Award-winning filmmaker Adriana Bosch was flying cross-country when she came across a May 2012 article in The New Yorker on a mythical figure from her childhood, a man she thought had been forgotten by the world.
"Look at this!’ she told her associate producer. "This would make a great American Experience documentary."
She was right. Her American Comandante, a one-hour documentary on William Morgan scheduled to air Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WPBT Channel 2, is a fascinating look at the only americano to achieve that rank within Fidel Castro’s revolution. It is also the story of an upper-class Midwestern bad boy who headed south to the Caribbean island in hopes of redemption. He found it, if only for a short while.
Bosch, who is known for her presidential biographies (Ulysses S. Grant, Jimmy Carter, Reagan and Ike) as well as Fidel Castro and the PBS series Latino Americans, calls Morgan "a larger than life figure." She remembers growing up in Cuba — she left when she was 13 — and hearing stories about the American hero.
"I had an aunt who adored him," she recalls, with a laugh. "He embodied this promise of American values, of fairness and liberty, and his presence seemed to mean these would be established in Cuba."
After reading the David Grann article "The Yankee Comandante," Bosch hoped to bring Morgan to life on film — but she also suspected it might be a difficult to find photographs and footage. What’s more, she wanted to tell the secondary story that intertwined so perfectly with Morgan’s own rise to fame back in the late 1950s. Morgan was a leader in the Second Front of the Escambray during the Cuban revolution, a brave contingent of rebels who fought against Fulgencio Batista separately from Fidel Castro’s group in the Sierra Maestra.
"So many people don’t know there was this other group fighting in the Escambray Mountains," she says. "They’ve only heard of Fidel in the Sierra Maestra. So for me, there was this opportunity to tell the story of the Cuban Revolution from a different perspective."
Bosch "lucked out" when a friend found Morgan’s niece in Ohio. The woman had a treasure trove of material, including old home movies of Morgan’s childhood that nobody had ever seen. (Morgan’s father, an engineer, was an amateur film buff.) "We went from thinking we would have very little to ending up with a wealth of material," she adds.
American Comandante tells Morgan’s story chronologically. Bosch includes footage of his childhood and adolescence in an upper-class Toledo, Ohio, family, all homespun scenes that could happen in any living room. Morgan, however, was not one to march lockstep with others’ expectations. At 14 he ran off to join the circus, before his father tracked him down in Chicago. He was thrown out of two schools and went AWOL while serving in the Army in occupied Japan. He was then dishonorably discharged and sentenced to five years of hard labor after attacking a guard. Returning to Toledo, he went on to work with the mob.
In 1954, Morgan settled in Miami, with his wife, a snake charmer he had met during his second stint with the circus as a fire-eater. It was here that he heard about the growing rebellion in Cuba. He soon began smuggling arms to Miami and then abandoned his family in Miami to join the rebels in the mountains. Because the Sierra Maestra was on the other end of the island from Havana, Morgan instead joined the Second Front, led by 23-year-old Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo.
"That’s where he found his calling," Bosch says. "It was his chance for redemption."
Bosch then tracks Morgan’s trajectory as he gains the respect of the Cubans, as he falls in love with his second wife, a fellow rebel soldier in the mountains, as the Second Front is marginalized by Fidel Castro after the triumph of the revolution, as the U.S. government strips him of his citizenship, and finally, as Castro imprisons and then executes him in March 1961.
Bosch’s film includes interviews with Morgan’s widow, Olga Rodriguez Goodwin, other comandantes of the Second Front of the Excambray, many of them well known in Miami, and the journalists who first re-discovered Morgan’s role in the Cuban revolution. One of these is Mike Sallah, now an investigative reporter of The Miami Herald who co-wrote a book about Morgan, The Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba (Lyons Press).
"For so long Morgan’s story had been marginalized because of the way Fidel Castro has told his version of the revolution," Bosch explains. "Morgan’s role and that of others who fought [against Batista] was swept under and forgotten."
Along with previous research by journalists, Bosch’s film restores the Hollywood-thriller tale of an americano many do not know. In fact, the Cuban-American filmmaker hopes that American Comandante puts to rest the idea that the Cuban revolution was, first and foremost, an anti-American crusade.
"The fact that there was an American who fought in the revolution, who was a comandante and who liberated Cienfuegos, shows that this enmity between Cuba and U.S. was a construct that came later," she says. "William Morgan’s story puts a chink in this narrative of Cuban’s great anti-American feeling. America was never the real enemy."
American Comandante, a one-hour documentary on the life of William Morgan
WPBT Channel 2
Tuesday, Nov. 17 at 9 p.m.