This one is a good movie, but before I start with it there are other things I need to explain, mostly historical background.On the historical background.
Between 1936 and 1939 Spain suffered a civil war between its Communist government, which was democraticaly elected, and an important segment of the army, whose ideology varied between monarchism and fascism. Soon most landowners, conservatives in general and the Catholic church joined the side of the rebels, which received support from the then fascist Italy and Germany. The other side was composed of the working class, those army members still loyal to the government and militias formed by political parties of Communist, Socialist and Anarchist extraction. They would receive help from the U.R.S.S., but few countries granted them official support, as a Communist government, even a democraticaly elected one, was not acceptable in Europe at the time.
In 1939, the war ended with the victory of the rebels, by then led by general Franco, and Spain would become a Fascist dictatorship, first internationally isolated then, after 1954, an allied of the NATO countries in the Cold War conflict. This regime only ended in 1975, after the death of Franco. It's certainly not the end of the story, as the scars of the conflict remain pretty much alive still today, specially in small villages where many individuals used the war as a way of solving personal vendettas.
This movie focuses on a small portion of the loser's side, who seek refuge in France after the war ended, only to find themselves trapped in another war, World War II. They formed part of the French resistance movement and helped the French to regain their country, expecting that an allied victory would help them in turn to reconquer their own country, and in 1944 they even led an army through the Pyrinees, only to find that the allies wouldn't help them and that the Spanish people preferred to live under a dictatorship than to live through another civil war. Their actions in Spain would diminish over the years, as the exiled leaders preferred to focus on politics rather than in action, but some of them continued making incursions into Spain until the 60s, actions that often crossed the line between political activism and common criminality.On the movie itself.
So this movie, filmed in 1964, focuses on one of these men, Manuel Artiguez, played by Gregory Peck, who continues to cross the Pyrenees into Spain now and then, although his exact actions remain untold. He's probably intended as fictionalised version of a real "maquis", but since I'm not much into the movement I can't tell who exactly. Rather than as some kind of romantic hero, Fred Zinnemann and Gregory Peck portray him as a clear anti-hero. TheFrench consider him a bandit, but they let him be, maybe because his role as a former resistant, maybe because he doesn't commit any crimes in France. He's still a hero to the other Spanish exiles, but his actions have become more a stubborn chess play with his antagonist, Captain Viñolas (Anthony Quinn, in one of his most restrained roles) than any effective means of political action. The heart of the film deals with him trying to corss to Spain to see his dying mother and a Spanish priest gets caught in between the cat and mouse game between Artiguez and Viñolas when he decides to warn Artiguez of an ambush.
What surprises me about the film is that (apart from being a good one, but more on that later) it is surprisingly accurate, both on the production aspects (it was shot in southern France, which has more than a passing resemblance to northern Spain) as well in the social / politic ones. Take for instance the anti-clericalism that Artiguez and his friends share. It's dead on. Their hatred of church is not uni-dimensional, it comes both from their political beliefs (remember: we're talking of people who once fought under Communist, Socialist or even Anarchist ideals) but also from the fact that the Catholic church became one of the pillars of the new regime. And yet the fact of a priest helping a maquis is not completely implausible. Whereas the Church as an institution collabored with Franco's rgime, there were individual members who are known to have helped maquis, some of them as far as saving them from execution. Moreover, the film is probably set in the 60s, well 20 years after the end of the war, which is enough time for some of the ideologies to become a bit more blurry.
Viñolas is also very well fleshed out. More than a fanatic supporter of the regime, he's a bureocrat. He's old enough to have participated (or at least witnessed) in the war, but he only sees Artiguez as a stain in his record, rather than as a dangerous subversive enemy. We know nothing of his past encounters with Artiguez, but we can see they've slowly become a personal business between those two, rather than a matter of national security.
As for the film itself, its style is a rarity in itself. Zinnemann shoots the chracters and the French locations in stark black and white, absorving both their visual appeal and their primitive, almost suffocating atmosphere. His camerawork is spartan, almost documentary-like, something helped by the scarce use of music and the lack of real action scenes. Even the occasional vistas of the Pyrennees are sort of depressing, as the black and white cinematography takes away their spectacularity and accentuates their desolation instead.