Revolution’s a messy thing. Sure, it might seem like everybody’s on the same page while you’re fighting a common enemy, but it usually doesn’t take too long for simmering tensions and competing interests to rear their ugly heads in the form of guillotines and low-key assassinations. Take the Cuban Revolution: a glorious march from eastern Cuba toward Havana carried out by a small handful of ragtag guerrilleros under the command of Fidel Castro? Not quite. It was actually the work of a broad spectrum of revolutionary actors, including the anti-communist Student Revolutionary Directorate and Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo’s Second Front.
Sure enough, when Castro’s crew started consolidating power, neither Gutiérrez Menoyo nor his fiercely loyal troops quite fit into the picture. Among those caught up in the bloody power struggle that ensued was a wayward yanqui-turned-revolutionary hero by the name of William Morgan. Never heard of him? Well that’s because the very people who snuffed him out also did a pretty good job of erasing his legacy, but Cuban-born director Adriana Bosch has done the monumental task of recovering his remarkable story in PBS’ upcoming American Experience documentary, American Comandante.
Featuring a momentous interview with Morgan’s Cuban-born widow, whom he met while they battled shoulder-to-shoulder through the Escambray Mountains, as well as several of his fellow soldiers from the Second Front, Bosch digs deep into the historical record to give us a comprehensive look at this fascinating historical figure. Born into middle-class comfort in Toledo, Ohio, Morgan ran off with the circus as a teenager and embarked upon an unremarkable life as a drifter, army deserter, ex-con, clown, and Miami nightclub bouncer.
It wasn’t until he caught wind of Fidel Castro’s noble revolutionary cause that Morgan found something resembling meaning in his life, and he quickly packed his things and headed to Cuba to join up with the rebel forces. Once there, he fell in with the Second Front, and quickly earned the trust and admiration of his Cuban cohorts through his valor and military skills. Morgan soon became comandante of his own unit, dubbed Los Tigres de la Espesura (The Jungle Tigers), and when Batista was finally overthrown through the joint revolutionary effort, this unlikely war hero captured the imagination of both the Cuban people and the international press.
Naturally, neither Castro nor the American government was too keen about all the attention he was getting, and Morgan was quickly stripped of his American citizenship before being executed for treason by Castro’s forces. Now, thanks to Bosch and Executive Producer Mark Samels, this incredible epic of one man’s redemption through self-sacrifice has been given its due place in the American narrative.
American Comandante premieres November 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS