Viva Zapata (1952)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1952. . Screenplay by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

You have to take the good with the bad when watching a film that tells a noble story about the fight to free the oppressed, but also does so by putting white actors in brownface (and, in star ‘s case, giving him prosthetics around the eyes to make him look a mestizo Mexican). A group of indigenous farmers come to the court of despotic President Porfirio Díaz with a land claim, among them Emiliano Zapata (Brando), who is inspired to rebellion by the corrupt leader’s quick dismissal of their request. After freeing a prisoner being hauled to jail by federal guards, Zapata is officially labeled a revolutionary, then after impressing invading reformer Francisco Madero is made a general in the rebel army that eventually unseats Diaz and places Madero in the presidential seat.

The new leader turns out to be a naïve puppet, however, and is quickly overpowered by right-wing Victoriano Huerta, after which folk hero Pancho Villa’s efforts place Zapata himself in the seat of power and, having bought into his own hype, he shows himself to be as corrupted by power as Diaz was. Further trouble with his spirited but reckless brother (an excellent ) and confusion about who to trust leads to our hero’s eventual downfall, but as ‘s Fernando Aguirre points out, an idea dies much harder than a man does, and Zapata’s defeat only makes him more powerful to a populace who need a future to believe in.

For all that Brandon and ‘ heavily made up appearances produce a cringing feeling, they do give exceptionally charismatic performances, her work is up there with her finest turn in Pickup On South Street, while Quinn’s few moments as the emotional undoing of his much more organized brother steals focus with his manic, unpredictable but strangely attractive energy. Director Elia Kazan admirably resists the temptation to turn the story into an excuse for endless battle sequences, there are far more ominous scenes of haunting pictorial beauty than there are shots of scores of extras riding on horseback with their guns blazing.   Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck is credited with the sharp screenplay and he does a more than admirable job of getting through almost twenty years of Zapata’s biography in quick enough succession, never allowing us to feel that we are browsing through history but giving each stop of his progress toward immortality moments of dramatic weight and tragic irony; most of it is centered around the character of Aguirre (Wiseman gives one of his finest ever turns) whose intellectual idealism is, of all the other motivations that any of these figures have to participate in rebellion, the easiest to turn to the dark side of fascist control.

It’s possibly not the most satisfying biographical film ever made, but it avoids the majority of their cliches both in its plotting and its investigation of its themes. Made the same year that Kazan notoriously testified before the HCUA, the film carefully avoids being mistaken for red propaganda by throwing in speeches about how much better things are north of the border; there’s a very evident struggle between the director and writer to find a comfortable thematic middle ground here, but it only contributes to the drama’s crackle and creates a great deal of excitement over where it’s going to go next.

Academy Award: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Quinn)
Nominations: Best Actor (Marlon Brando); Best Story and Screenplay; Best Art Direction-BW; Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock)

Cannes Film Festival Award: Best Actor (Marlon Brando)

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