Viva Zapata! (1952)

Viva Zapata! (1952)

“I don’t want to be the conscience of the world; I don’t want to be the conscience of anybody.”

When Mexican president Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope) ignores complaints by peasants brought to him by revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando), Zapata and his brother Eufernio (Anthony Quinn) join forces with Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) and Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon) to take over leadership — but as corruption and deaths continue, Zapata wonders what it will take to bring justice (and land) back to the peasants.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Biopics
  • Elia Kazan Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Peters Films
  • Marlon Brando Films
  • Mexico
  • Mildred Dunnock Films
  • Revolutionaries

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “controversial film about Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata’s… rise (or is it moral decline, as the film contends?) from peasant revolutionary leader to President and, following his voluntary abdication, return to the peasant movement” is “a fairly exciting action-adventure film,” but he notes that it’s “historically inaccurate” given that “Zapata never was President, [and] he was not illiterate.”

Peary argues the film is “politically confusing,” noting that “Kazan and [screenwriter John] Steinbeck wanted to make an anti-communist tract, equating the Mexican revolution to what happened in Russia” — but “while they get across their central theme that power corrupts anybody,” they “are also responsible for making viewers realize the necessity of armed insurrection in some countries, which is certainly a revolutionary stance for an American film.” He asserts that the “film is depressing because, while it shows that revolution is sometimes necessary, there can never be success because the leaders of a revolution will invariably sell out their followers.”

As someone unfamiliar with the complexities of the Mexican Revolution, I watched this film less with an eye towards historical accuracy and more as a tale of a determined man-of-the-people rising to power, and the choices he must make once he’s “arrived”. To that end, Brando’s Oscar-nominated performance — which Peary refers to as “surprisingly subdued” (“probably because the corners of his eyes were glued down”) — is an interesting one. Even while courting his soon-to-be-wife (Jean Peters):

… he is deadly serious; however, once he realizes the political shenanigans he’s been caught up in, we can see a palpable shift occurring, as he understands he will need to make some challenging choices.

Peary writes that the “film’s most striking scenes are those that show the peasants working together at revolutionary action”:

… and points out the “impressive outdoor photography by Joseph MacDonald.” This earnest biopic isn’t must-see viewing, but is worth a one-time look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata (at least during the second half of the film)
  • Fine location shooting
  • Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look.


One thought on “Viva Zapata! (1952)

  1. Rewatch (1/3/22). A once-must, for Kazan’s direction and for the performances.

    Wikipedia tells us: “The film tends to romanticize Zapata and in doing so may distort the true nature of the Mexican Revolution.” Not being an historian, I wouldn’t know about that.

    Nevertheless, Steinbeck’s script is a rather interesting look at the fight for democracy. You can hear Steinbeck speaking when Wiseman refers to his typewriter as a “sword of the mind”. Wikipedia also says: “The film inaccurately portrays Zapata as illiterate, but he was raised in a family with land and money, and he received an education.” From what I know of Steinbeck and his work, it does seem an odd choice (if it was a conscious choice) for him as a writer to make such a decision about such a well-known figure. It doesn’t seem to serve an imperative point to make Zapata unable to read.

    Putting those flaws aside, the film works on its own level as a believable power struggle. Along those lines, Steinbeck gives Zapata sharp observations in a speech about leadership near the end of the film. (“A strong people is the only lasting strength.” Ain’t it the truth!)

    The film gains added strength through the effective camerawork by DP Joe madDonald – who had worked with Kazan before (‘Pinky’, ‘Panic in the Streets’).

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