A case of too much vim but not enough vinegar, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata (1952) is a valiant attempt to immortalize the life, legend and legacy of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata; a patriot who fought valiantly for his country and died horrendously for his efforts. Regrettably, the movie becomes a mishmash of snippets and sound-bytes almost immediately after its opening credits; Kazan somehow incapable of cohesively linking together the expansive timeline covered in the screenplay by John Steinbeck. Instead, we periodically fade to black, occasionally right in the middle of a very crucial scene. Worse, the film is plagued by that all too familiar stereotype of the benevolent/simpleton Hispanic; a dusty/lusty rabble in desperate search for their political savior.
Steinbeck based his movie’s caricatures on Edgcomb Pinchon’s Zapata the Unconquerable; the book remaining unaccredited in the film. But Viva Zapata is only marginally salvageable as an entertainment, chiefly because of its central casting of Marlon Brando, Jean Peters and Anthony Quinn; each giving something more to their words of dialogue on the printed page – particularly Quinn, who won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the courageous drunkard eventually disillusioned, sullen and self-destructive because in his heart he is truly no better than the evil he seeks to help destroy.
Brando is ill-suited as the rather brutish patriot who cannot entirely shed his disdain for the Mexican aristocracy – a sect he repeatedly rebels against while being drawn ever-closer to its inner circle of deceit, lies and mistrust. In his affected moustache, poncho and sombrero, horribly mangling his accent (in some scenes it’s thicker than molasses, in others practically non-existent) Brando makes valiant strides to represent Emiliano Zapata as a man of the people; a courageous tiger surrounded by inferior men who allow their thirsts, desires and greed to cloud their better moral judgment. But it’s too much an oversimplification of the man and, on film at least, it only sporadically clicks as it should.
Tony Quinn is much better at playing fundamental flaws, inner weakness and conflict – his self-loathing far more fascinating to observe than Brando’s vigilant, if inner-chided ignobility. But perhaps the real revelation herein is Jean Peters – an actress primarily known for her bright and breezy, occasionally saucy contemporary heroines; cast as Zapata’s devoted spitfire, Josefa. Peters is a revelation, her accent untainted, her emotions even more undiluted by a complete absence to act the part. She plays with sad-eyed sincerity and the occasional boastful outburst capable of igniting Zapata’s heart, though never his temper.
The chief problem with Viva Zapata is that Kazan has allowed his ‘message’ to run away with the movie. We are beaten over the head with philosophical dispatches about absolute power corrupting until all of the characters have begun to speak in pontificating platitudes as though each line of dialogue were a monumental address from the pit of the elders. In his own desire to make Emiliano Zapata a national shrine to the magnanimous pursuits of mankind, Brando has reduced this flesh and blood warrior into an audio animatronic mannequin escaped from Disney’s Hall of Presidents; a latex figure generically waxing with that faint gurgle of predigested morality without having anything specific to say. It’s a miscalculation from which the film never recovers.
Our story begins when a delegation of impoverished Mexican farmers, among them Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) and his good friend, Pablo (Lou Gilbert) arrives at the posh palace of President Porfirio Díaz (Fay Roopeto) to contest injustices that have robbed them of their lands. Díaz is a dogmatic and condescending old goat who refers to them as his children and promises swift action, but only if they can prove the land that was taken is theirs. Of course, under Díaz’s restrictions the farmers cannot. Zapata informs Díaz of this quid pro quo, much to the president’s chagrin. In these early scenes Brando’s Zapata is a contrite peasant – superficially polite, but with a tinge of arrogance that ruffles Díaz’s feathers. The president asks for Zapata’s name, placing it on the short list for assassination.
The next afternoon, as Zapata and a congregation of farmers defiantly cross the fenced-in land in search of their original markers they are assaulted by the Mexican guard who slaughter several of the villagers before Zapata immobilizes their guns. From this truncated scene of carnage we regress to a craggy hillside were Zapata, Pablo and Zapata’s brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) are confronted by Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman); a spokesman for naïve reformist, Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon). Aguirre encourages Zapata to unite in open rebellion with Pancho Villa (Alan Reed), whose forces have already actively begun to rid the northern countryside of its tyrannies.
Zapata, however, is untrusting and sends Pablo to Texas in search of Madero – to learn whether or not he is truly a man of his word or simply another politico desiring to pick up where Díaz has left off. From here on in, Viva Zapata’s timeline becomes increasingly incoherent. Presumably months later, Pablo returns with Madero. Díaz is driven from office and Madero attempts to show his gratitude to Zapata by bequeathing him a tract of land with a fine house on it. Zapata is unimpressed at the prospect of becoming a petty dictator. This is not the reason he fought so hard to liberate Mexico from Díaz’s iron-fisted rule.
