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.Continue Reading