Viva Zapata! (1952) dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn
Before Hollywood's acceptance of global cinema producers took no care in regards to accuracy or authenticity when it came to telling history on film. And the idea of Marlon Brando playing the Mexican revolutionary general Emiliano Zapata is perhaps a head-turner now (the same goes for Charlton Heston’s turn as a Mexican border guard in ‘Touch of Evil’), but back in the day, it was common place for Americans to put on face makeup and butcher the legacies of history’s great figures.
Before we discuss further, let’s get out of the way the fact that “Viva Zapata!” is NOT the definitive historical account of the great 20th Century revolutionary, or even a passing resemblance of history, let’s judge the film as a piece of Hollywood entertainment with the era in proper context. With that said, I don’t know much about Zapata’s mannerisms or personality or looks, but Brando’s Zapata surely retains the nobility, courage and reluctant hero qualities of the real life man.
“Viva Zapata!” opens with a group of Mexican peasant farmers visiting the estate of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz to reclaim the lands stolen from them. The peasants are easily dismissed by the superiority of Diaz, except for one, Emiliano Zapata, a humble farmer with a stubborn sense of pride and honour. Sensing trouble, Zapata soon becomes a target of the Diaz military. Though encouraged by his countrymen to lead them against their oppressors, and like the classic hero archetype, Zapata is reluctant. Eventually he puts the needs of his people over his own and leads the charge. Diaz is soon overthrown in favour of Francisco Madero, but almost immediately the political infighting between rival armies breaks the peace. With one despot gone another emerges. The army of Victoriano Huerto moves into power and targets Zapata for death. If this sounds familiar you’ll recognize the beats from virtually every film about revolutionaries. There’s the reluctant hero, the triumphant defeat of power, then the political in-fighting and emergence of a more villainous power, a betrayal from within from a close advisor, and eventually an assassination which martyrs the hero. Either all or some of these beats form the cinematic versions of “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Braveheart” and “Michael Collins” as well.
But the film is all about Brando. It was his first film after “Streetcar,” his mumbling was still pronounced and almost incomprehensive at times. But that’s the fun of watching Brando. He chews the scenery and naturally draws all his attention to himself. I know someone who knew Brando well enough and by his accounts his style was not rehearsed or conscious. In front of and behind the screen he exuded a magnetic quality that draws the energy of the room towards him. We never feel as if we’re watching Brando ‘turn into’ Zapata, as say, Jamie Foxx turned into Ray Charles, it’s Brando being Brando, this time with a moustache and poncho.
From 1951 to 1954, Marlon Brando redefined acting – four films in four years garnered him Best Actor nominations (“A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Viva Zapata”, “Julius Caesar” and “On the Waterfront”) and a win for “Waterfront”. Watching the performance is like watching those defining moments in cinema history – the rulebook being re-written right before our eyes.
To give Elia Kazan credit, he was known primarily for his theatre-to-film adaptations, and “Zapata!” was his first big epic action film. For the most part he does the job admirably, his dramatic compositions, staging for action and fighting are worthy of John Ford’s work. Unfortunately Kazan doesn't flesh out any of the other characters. Despite the acclaim for Anthony Quinn's work (who plays Zapata's loyal brother), he is considerably underused and is relegated to 'sidekick' only.
It’s worthy to note that the film was written by John Steinbeck - the socially conscious scribe of “Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”. So Zapata was, at the very least, in the hands of the greatest artists of the day. If I ever free nations and die tragically by an assassin’s bullet, that's all I'd ever ask for. Enjoy.