In 1909, Mexico, illiterate rancher Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando, The Godfather) and his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn, Zorba The Greek) reluctantly take up arms against the corrupt government of President Porfirio Diaz.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“A strong people is the only way to freedom!”
Viva Zapata! covers the last ten years in the life of real-life Mexican leader Emiliano Zapata. While not entirely accurate, the film does a terrific job of conveying the essence of a man riddled with contradictions — a revolutionary who wasn’t interested in politics, a mild-mannered farmer who believed of violence as a means to an end.
Nowadays it’s nearly impossible to watch this movie and not think about politics. Viva Zapata! was made by a group of men known as much for their concerns with social issues as their careers, and released during the infamous anti-communist investigations by the U.S. Congress. In this context, Viva Zapata! is a fascinating example of the often contentious relationship between culture, arts and politics.
It all began in late 1940s, when director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire) became obsessed with making a film about Zapata. Kazan asked author John Steinbeck to write the final draft, rightly thinking that Steinbeck’s fictional agrarian hero Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath) had many things in common with the legendary Mexican folk hero. After 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck agreed to finance the project, Kazan and Zanuck set out to find the perfect actor to play the titular character.
Zanuck wanted Tyron Power (The Black Swan), but Kazan insisted on Marlon Brando. The actor enthusiastically accepted the part and the film affected Brando’s life in profound ways. It was during his preparation for the movie that he became interested in the plight of indigenous people. He also met his second wife, actress ‘Movita’ Castaneda (1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty), while researching Zapata in Mexico.
Initially, the thought of seeing a white dude from Nebraska play a Mexican farmer seemed odd. Brando’s brownface makeup does take some getting used to. I’m sure it would be especially difficult for younger viewers to accept this politically incorrect casting. But as I tell my nephews, “It isn’t that we old fogies condone this sort of thing, it is that we are better at contextual analysis.” Anyhow, while I did find him a bit actorish in places (I could see the wheels turning), I thought Brando’s work had flashes of brilliance.
As one might expect, Mexican actor Anthony Quinn’s performance as Zapata’s hot-headed brother has aged better than Brando’s — Quinn walked away with an Oscar for his outstanding characterization. The fine work by Brando, Quinn and the supporting cast, coupled with Joseph MacDonald’s (Pinky) lyrical camera work and Alex North’s (Spartacus) spirited music score, create a memorable viewing experience.
Despite its many virtues, Viva Zapata! was initially met with suspicion. This is, after all, a movie about a populist leader with Marxist tendencies released at the height of the Red Scare in the U. S. In addition, director Kazan delivered his now infamous testimony before the HCUA (House Committee on Un-American Activities) as the movie was playing in theaters. One wonders if the film’s release placed extra pressure on Kazan to tell on colleagues. We’ll never know what role, if any, Viva Zapata! played in Kazan’s still highly debated decision, but his choice haunted him for the rest of his life.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Though dated in some areas, Viva Zapata! still packs a punch. The film’s true genius is that Zapata’s fight for economic justice is wrapped up in the kind of generic populism that can be embraced by people who come from different areas of the political spectrum. Some viewers may object to a movie whose main purpose is to appeal to the widest possible audience, but I thought Viva Zapata! successfully creates a universal sense of what being oppressed is like. The complex and intriguing political dynamics surrounding the making of the film are the icing on the cake. B&W, 113 minutes, Not Rated.