“It is our task to strip the cloak of godliness from him, and show him to the Mexican people for who he really is.”
Napoleon III (Claude Rains) and his wife (Gale Sondergaard) arrange for an Austrian archduke (Brian Aherne) and his wife (Bette Davis) to become Mexico’s new imperial rulers — not informing them that the Mexican people are actually loyal to their president, Benito Juarez (Paul Muni), and will stop at nothing to regain their autonomy.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Bette Davis Films
- Brian Aherne Films
- Claude Rains Films
- Historical Drama
- John Garfield Films
- Paul Muni Films
- Royalty and Nobility
- William Dieterle Films
Following on the heels of his success in biopics such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Paul Muni was well-poised to play the “Abraham Lincoln of Mexico” (Benito Juarez) in this historical drama, based on a novel by Bertita Harding and a play by Franz Werfel, and scripted after much research by John Huston, Aeneas MacKenzie, and Wolfgang Reinhardt. I’ll admit to knowing nothing at all about the brief period of empirical reign in 19th century Mexico, and became increasingly intrigued as the unpredictable narrative played out. Muni is appropriately stoic and impressively made-up as Juarez, but it’s Aherne’s character who really shines: his character is set up in an unenviable position from the start, and we’re ready to hate him, but instead we’re shown a nuanced conflict of interests as both Aherne and Muni stand their grounds and Juarez refuses to compromise his country’s goal of complete independence.
A pivotal side story involving Aherne’s unstable wife (Davis) goes in unexpected directions, and Davis does well in her challenging supporting role.
Tony Gaudio’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is appropriately atmospheric and effective throughout.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Brian Aherne as Maximilian I
- Fine make-up by Perc Westmore
- Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
Yes, as a powerfully told historical drama.