Director: Elia Kazan
Viva Zapata! has all the earmarks of a studio prestige project. Marlon Brando's first movie after he created such a sensation in A Streetcar Named Desire, it was directed by his Streetcar director, Elia Kazan, during the heyday of Kazan's career and personally produced by the head of Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck. The screenplay was by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck, who would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature ten years later. The film received five Oscar nominations (winning one—Anthony Quinn for best supporting actor), including one for best actor for Brando, who did win best actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival and from the British Academy. Given the formidable talent involved and the praise the film has received (David Thomson calls it "impressive" and "original"), it's one that I've looked forward to seeing for many years and was finally able to when it premiered on TCM recently. (It won't be available on DVD until next month.) I have to say, though, that despite all the care obviously lavished on it, my reaction is that this is a work of mixed quality that does not fully live up to its reputation.
Set during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, the film deals with the role in those events of Emiliano Zapata, an illiterate peasant who became one of the heroes of that revolution, the gravity of this subject another indication of the seriousness with which this project was approached by all involved. Brando is very good indeed in the title part (although I have to ask myself, "What were they thinking when they put him in that absurd makeup?"). He plays Zapata very quietly, almost meekly in one of his most subtle, least affected performances. This is a man in conflict, yet Brando conveys that conflict less as externalized turmoil than as internalized confusion. Zapata is no zealot, but an uncomplicated man who, because others admire the way he speaks his mind and acts on the strength of his convictions, is called upon to become a leader. He does reluctantly accept that role, allowing circumstances to direct him into a course of action he does not feel naturally suited for. But unlike nearly everyone else in the film, his ideals are not subverted by the power he finds himself wielding, and he eventually forgoes that power because he cannot accept the inevitable necessity to compromise his principles. In the end, though, he finds that the simple people he loves will not allow him to remain in retirement and that he must sacrifice his own desires, and eventually his life, to give the people what they need. Like so many of Steinbeck's heroes, he becomes a martyr. Brando, however, manages to avoid the sanctimony and self-righteousness that are the pitfalls of such a contrivance, stoically accepting that he must put aside his own welfare for the common good.
As you might expect in a movie directed by Kazan, who himself started as a stage and film actor and worked as a stage director in the 1940s, there are other good performances in the film as well. After more than fifteen years playing forgettable parts, Mexican-born Anthony Quinn, playing Zapata's brother Eufemio, finally found his niche, one from which he rarely strayed for the rest of his long career. Interestingly, he had replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski when the stage version of Streetcar went on tour, and many years later was one of several actors considered for Don Corleone in The Godfather before Brando, who was Francis Ford Coppola's first choice but whose reputation for being difficult and demanding made Paramount executives nervous, was finally cast. Quinn excels in his later scenes when he abandons his revolutionary ideals to self-interest and becomes a disillusioned, hedonistic wreck. Jean Peters, a Fox starlet of the early 1950s who later married Howard Hughes, is surprisingly understated and believable as Zapata's wife, Josefa, and has quite good chemistry with Brando.
There is also much to admire in Kazan's direction. He stages key scenes with great imagination and visual force: the scene in which Zapata and others gradually surround a group of mounted soldiers leading a prisoner by a rope tied around his neck and liberate him; a drily funny scene in which Zapata meets Josefa's merchant-class family and indulges in a game of one-upmanship, cleverly trading platitudes with them to prove he is worthy of their daughter; and two separate assassination scenes, including the one that acts as the finale of the film, staged almost ritualistically. The film also contains several action sequences, such as the one in which Zapata and his men blow up an Army train to steal guns and ammunition, that show what a great director of action pictures or Westerns Kazan could have been had such subjects appealed to him. Although shot largely in Texas (it's unclear whether this was by choice or because of opposition by the Mexican government to filming in Mexico), Kazan and Fox house cinematographer Joe MacDonald give the film the authentic look of the sere landscape of northern Mexico. I do think, though, that the use of color, which Fox permitted for less artistically ambitious projects than this one, would have improved the film. The decision to film in black-and-white was likely by design, since at the time there was a prejudice that monochrome was more appropriate for serious films and color more suited to frivolous ones.
With such obvious strengths, why then am I so ambivalent towards the film as a whole? I think almost everything in the movie I can find to criticize stems from Steinbeck's muddled, unfocused screenplay. For one thing, the film labors under the curse of American movies of the 1950s—the desire to make a Statement. Yet for all its aspiration to significance, Viva Zapata! is remarkably vague about what it wants to say. Its overriding message seems to have something to do with the simplistic idea that power corrupts and the nebulous belief that the People are instinctively right and in the end will prevail over despotism, concepts expressed at regular intervals through didactic speechifying by the characters. The movie is noticeably short on specifics, however, and sidesteps difficult issues such as the role of the rule of law in a revolution or an examination of the moral limits of the use of force and violence to effect social and political change. Admittedly, it's likely the film avoids specifics partly because of the fearful climate of the early 1950s, when any sentiments that smacked of socialism or communism were not just suspect, but downright dangerous to anyone connected with the movie business. (Kazan appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and "named names" in April 1952, shortly after Viva Zapata! was released.)
Another failing of the movie is to make the enemies of Zapata and the revolution such ponderously clichéd villains. This is especially true of Fernando Aguirre, the character played by Joseph Wiseman. Aguirre starts out as a sympathetic character and supporter of Zapata but soon becomes a wily provocateur, a sort of Iago figure whose motivations are completely mystifying. Wiseman's performance becomes progressively more mannered, until he is finally just a step away from Dr. No. At the end Aguirre even switches sides and without any explanation becomes Zapata's enemy, Judas to Zapata's Christ-like martyr, another element that steers the film away from clear-headed analysis and too close to unsubtle parable for my liking, a tendency that I find often compromises Steinbeck's fiction. Nor is the film helped by Steinbeck's heavy-handed symbolism—for instance, in the final scene Zapata's white horse running free in the mountains after his death, an obvious symbol of his indomitable spirit as an inspiration to his adoring followers. At the same time, I don't feel entirely comfortable with the romanticized portrayal of the noble Mexican peasants in the film. There is something patronizing in the portrayal of their naïve, childlike simplicity, their passivity that requires strong men of action to lead them, and their almost superstitious faith in messianic figures like Zapata.
I would sum up watching Viva Zapata! as a less than totally satisfying experience, one of admiring its best parts while feeling there is something lacking in the movie as a whole. This is a film designed to be held together by its themes, and those themes are simply not conveyed clearly or compellingly enough to do the job. In the end, despite the presence of Brando, I found Viva Zapata! not far removed from the conventional studio biopics of the 1930s and 1940s.