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John Huston first broke into independent production with We Were Strangers, a 1949 political thriller. Although the film was a major box office failure (his first big flop), it was in many ways ahead of its time, both as an independent production and as a barely disguised indictment of U.S. foreign policy.
Huston had decided to leave his home studio before starting work on Key Largo (1948), the last film under his Warner Bros. contract. His resolve was only strengthened when the studio re-cut the film over his objections. When independent producer Sam Spiegel (who produced under the name S.P. Eagle at the time, partly to cover his Jewish roots and partly to distance himself from bad debts) heard Huston was looking for a producing partner, he made a pitch, and the two created Horizon Films.
At the time, Huston was already considering an adaptation of a story from New York Mirror reporter Robert Sylvester's episodic novel Rough Sketch and suggested it as their first production (Huston would later claim they came up with the project together, in a rush). The story, about a group of revolutionaries tunneling under a cemetery as part of a plot to assassinate corrupt officials of Gerardo Machado y Morales' dictatorship prior to the 1933 revolution, appealed to them as a way of snapping their fingers at the current atmosphere of Red-baiting in Hollywood and Washington. Despite the controversial story, they interested two Hollywood studios in signing production deals. According to rumor, MGM would have used it as a dramatic vehicle for dancer Gene Kelly. But Columbia Pictures offered the more lucrative deal, allowing Huston to go with his first choice for the male lead, John Garfield. MGM was so impressed with the pitch, however, that they offered Huston his own two-picture deal, to start after he finished We Were Strangers.
Huston had wanted to cast Garfield in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In fact, Garfield had been considered to play Curtin when the production was first discussed at Warner Bros. in 1941. When Huston finally got to make it after World War II, Garfield wasn't available, so the role had gone to cowboy star Tim Holt. Knowing they shared similar political views, Huston was eager to cast him as the Cuban-born revolutionary in We Were Strangers.
For the leading actress, Columbia had acquired the services of Jennifer Jones from independent producer David O. Selznick. Although the producer had devoted years to making her a star and would marry her later in the year, in one sense he treated her like most of the actors he had under contract. When he was between productions or in financial straits (or, in this case, both), he loaned her to other studios at the highest rate he could get. Jones wasn't pleased with the role of a young Cuban woman driven to revolution by her brother's death. She resented having to cut her hair and learn a Cuban accent for the role, and during production hated having to be dirtied up for the tunneling scenes. But she also gave herself totally over to Huston to be molded into his conception of the role, a practice she followed with most directors.
With two decidedly Angelo-Saxon actors in the leads, Huston fleshed his supporting cast with some of the best Latin actors working in Hollywood. Ramon Novarro, the silent heartthrob who had been absent from the screen for seven years, gave his first character performance in the film, finally facing up to the fact that age had moved him beyond the romantic roles on which he had built his career. Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz stole scenes effortlessly as a corrupt government official with a yen for Jones' character, while Gilbert Roland got to do more than just trade on his good looks as the poet revolutionary whose growing guilt over the innocents who could be caught in the crossfire seriously jeopardizes the group's plans.Huston and co-writer Peter Viertel scouted locations in Cuba, which gave Huston a chance to meet one of the country's most famous American inhabitants, Ernest Hemingway. They also convinced government figures that the film was critical of the previous regime, gaining permission to do second-unit work there.
The cast, of course, stayed in Hollywood, filming on the Columbia lot. During scenes in the cemetery, Huston, an incorrigible practical joker, planted a convincing dummy hand in a grave Jones had to dig through. She got him back at the wrap party by gifting him with a female chimp that immediately fell in love with him. When he took it home, it trashed the apartment he shared with his wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. His decision to stay with the chimp on their Tarzana ranch (Keyes was allergic to his many animals) helped bring an end to their marriage.
Huston's hopes for the success of We Were Strangers were dashed as soon as the film opened. A scathing notice in the Hollywood Review dubbed the film Communist propaganda, "the heaviest dish of Red theory ever served to an audience outside the Soviet." Columbia head Harry Cohn was so enraged, he barred the paper's reporters from his lot for six years. A few weeks later the Marxist newspaper The Daily Worker called the film "capitalist propaganda." More telling, however, were mainstream reviewers that dismissed the film as "passionless" (New York Times) and a disappointment coming from the director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Audiences must have agreed, as they stayed away in such large numbers the studio finally withdrew the film from release. Conservative criticism of the film helped fuel the efforts to blacklist Garfield for his involvement in liberal organizations which were considered Communist fronts. For his part, Huston would later dismiss the picture as a mistake, citing the lack of authentic Latin actors in the leads and a poor choice of source material.
Later critics and historians have seen much more of merit in We Were Strangers. Like many of Huston's best films, it deals with the poetry of failure, focusing on a group that undertakes a plan that ultimately falls apart. The painstaking detailing of the revolutionaries' efforts to tunnel beneath the cemetery prefigures the focus on the details of the jewelry heist in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). We Were Strangers also is one of several films in which Huston uses heat as a metaphor for the explosive situations in which the characters are caught. Politically, it was more astute than Huston thought at the time. Ten years after its release, Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces overthrew Batista, the dictator who had participated in Machado y Morales' overthrow in 1933, in an eerie parallel to the film's climax, in which the revolution finally breaks out.
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Huston and Peter Viertel
Based on the novel Rough Sketch by Robert Sylvester
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: George Antheil
Principal Cast: Jennifer Jones (China Valdez), John Garfield (Tony Fenner), Pedro Armendariz (Armando Ariete), Gilbert Roland (Guillermo), Ramon Novarro (Chief), Morris Ankrum (Bank Manager), Lelia Goldoni (Consuelo).
by Frank Miller