely accidental (hooray archaic medicine).13 However, they, along with the rest of history, are definitive: the guy was quite ill for some time before his death, and he wasn’t assassinated at gunpoint à la Liberator. He was ill the day Manuela Sáenz saved him from assassination: he’d whined so much that she came over to help him despite being ill herself, then, after metaphorically shoving him out the window, waylaid the pursuit and was badly beaten for her trouble, after which the would-be assassins murdered one Ferguson, an aide of Bolívar’s (who was also ill–the place must have been a veritable plague house that day).14 One rather has to wonder just how much more ill a flight out the window into a rainy night would have made a man already suffering from TB–and, even more, one has to wonder why a film set to glorify that man would not acknowledge that he had destroyed his health in service to la patria.

José Gil de Castro’s 1823 portrait of Simón Bolívar, young, hale, and ready for action.

I am torn, however, as to whether or not to declare Liberator as much of a wash as Rotten Tomato has done. It’s a mess. Those inaccuracies have driven me crazy, and all my friends (not just S) have put up with impromptu history lectures about Crossing the Andes and how the Cortes of Cádiz was so exciting that it should totally have been included. But Édgar Ramírez, man. Those speeches must be faded copies of the excitement and charisma surrounding Bolívar’s rallying efforts, yet how amazing they are. And, as bad as the history in it may be, if Liberator manages to get someone more interested in Latin American history, then perhaps it has actually succeeded.

Even if the history really is atrocious.


1 María José Vilalta, “Historia de las mujeres y memoria histórica,” 72.
2 Marie Arana. Bolívar 396.
3 Claire Brewster, “Women and the Spanish-American Wars of Independence,” 31-32
4 John Lynch, San Martín, 20-35.
5 Notes from Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Latin America, spring 2010, and Latin America to Independence, fall 2010, Roosevelt University, with Fabricio Prado
6 Ibid.
7 Notes from Latin America to Independence, fall 2010, Roosevelt University, Fabricio Prado
8 Marie Arana, Bolívar, 231.
9 Ibid. 231.
10 Ibid. 231-232.
11 Ibid. 231. See also Richard L. Vowell, 159.
12 Richard L. Vowell, 159.
13 Auwaerter, Dove, and Mackowiak, “Simón Bolívar’s Medical Labynrth.” Abstract and entirity of article.
14 Arana, Marie. Bolívar: American Liberator, 400-54


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