19 December 2005 | theowinthrop
America's Favorite Foreign Revolution?
The history of Mexico, our southern neighbor (and sometimes victim) is better known to American movie goers than the history of most countries.
You begin with the Maya (KINGS OF THE SUN), the conquest of Mexico (THE CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE), then to the founding of Father Serra's missions in California (SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD), and then the Spanish in the southwest and California (THE MARK OF ZORRO). Mexican - American history begins with the Texas War for Independence (THE ALAMO, THE LAST TEXAN, etc.). We skip to the French "intervention": JUAREZ and VERA CRUZ. Then we tend to skip the long reign of Porfirio Diaz.
Then comes the Mexican Revolution. The number of films that deal with the revolution is vast. But here are just a few titles: VIVA ZAPATA, VIVA VILLA, VILLA RIDES, THE OLD GRINGO (about Ambrose Bierce's probable death in Mexico's revolution), VIVA MARIA (a spoof but it touches on some issues), THE THREE AMIGOS, THEY CAME TO CORDURA (regarding the American Intervention under General Pershing in 1916), THE FUGITIVE (dealing with the anti-Catholic policies of the 1920s and 1930s), and even THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRES (when you see the business with Alfonso Badoya's bandit gang against the Federales).
The Mexican Revolution had many heroes. Many were heroes for one group but devils to another. Madero and Carranza stressed the need to have a nation that was loyal to a written constitution. Zapata would be one of the leaders of the land reform movement. Starting with Francisco Madero, going through Pancho Villa and Eufremio Zapata, going to their enemy Venusiano Carranza, to Obregon, Calles, and the great land reformer Lazaro Cardenas - the leadership was varied. The largest concentration of films is on the colorful (and murderous) Villa (a recent cable television movie was about Villa and his contract with D. W. Griffith to shoot a movie, AND STARRING PANCHO VILLA). But historians usually feel that while Villa tended to be on the side of the peasants, he had too much of the bandit in him to be a leader of the revolution's reforms. Zapata, on the other hand actually tried to reform the division of land. His work never got as far as he wanted before he was assassinated, but it was burned into the souls of the people from his region of Mexico (who still call themselves Zapatistas when involved in political protests to this day), and it did help set the stage for Cardenas' reforms in the late 1930s.
With direction by Elia Kazan and screenplay by John Steinbeck, VIVA ZAPATA is a wonderful, if simplistic view of the Revolution for American audiences. Brando underplays the lead for the most part - Zapata was not an explosive personality like Villa. Anthony Quinn is the explosive brother, whose more selfish attitudes leads to his own disaster. Of the supporting players, Alan Reed is good in his scene as Villa, where he discusses the future of Mexico with Zapata. Joseph Wiseman is properly sinister as an constant malcontent agent provocateur, insinuating each leader is too weak or unreliable to lead.
There are great set pieces - like Kazan's symbolic assassination of Madero by General Huerta's goons who drown out the little reformer/orator's voice as he tries to scream with a siren (but it makes the screams of the unheard martyr like a clarion call to Mexico).
Is it real Mexican history? Not quite - it is a version of it. But it is a really well done version of it.