Alatriste, a Hero at Sunset

Source: El Confidencial

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We miss its presence in the movie Alatriste: The Golden Tower silhouetted against the westerly profile of Madrid, a beacon of light to an Empire on which the sun hadn't yet set but was declining. It couldn't really be any other way, because in the time span of the movie - which encompasses more years than the books - the tower's light is subsumed by the darkness as spirits fall and hopes are lost for good. The eternal debate about human decadence springs to mind, possibly never as clearly reflected as during Spain's Golden Years. In 1588, Felipe II lost his great fleet, with few immediate repercussions to the Crown other than disgust and some muttered prayers. Of course, the families of the fallen paid much more dearly. From 1637 onward, disaster after disaster took place, until there was no possible chance for recovery, as Spain became exhausted economically, politically and militarily.

After the victories achieved in Nördlingen and Corbie, the future looked promising for Spain. The Swiss threat had been eliminated and the Tercios were knocking at the doors of Paris. It seemed that none could withstand the fiery breath of the Empire. But in 1637, the city of Breda, once taken by the Spanish, was recovered by Federico Enrique de Nassau. Two years later, Oquendo lost the by-now squalid flotilla in the Dunes. And then: riots in Cataluña and Portugal, and defeats at Rocroi and Lens ... The roots of decadence can be traced back as far as one would like, there will always be a decision or event to support the theory. The one thing that is certain, as Sir John Elliot says, Spain was a giant with clay feet. With everything thrown at it, the giant couldn't remain standing very long. The surprising thing is how long it did survive and that success can be attributed to the stubbornness and persistence of men like Diego de Alatriste y Tenorio, a fictional character, yes, but not completely, as there were many Alatristes and he is only one of them.

We know of the adventures of one of these morally staunch soldiers, (as long as we accept morality on their terms, under the code they lived by). That soldier, Captain Contreras, who appears as a character and a friend of Alatriste's in Pérez-Reverte's books, left a ponderous memoir of his life that may not have been written with Quevedo's talent, but which endures an anthropological testimony to one of those adventurers who briefly ruled the world and left their stamp on the whole of the European continent. The empire survived for as long as such men existed. Later, the authorities bitterly lamented the fact that only beggars and vagabonds remained. Of course, we have those same authorities to thank for the extinction of the Contreras and Alatristes whose knees gave way to fatigue and spirits gave way to despair on the faraway battlefields of Europe.

In the movie we can see, quite nicely depicted, the battle of Rocroi. It was the first time the Tercios were beaten on the field, in large part because of the ineptitude of their general, Melo, but also because of the decadence of the Spanish nobility. Once led by the greatest of men and suffused with the ideals of honor, it was only a shadow of its former self in all ways, but especially tactically. The delegation of responsibility to the aristocrats was a fatal blow and one of the multiple capitulations to the Empire's decadence. After all, God wouldn't have wanted such dignitaries to shed their blood so far from their palaces. As Guadalmedina tells the Captain, "Even at war, we are not equals." One of Olivares' constant complaints was the lack of soldiers. This is never seen as clearly as it is at Rocroi, and a lack of competent leadership drags the soldiers to their deaths on the fields and, on the peninsula, brings ruin to all the Empire's subjects in general.

All of the above notwithstanding, few could have predicted the decline of Spanish power both within and without the Empire. Richelieu did believe in the possibility, bolstered by an unshakeable faith in the French State against the Hispanic nation. Olivares also warned of Spain's downfalls both in his letters and memoirs, but he was so given to complaining and so well-known as a rabble-rouser that one wonders whether he actually believed his own words. No, as we can read in Pellicer's Avisos, the Spanish remained sure, as late as 1640, of the invincibility of the Catholic monarchy. They clung to shallow victories like the rupture of the siege at Fuenterrabía when they should have been wondering at the ease with which the French bounced back after each of their defeats. Furthermore, the Spanish should have at least questioned their inability to attack their neighboring country, as was seen in 1638 when Fernando had to retreat unconquered with Paris already within arm's reach.

Spain had spent 100 years fighting sterile wars, wars it could never win, and everybody, including its rulers, knew as much. They sent the Contreras and Alatristes to die in Flanders, "illuminated by a black sun", or to Germany to maintain honor, "without Flanders we are nothing", at the cost of the soldiers' life's blood and the sweat of the Empire's subjects. The navy became careless and overlooked the Indies, which had been conceived as a great mine meant to keep the gold flowing into the Crown's coffers even though, as the 18th century approached, fewer and fewer precious metals arrived directly onto the peninsula, traveled instead to foreign lands where they fed the wealth of our enemies' armies. The Spanish state never really had money so much as pre-paid ringside seats to each consecutive battle. And without a viable economy, the reform of other obsolete facets of the government proved impossible.

Alatriste and the man who so magnificently plays the character, Viggo Mortensen, embody the sunset of a world, as Stephen Boyd did in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Mortensen puts a face on the decadence of an entire weltanschauung; after all it really isn't about anything else. In the crumbling surroundings of the captain's homeland, we see a small reflection of what was happening on a much larger scale: the physical deterioration of Maria de Castro, the disappearance of loyal friends who had together weathered battles and adventures, the magnificent Echanove, limping off to be alone while the Quevedian verses pouring from his pen freeze the hopes of their listeners, the moral degeneration of Iñigo and, at last, the war.

The captain's hair fills with snow, and the scars proliferate on his skin like those overtaking the heart of Spain, weakened by outside aggressors, but more so because of its own vanity and greed. "If you get out of this one alive, you're really something," Copons tells Iñigo in a memorable scene. Captain Alatriste has just finished rejecting the offer of an honorable surrender: "Thank you, but this is a Spanish battalion." He says this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because Germans and Italians had fled with their tails tucked between their legs and because that was what was expected of such men, as Spain had done the same over and over until all its strength was bled dry. All for the sake of honor and, nevertheless, honor was lost, along with life, and along with the respect that, just a few years ago, the whole world had for them. Spain sacrificed itself in the throes of an ideology that demanded such sacrifice. The sun set in Flanders. And the Spanish Austrians, who had tied their empire's continuation to the traditions and inheritances of ancestors, disappeared into history's night, leaving only desolation which cost a great deal to overcome.
Last edited: 26 November 2006 06:23:16
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