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Viva Zapata! (1952) came to the screen with first-rate credentials. The star was Marlon Brando, fresh from his Oscar®-nominated performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire the previous year. The director was Elia Kazan, who had directed Brando in both the Broadway and Hollywood productions of Streetcar and earned his own Oscar® nomination for the film. The supporting cast was headed by Anthony Quinn, who'd played Kowalski on the stage right after Brando and had actually been born in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, to a father who fought under Pancho Villa before moving north and taking a Hollywood job. And the screenplay was by John Steinbeck, a literary superstar for novels like Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and well on his way to a Nobel Prize in 1962. Kazan claimed that he suggested the topic of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata during a casual conversation with Steinbeck, but in fact Steinbeck had already researched the subject in the late 1940s for a Mexican production that was later abandoned. Twentieth Century Fox launched the project with Darryl F. Zanuck as producer, and the result garnered a supporting-actor Academy Award® for Quinn, nominations for Steinbeck, Brando, composer Alex North, and the art directors and set decorators, plus a best-actor prize for Brando at the Cannes film festival, among other honors.
The movie begins in 1909 in the office of Porfirio Díaz (Fay Roope), the longtime Mexican president, still in power even though his lip service to justice and democracy are no longer fooling anyone. A delegation of Indians arrives from the province of Morelos to complain of a land grab in their territory, and when Díaz patronizingly tells them to gather evidence for their charge, only one man in the room is brave enough to point out the obvious - that the land thieves will kill them if they try, and that their crops will be ruined by delay in any case. The man who speaks up is Zapata (Brando), and his boldness isn't lost on Díaz, who marks him out as someone to watch. Before long Zapata is back in the countryside, organizing the revolutionary struggle with his brother Eufemio (Quinn), a gifted horseman with a wild personality; Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a journalist with a rigid ideology and a ruthless temperament; and Pancho Villa (Alan Reed), who is fighting Díaz's government elsewhere in the country. Along the way Zapata deals with various kinds of treachery, hardship, and bad luck, and also finds time to court his future wife, Josefa (Jean Peters), overcoming her bourgeois father's objection that he's a gentleman by birth but a peasant in everything else.
Making Viva Zapata! was complicated by the double whammy of Production Code censorship, which had already discouraged other studios from making films about the revolutionary warrior, and Mexico's sensitivity to the subject, which could flare into anger if key historical events were inaccurately handled. The atmosphere in Hollywood was also touchy during the early 1950s, when anticommunist witch-hunting made everyone think twice about portraying a populist rebel as a courageous hero. Fox finally gained Production Code approval, but Mexican authorities were harder to win over. The studio eventually agreed to produce two different versions of certain scenes - one for Mexico, another for everywhere else - including a moment when Zapata personally executes an old comrade, another when Josefa squats like a peasant to wash clothes, and others that reveal Zapata's inability to read and write. Variety reported that two whole reels - accused of glorifying Zapata over Francisco I. Madero, the first revolutionary president - were eliminated to get the picture distributed in Mexico, where feelings were apparently still wounded by what MGM and Wallace Beery had done to another revolutionary hero in the identically punctuated Viva Villa! of 1934.
Kazan worked hard to give Viva Zapata! an authentic look, frequently imitating Agustin Victor Casasola's famous photographs of the revolution. The film was shot on the United States side of the Rio Grande, though, and Brando complained in his autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, that Kazan hadn't made the actors speak with Mexican accents. "I affected a slight one," Brando added, "but it wasn't well done, and most of the other actors spoke standard English, which made it seem artificial." This may explain why Zanuck kept griping about Brando, insisting that he couldn't understand what the star was saying. Brando grumbled bitterly about Zanuck in turn, calling him "a bigot of the old Hollywood school" who "complained constantly to [Kazan] about the color of Jean Peters's skin," saying she "looked too dark in the rushes and that no one would buy a ticket to see a movie whose leading lady didn't look white. Time after time he made her change her makeup, and he kept ordering [Kazan] to reshoot scenes with different lighting." This was guaranteed to irritate the cosmopolitan Brando, especially since he felt Zanuck himself "bore a striking resemblance to Bugs Bunny."
