When The Falling Soldier was published in the July
12, 1937, issue of Life magazine, the caption stated, "Robert Capa's
camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a
bullet through the head in front of Córdoba." Over the following
years and decades, during and after Capa's death, the photograph was
widely published without any questions ever being raised about its
reliability as an unposed document.
The allegation that Capa had posed his photograph was first made by
O.D. Gallagher, a South African-born journalist, who, as a
correspondent for the London Daily Express,had covered the Spanish
Civil War, at first from the Nationalist (Franco) side and later
from the Republican. Gallagher told Phillip Knightley -- who
published the story in his book The First Casualty: From the Crimea
to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth
Maker (1975) -- that "at one stage of the war he and Capa were
sharing a hotel room." (Knightley does not tell us where or when
during the war Gallagher had shared a room with Capa.) Gallagher
told Knightley that at that time "there had been little action for
several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican
officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally . . . a
Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with
Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres
for them to photograph."
In 1978 Jorge Lewinski published in his book The Camera at War his
own interview with O.D. Gallagher, in which the journalist claimed
that Franco's troops, not Republican ones, had staged the maneuvers.
The glaring inconsistencies in Gallagher's accounts to Knightley and
Lewinski should have discredited his testimony, thereby ending the
In any case, it is possible to document Capa's travels in Spain
between the outbreak of the civil war and the first publication of
his photograph; he was never anywhere within several hundred miles
of San Sebastián. Gallagher probably did share a room near San
Sebastián with a photographer who made pictures of posed exercises,
but that photographer was certainly not Capa. Nearly forty years
after the events, Gallagher's memory had clearly played a trick on
him. No doubt in perfectly good faith he confused Capa with someone
else with whom he had shared a hotel room there in 1936. There is no
evidence that Gallagher and Capa ever met before January 1939, when
they were both staying in the Hotel Majestic in Barcelona. On the
night of January 24-25, as fascist troops entered the outskirts of
the city, Capa photographed Gallagher (below) and Herbert Matthews
preparing and telephoning their last dispatches (by candlelight,
since the fascists had cut the power lines) before the three of them
left the beleaguered city together to drive north to the French
border and safety.
That a lapse of memory like Gallagher's is possible,
and even expectable, was dramatically demonstrated to me while I was
conducting interviews for my biography of Capa. When I interviewed
(by phone) cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose vigor inspired my
confidence in his perfect recall, he told me that he had been with
Capa on the Roer river front in the spring of 1945. I told him that
I was surprised to hear that, for I was quite certain that Capa had
been somewhere else at that time. Mauldin assailed my doubts by
assuring me that he remembered so clearly being with Capa that he
could even describe the photographs Capa made on the Roer front,
which were published in Life. His descriptions were so precise that
I recognized the photographs instantly when I looked them up in the
magazine. They had, however, been made by George Silk, not by Capa,
who was then covering the paratroopers who jumped east of the Rhine.
In his book The Spanish Cockpit (London, 1937), Swiss journalist
Franz Borkenau tells that he witnessed a battle around the village
of Cerro Muriano, eight miles north of Córdoba, on the afternoon of
September 5, 1936. He says that he was accompanied by two
photographers from the French illustrated magazine Vu ,but he does
not give their names. In fact, they were Hans Namuth, who had known
Capa in Paris before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and his
friend Georg Reisner.
That afternoon Namuth and Reisner photographed the terror-stricken
inhabitants of the village as they were fleeing a fascist air raid.
When I interviewed Namuth, he told me that he had not seen Capa and
Taro in Cerro Muriano. But when Vu, in its issue of September 23,
1936, published (on the page facing Capa's Falling Soldier) Capa's
photographs of some of the same people that Namuth and Reisner had
photographed along the same road outside Cerro Muriano, Namuth
realized that Capa had been there that day.
