“Viva Zapata!” (1952)

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Co-stars: Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando’s mustache

Awards: BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor Award (Cannes Film Festival), Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor

Character: Emiliano Zapata

This film is definitely an oddity. Written by John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), and reuniting Brando with Streetcar director Elia Kazan, it is a fictionalized account of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Which is a fancy way of saying that for two hours we get to see Brando rock a bizarre mustache and talk like the bastard mix of Johnny Depp and Cheech Marin. But that really isn’t a fair summation, as the film did display fine acting and realistic settings. It can be hard to get past that mustache though, if you’re an idiot like me who is easily distracted by stupid mustaches.

In the film, Zapata is sent with a group of men to complain to the corrupt president of 34 years, Porfirio Diaz, that their farm land has been stolen, and that they have been pushed into the surrounding hills. When the president condescendingly dismisses the group, Zapata speaks up, pushing him to action. In response, Diaz circles Zapata’s name on a list, and the audience recognizes that Zapata is a character of note. Soon, Zapata becomes an outlaw after freeing a prisoner he believes to be wrongly imprisoned. We learn a few things about him early on: he is a man of unshakable honor, he knows horses, he loves but one woman, and that he is illiterate. This is a fabrication of the film, as the real Zapata had received some education. For his part, Brando treated this strong man’s deep insecurity with delicacy, honesty, and heart. It is hard not to feel bittersweet sorrow for Zapata when he asks his new bride to teach him to read on their wedding night. It sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite lovely.

Zapata is soon appointed as General of the Liberation Army of the South in the Mexican Revolution by Francisco Madero. Many battles are fought, many hilarious mustache twitches occur, and Zapata pimps his way into the heart of Josefa (the aforementioned wife). Soon, Diaz falls from power, and Madero is made president of Mexico. Zapata’s army celebrates, and Zapata finally wins over Josefa and they marry. However, Madero is a weak leader, and fails to replace the current state army with his revolutionaries. When he tries to stand in solidarity with them, his General sets him up and has him assassinated. The Revolution then hurtles forward, and Zapata’s army is plunged into longer, bloodier battles. This fact is somewhat skirted over and only hinted at, as there is never a clear timeline in the film. In fact, it seems as if Zapata only has to face down one really big fight, and then he takes a really long nap. What seems to be only a couple years in the film, was actually nine years in a bloody revolution.

That is the ultimate pitfall of the film: the way it skirts over details of the revolution and shortens the feel of it all. It is to it’s credit that it is a movie constantly moving forward, never dragging on and leaving the audience bored, but by glossing over what happened we can’t ever truly gauge the length of the struggle or how hard Zapata’s army fought. We have to take the characters’ words on the subject. Anyways, as the battles end, we learn that Zapata and his troops have won, and against his will, Zapata himself is placed as president of Mexico. When we see him at his new post, he is faced with a group of farmers not unlike his own group, and is faced with a young man not unlike himself. This young man challenges him, and as a result, Zapata circles that man’s name on a list. He realizes what he is doing, however, and rips the page apart and announces he is not the president. Zapata is incorruptible. We, the audience, can’t help but like Zapata.

Damn him. Even with a stupid mustache.

The film’s main themes are of power and corruption, and we see all of Zapata’s contemporaries fall to their temptations, even his own brother, Eufemio, who is with Zapata from the very beginning. Eufemio is played with great bravado and sleaze by Anthony Quinn, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. Brando was also great in the film, who completely morphs into the celebrated Mexican Revolutionary. Aside from previously knowing that I was watching him on the screen, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this was the same man who played Stanley Kowalski. His body language, his voice (accent, register, and diction), his whole physical appearance had completely morphed into an entirely new and equally believable presence. Sure he’s acting, and that’s what an actor is supposed to do (make us believe them as their character), but from watching these three films I wouldn’t even be able to draw a single conclusion about Brando, the person. When he’s on the screen, he isn’t Marlon Brando playing a character, he IS that person living and breathing, frame by frame, on the viewer’s screen. Very, very few actors in the history of the cinema have been able to conjure that kind of magic on the celluloid, and Brando was the first. He is the Houdini, ‘stache and all.

In conclusion, the film is somewhat uneven due to the script and direction, but the overall product is entertaining and highly watchable, and Brando is a genius. There is also a great scene I hadn’t mentioned before, where Zapata is relaxing in the grass with his wife and playing with puppies, and I loved that shit. Therefore, thumbs up.

Puppies! Adorable puppies!

Quotes: “A strong people is the only way to freedom!”

“With your permission, my president, we make our tortillas out of corn, not patience, and patience will not cross an armed and guarded fence. To do as you suggest, to verify those boundaries, we need your authority to cross that fence.”

Viva Zapata! trailer on YouTube

Buy it on Amazon

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1 Response to ““Viva Zapata!” (1952)”

  1. July 3, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    At this moment I am going to do my breakfast, when having my breakfast coming over again to
    read further news.

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