But Madero is an unassuming man with a philosopher’s heart; a pie-in-the-sky fop in politico’s clothing, rife for manipulation by men still loyal to the old home guard. Of these, General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera) is the worst. Huerta encourages Madero to have Zapata killed, wisely assessing that Zapata is a man who will not be bought and therefore cannot be controlled. But Madero truly admires Zapata. Hence, when Zapata learns that government forces acting on Huerta’s orders are coming to attack his small village he sends an ambush out to greet them, blaming Madero for the confrontation and bloodshed.
Huerta retaliates by presenting himself as a loyalist to Madero at first – enough to gain control over the provisional government and eventually hold Madero as a prisoner in his own home. The situation becomes precarious and Madero is led into an open field in the middle of the night before a firing squad who murder him on Huerta’s authority. Pancho Villa ousts Huerta from power and governs with a more benevolent authority. But soon he tires of the responsibility, passing it on to Zapata who reluctantly accepts. Regrettably, this reign is short-lived, particularly after Zapata learns of a land dispute between farmers lead by Hernandez (Henry Silva) who infers that Eufemio has since become a corrupt land owner. Zapata at first admonishes Hernandez for this accusation. In a scene reminiscent of the moment Zapata confronted Dias and Diaz drew a circle around Zapata’s name – thereby identifying him as an enemy of the state to be executed – Zapata asks for Hernandez’s name, then suddenly realizes how he has allowed the power of the presidency to corrupt his own moral code.
Instead, Zapata rides with Hernandez and the farmers to confront his brother with these allegations. Eufemio makes no apology for having stolen their land and taken advantage of their women. In fact, he angrily questions Zapata on the point of being a freedom fighter if no spoils ever come to the victor and Zapata replies that achieving honor – to live as free men – is its own reward. Zapata then encourages the farmers to look to no one man for their salvation but rather to find the strength of their own convictions within themselves and to be honorable men. On the basis of this declaration one of the farmers shoots Eufemio dead in the doorway of his home. Zapata mourns his brother but bears no grudge or ill-will for the murder.
A short while later Zapata is encouraged to accept a land grant from Colonel Guajardo (Frank DeKova). Older and perhaps wiser, Zapata believes that Mexico as at the cusp of a new age of self-governing liberation. But Josefa is fearful. She has had a vision and believes Zapata is walking into a trap. Regrettably, her apocalyptic prophecy comes to pass. Zapata is lured into the public square by Guajardo who has found the white stallion once belonging to Zapata. Mount and rider are briefly reunited. But the horse is spooked and as Zapata looks upward he realizes too late he is surrounded by a firing squad who riddles him with bullets. The fallen patriot is dragged back to his tiny village and unceremoniously thrown onto a slab of cement for all to bear witness. Instead, a small group of loyal villagers shield Zapata’s body from view with one old farmer declaring to the rest that Zapata is not dead – his spirit having escaped into the mountains.
Viva Zapata is a badly mangled bio pic. Steinbeck’s reverence to the mythology of Zapata is ladled in heavy dollops that ironically become a very dogmatic cliché – the very thing Emiliano Zapata would have fought against. Brando’s performance veers from almost quiet – though still somewhat bossy – moments of introspection (as when he commands his wife to teach him to read in their marital bed and on their wedding night no less) to outbursts of rather petulant displeasure (tearing the map from Madero’s hands after the newly appointed leader has promised Zapata his just reward for their victory against Diaz).
As reconstituted by Brando, Zapata – the man – comes across as more the wounded animal made mostly tolerable by his genuine love for Josefa and the Mexican people. It’s not a very compassionate or even compelling portrait though and the film suffers because of this. Director Elia Kazan has trouble getting into this story. His early scenes stumble along with more awkwardness than agility. The movie thereafter devolves into a series of vignettes haphazardly strung together, some more interesting to watch than others yet none achieving a consistency for narrative storytelling. In the final analysis Viva Zapata is more the footnote than a fête in praise of this great man.
Fox Home Video is at it again, giving us another single-layered Blu-ray that marginally improves on their previously released DVD. I am of the opinion that if movies (new or old) are going to be released to hi-def then they are deserving of the proper preservation, restoration and mastering to make them shine. Just so we’re clear then – this means 4k or 6k dual-layered hi-rez scans with the utmost attention given to preserving the original authenticity of the filmic presentation. We don’t get that from Fox on Viva Zapata. The B&W image is frequently softly focused and/or blurry, with grain either too heavy or digitally scrubbed and a loss of fine details throughout – except, sporadically in close-up. There’s also some sprocket damage that causes the image to wobble up and down and/or back and forth from side to side – not terribly distracting, but present and accounted for nonetheless. Age related damage is minimized but still present. The audio is mono and represented at an adequate listening level. There are no extras. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)