That fact provided the essential clue for pinpointing where Capa
photographed The Falling Soldier. On the vintage prints preserved in
the files of Capa's estate with their original chronological
numbering written on the back, the numbers of the sequence to which
The Falling Soldier belongs immediately precede those of the Cerro
Muriano refugee series. Since I had found that the numbering on
those vintage prints from Capa's first trip to Spain closely
conformed to the chronology that I had established from other
documentation, I concluded that Capa photographed The Falling
Soldier during the battle at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936.
Alas, the controversy raged on -- with a superabundance of hot
tempers and a dearth of objective analysis or research -- until a
fantastic breakthrough occurred in August 1996, when Rita Grosvenor,
a British journalist based in Spain, wrote an article about a
Spaniard, named Mario Brotóns Jordá, who had identified the Falling
Soldier as Federico Borrell García and had confirmed in the Spanish
government's archives that Borrell had been killed in battle at
Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936.
The story of how Brotóns made his discovery is a fascinating one.
Born in the village of Alcoy, near the city of Alicante, in
southeastern Spain, Brotóns had himself joined the local Loyalist
militia, the Columna Alcoyana, at the age of fourteen -- and was
himself a combattant in the battle against the Francoist forces
under General Varela that took place on and around the hill known as
La Loma de las Malagueñas at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936.
When Brotóns's friend Ricard Bañó, a young Alcoy historian,
mentioned to him that he had read (in my biography of Capa) that
Capa's photograph might have been made during the battle at Cerro
Muriano, Brotóns began his research. He knew that the man in the
photograph must have belonged to the militia regiment from Alcoy,
for the distinctive cartridge cases the man is wearing had been
specially designed by the commander of the Columna Alcoyana and made
by the leather craftsmen in Alcoy. No one in any of the other
Loyalist militia units participating in the battle at Cerro Muriano
would have worn such cartridge cases.
Because Brotóns had himself fought at Cerro Muriano
on September 5, 1936, he remembered from his first-hand knowledge
that Federico Borrell García had been killed there that day. In the
course of his research, Brotóns contacted the historian Francisco
Moreno Gómez (author of the definitive book about the civil war on
the Córdoba front), who informed him that the records in the Spanish
government archives in Salamanca and Madrid confirm that only one
member of the Columna Alcoyana died at Cerro Muriano on September 5,
1936. Brotóns then could be certain that the man in Capa's
photograph must be Federico Borrell García. When Brotóns showed
Capa's photograph to Federico's younger brother, Everisto, he
confirmed the identification.
In his self-published book, Retazos de una época de
inquietudes,Brotóns tells the story of the Alcoy regiment in
Andalusía during September 1936. He recounts that Borrell, a 24-year-old
millworker from Alcoy, was one of about fifty militiamen who had
arrived at Cerro Muriano on the morning of September 5 to reinforce
the Columna Alcoyana's front line. That afternoon he was defending
the artillery battery in the rearguard of the Alcoy infantry when
enemy troops infiltrated behind the Loyalist lines and began firing
at them from behind as well as from in front, hoping to squeeze the
Loyalists in a vise. It was about five o'clock when Borrell was
fatally shot. That time accords with the long shadows in Capa's
In July 1998, at the time of a Robert Capa retrospective exhibition
in London, Phillip Knightley came out with an article dismissing
Brotóns's discovery and stating, "The famous photograph is almost
certainly a fake -- Capa posed it." He goes on to argue fatuously,
"Federico could have posed for the photograph before he was killed."
To provide a definitive refutation of Knightley's absurd suggestion,
that "Federico could have posed for the photograph before he was
killed," I turned to an expert whom I had met when I accompanied
Cornell Capa to the University of Memphis, Tennessee, where Cornell
gave a master class that was open not only to university students
but also to qualified members of the public. One of the latter was
Captain Robert L. Franks, the chief homicide detective of the
Memphis Police Department and a talented sculptor and photographer.
We had renewed our acquaintance several times on Capt. Franks's
visits to New York with groups from the university's photography
department. When I asked him, in September 2000, whether he would be
willing to give me a reading of the two `moment of death'
photographs as if they were evidence in a murder case, he very
kindly acceded to my request.