Bunnies and skin tones aside, Kazan felt the picture's authenticity was boosted by the absence of "familiar faces," even including Brando, who'd made only one previous picture, Fred Zinnemann's The Men in 1950. He also liked the minimalism of Brando's performance: "He was playing a peasant," Kazan told interviewer Jeff Young, "and a peasant does not reveal what he feels. He doesn't show any reaction. He knows that if he does, he'll get killed by the boss." Kazan allowed Brando to devise his own makeup, which reportedly involved wearing brown contact lenses, artificially rounding his eyes, and using metal rings to flare his nostrils. By contrast, Quinn found the director's authenticity fetish boring, and coped with it in an amusing way. "Kazan wanted his pictures to be as authentic as possible," he wrote in his memoir, One Man Tango, "and I discovered quickly that if I wanted to sell him on an idea for a scene, I would have to cloak it with authority. I had a lot of ideas, but he would only listen to the ones that had something to do with my father's experience in the revolution. So I lied. What did I care about authenticity?" First he invented a story about guerrillas communicating by banging stones together, and then he claimed that they also conveyed information by whistling. "And so we whistled," Quinn concluded. "Kazan was so gullible he even had me show the other actors the 'special' way my father used to trill!" All this notwithstanding, Kazan has received justified praise for integrating the different acting styles of both original Stanley Kowalskis into a strong dramatic whole.
A more complicated issue surrounding Kazan involved the intersection of his movies and his politics. As a young man in the middle 1920s he had briefly belonged to the Communist Party, and his Hollywood fame rested partly on progressive "problem pictures" such as Gentleman's Agreement (1947), about anti-Semitism, and Pinky (1949), about racial prejudice. Called to testify before Congress during Hollywood's red scare, however, Kazan capitulated and named names of people who had also embraced communist views in the past. This enraged many of his colleagues, including Quinn, who hadn't much liked him in the first place. "He treated his cast and crew like chattel," the actor wrote in his memoir, "and carried his reputation as if it mattered....He would go on to [inform] before the Un-American Activities Committee in such a loud, willing voice that I wondered how I ever had worked with him....I did not begrudge him his politics, but his cowardice was tough to ignore."
Kazan's communism was long gone by the time Viva Zapata! was made. What first attracted him to the story, he declared, was the fact that Zapata gained great power and then walked away from it because he felt it was corrupting him. As former communists, he told Young, both he and Steinbeck wanted to use Zapata's life "to show metaphorically what had happened to the Communists in the Soviet Union - how their leaders became reactionary and repressive rather than forward thinking and progressive." Kazan illustrates this via Wiseman's superb portrayal of the journalist character, Fernando, who "in another time and place...would have been a strict Stalinist" unwilling to raise "human factors" over ideology. Looking back on the film in later years, Kazan felt it complemented his previous picture well - "In Zapata I tried to make everything external just as I tried in Streetcar to make everything internal" - and was pleased with its speed and energy. "John thought we should have had more narrative in it," he said, "but I didn't like that idea. Its virtue was that it covered a lot of ground in very swift, vivid glimpses." It remains one of the most popular and respected historical dramas of its day.
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: John Steinbeck
Cinematographer: Joe MacDonald
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller
Music: Alex North
With: Marlon Brando (Zapata), Jean Peters (Josefa), Anthony Quinn (Eufemio), Joseph Wiseman (Fernando), Arnold Moss (Don Nacio), Alan Reed (Pancho Villa), Margo (Soldadera), Harold Gordon (Madero), Lou Gilbert (Pablo), Mildred Dunnock (Senora Espejo), Frank Silvera (Huerta), Florenz Ames (Senor Espejo), Richard Garrick (Old General), Fay Roope (Diaz).
BW-113m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by David Sterritt