Movies We Like
Even assuming director Elia Kazan’s 1952 film biography of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata only has a passing accuracy to the man’s real story, it’s still a very unusual picture for its day and still incredibly compelling. However, Viva Zapata! is most noted as the third film from the young actor Marlon Brando and it’s more evidence of his acting genius. In the title role, it’s the followup to his groundbreaking, earth-shattering, art-changing performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and whereas his Stanley Kowalski was a lot of exciting scenery chewing, Zapata is intense minimalism (and of course Kazan was the director of both). If you can get past the “ethnic” makeup and the accent that skews close to Vito Corleone with a hint of Cheech & Chong (and if you can’t get past it, I understand), it reveals a twenty-eight-year-old actor with the chops of a seasoned professional. Whereas so many actors before him would have let themselves fall into caricature, Brando brings a complicated self-torture and his esteemed methody-ness, which elevates the film to essential viewing for any fan of great acting.
Kinda-sorta based on Edgcomb Pinchon's book Zapata the Unconquerable, with a screenplay by one of America’s greatest novelists, John Steinbeck, Viva Zapata! is a straight biopic. Though the young Zapata originally had his eyes on a normal working-class life, when he stands up to the longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in defense of poor farmers he is slowly pulled into the life of a revolutionary. Aided by his more colorful and reactionary brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn, terrific in an Oscar-winning performance and thankfully half Mexican in real life), while also trying to woo a merchant's daughter, Josefa (Jean Peters, best remembered as the sexy femme fatale of Pickup on South Street as well as briefly being the second wife of Howard Hughes -- and like Brando completely not Mexican), the brothers fight for the well-meaning and academic Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon). After overthrowing Díaz and a military assassination of Madero, Zapata endures a number of unethical generals who fear the respect he has earned from the people, even with a true Marxist advisor, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman, most famous for playing Dr. No in the first James Bond flick) always lurking around. Eventually his fellow soldier, Pancho Villa (Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone!), names Zapata president but he ends up choosing the people over the power.
Whereas his previous effort, A Streetcar Named Desire looks mostly like a filmed play, Viva Zapata! shows an evolution in Kazan’s filming style. Nothing here looks like a set; the exteriors are stunning real places along the American-Mexican border states and the interiors feel completely authentic, where ceilings are often seen (unusual at this point in film history). Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald was already a near-star in his field, having moved fluidly between important westerns and noir flicks, including the beautiful My Darling Clementine for director John Ford. The look of the film is perfect and though black and white, you can see its influence on Brando’s one directing effort ten years later, the great moody Western, One-Eyed Jacks.
Made in an era of serious paranoia and right-wing prosecution of liberalism, Viva Zapata! is a shockingly pro-socialist film, especially considering it was released the same year that Kazan notoriously “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, therefore saving his own career but making him a pariah among his old comrades. Zapata is presented as a sorta early twentieth century Che Guevara. But where Che took part in parsing of his enemies when the Cuban revolution was over, Zapata remains true to his working man ideals and comes just short of land grabbing for the peasants. Instead, his final emotional confrontation is against his brother, who has grown power mad and abusive. The film stands as a tribute to Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who somehow let Kazan and Steinbeck convince him to let them make what was obviously a controversial film and would give himself the sole producer credit on it. It also shows the post Streetcar power that Kazan and Brando now yielded. Their collaboration would peak and end a few years later with their masterpiece, On the Waterfront. Perhaps underappreciated by history, Viva Zapata! is more than just a bridge between Kazan and Brando’s two more famous teaming efforts. As a piece of Mexican history interpreted by great American artists, it may be more vital now than ever.