The most decisive element in his reading is the soldier's left hand,
seen below his horizontal left thigh. Capt. Franks told me in
conversation that the fact that the fingers are somewhat curled
toward the palm clearly indicates that the man's muscles have gone
limp and that he is already dead. Hardly anyone faking death would
ever know that such a hand position was necessary in order to make
the photograph realistic. It is nearly impossible for any conscious
person to resist the reflex impulse to brace his fall by flexing his
hand strongly backward at the wrist and extending his fingers out
Taking all of the available
information into consideration, I shall now put forward my
hypothesis of Robert Capa's experience on the afternoon of September
5, 1936, during the battle between various Loyalist militias and the
Francoist forces led by General Varela.
Capa encountered a group of militiamen (and at least one militia-woman)
from several units -- Francisco Borrell García among them -- in what
was at that moment a quiet sector. Having decided to play around a
bit for the benefit of Capa's camera, the men began by standing in a
line and brandishing their rifles. Then, with Capa running beside
them, they jumped across a shallow gully and hugged the ground at
the top of its far side, aiming and firing their rifles -- thereby,
presumably, attracting the enemy's attention. I have always assumed
that they next continued their forward advance, running down the
exposed hillside. I now realize that that assumption is incorrect.
What actually must have happened is that at least a couple of the
men -- including Borrell -- turned around and climbed back up the
side of the gully that was behind them when they pretended to fire.
In Capa's two photographs of the soldiers crossing the gully, we can
clearly see, in the upper left corner of each picture, upstanding
stalks of grass like those underfoot in the two `moment of death'
Once Borrell had climbed out of the gully, he evidently stood up,
back no more than a pace or two from the edge of the gully and
facing down the hillside, so that Capa (who had remained in the
gully) could photograph him. Just as Capa was about to press his
shutter release, a hidden enemy machinegun opened fire. Borrell, hit
in the head or heart, died instantly and went limp while still on
his feet, as Capa's photograph shows. As soon as he had fallen to
the ground, comrades must have dragged his body immediately back
into the gully. That would explain why his corpse is not visible in
the other picture. Indeed, Capt. Franks concluded that the Falling
Soldier was the first to be shot. He wrote, "I base this upon the
cloud formation that seems to be tighter in [The Falling Soldier]
and more dissipated in the [other] picture. The second soldier's
photograph is in focus, which indicates to me that Robert Capa had
time to attend to the settings on his camera between the two shots."
wor Capa -- presumably with at least a few of the militiapersons --
must have remained safely in the gully until the coast was
sufficiently clear to allow a return to the village. It is not known
whether they carried with them the bodies of the dead or abandonned
them on the hillside. In either case, Federico's body was not
returned to Alcoy for a proper funeral and burial.
The arrow indicates where Federico Borrell García was standing when
he was shot; the X indicates where Capa was hugging the side of the
There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a
photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death
during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. May the
slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa's reputation for
more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a
verdict decisively in favor of Capa's integrity. It is time to let
both Capa and Borrell rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling
Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism
and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.
Borkenau, Franz. The Spanish Cockpit.London: Faber & Faber, 1937.
Brotóns Jordá, Mario. Retazos de una época de inquietudes,second
edition. Alcoy: self-published, 1995.
Capa, Cornell, and Richard Whelan, eds. Robert Capa: Photographs.New
York: Aperture, 1996.
Heart of Spain: Robert Capa's Photographs of the Spanish Civil
War.Catalogue ofan exhibition organized by the Museo Nacional Centro
de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; with essays by Catherine Coleman, Juan
P. Fusi Aizpúrua, and Richard Whelan. New York: Aperture, 1999.
Knightley, Philip. The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam;
The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.New York:
Harcourt, Brace, 1975.
Levinski, Jorge. The Camera at War: A History of War Photography
from 1848 to the Present Day. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Whelan, Richard. Robert Capa: A Biography.New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1985; London: Faber & Faber, 1985. Paperback edition published 1994
by University of Nebraska Press, 1994, and still in print.