Juarez (1939)

“It is our task to strip the cloak of godliness from him, and show him to the Mexican people for who he really is.”

Synopsis:
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.

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Review:
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

Must See?
Yes, as a powerfully told historical drama.

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One Response to “Juarez (1939)”

  1. Must-see – and in total agreement with the assessment given. This is one thrilling film – all the more so since such pains were taken towards accuracy. I was going to quote one or two examples of that but instead I’ll give the Wikipedia link which lays out the accuracy in detail:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juarez_(film)

    William Dieterle’s direction is masterful. A leading cast of about 12 top Hollywood actors performs in marvelously precise harmony, making the film a solid ensemble effort. Not even Muni tries to make the film a star vehicle.

    Best of all is the script – its flow of intelligence and its adherence to highly literate speech. Its rhythms never cease to draw the viewer in. Edited down (as Wikipedia tells us) from what would have been enough material for two films, the screenplay is a finely tuned marvel of economy. Each scene is significant; each scene sizzles. This is a rare bio-pic that rests squarely in the area of being art.

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