PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am

As the recent success of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone proves, many film directors have been drawn to the civil war that devastated Spain from 1937 to 1939, and whose effects rumble on to this day.

Now, 70 years after the fighting ended with the start of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, the British Film Institute has decided to consider cinema's response to the war with a season of films that runs throughout June.

Some are well known: Sam Wood's 1943 adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman; Ken Loach's masterly Land and Freedom (1995); and Victor Erice's classic, Voice of the Beehive.

Many are unfamiliar. There are the NO-DOS, also known as Noticiarios Documentales (News and Documentaries) - pieces of cinematic propaganda screened from 1939 until the end of Franco's dictatorship in 1975.

There are a number of documentaries: The Good Fight, which examines the role American men and women played in the war; Hollywood Contra Franco, which reviews the response of the US film industry; and, most intriguingly, Ispaniya, a montage of images made by filmmakers from the Soviet Union.

As this list suggests, the war was very much an international affair, a fact that was of prime importance for curator Joana Granero. The anniversary, she says, offers 'a good excuse to look again at the war, and represent it not just as a Spanish affair, as it is normally perceived. But as something that affected many other countries and influenced many other artists from the States and other parts of Europe'.

Granero says this spirit of international co-operation was the result of shared ideals.

'It was a war against fascism. It was the people that supported a democratically elected republic against a very rightwing military coup. Fascism was also in Italy and Germany at the same time,' the curator says.

Unlike Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, however, Franco was victorious, ruling Spain for almost 40 years. His repressive reign made films by Spanish directors of the time all but impossible: important works such as Demonios En El Jard?n (1982) or Las Bicicletas Son Para El Verano (1983) were only possible in post-Franco Spain. Exceptions include Caudillo, a documentary that was produced illegally in 1973, as was Spirit of the Beehive, made as Franco's power began to wane. The montage of films, adverts and contemporary documentary, Songs for After a War (1971), was screened for Franco and his family, although it was only released after the dictator's death.

Like many Spanish films, this concentrated on the consequences of the war rather than the conflict proper. For depictions of battles, one has to look abroad. Many of these, Granero says, were pro-republic in tone.

She cites 1938's Blockade, starring Henry Fonda, as particularly intriguing - not only for what it tells us about Spain, but for what it reveals about Hollywood as well. 'Blockade had a lot of problems with censorship in the Hollywood studio. They didn't want to get mixed up in politics, and they were pretty conservative,' she says.

Actors and screenwriters tended to be more liberal. While many American citizens joined the International Brigade and the Lincoln Brigade, film stars such as Joan Crawford, James Cagney and John Garfield arranged private screenings and donated money for medical aid.

The season also illustrates how Spain continues to chew over its complex relationships with both the war and Franco to this very day. Las Bicicletas Son Para El Verano, for example, portrays the Spanish people as less interested in the political consequences of the war than in the simple fact of its ending.

A slightly different spirit of abandon was in evidence following Franco's death in 1975. 'There were a lot of Spanish films with sex and nude women. Horrible films. But they wanted to taste their new liberty,' Granero says.

She says that today there is a desire to revise this dark period in Spain's history, to offer justice to the defeated, and those who were ignored in the years following Franco's death. Helena Taberna's La Buena Nueva looks with unflinching honesty at the fear and betrayals inherent in the period. But then, Granero adds, Taberna is the only filmmaker born after the war.