“Viva Zapata!” is a tough film to review—almost as tough as “Song of the South” would be if Disney had the cojones to release that picture—because just about all the Mexicans are played by Caucasians who speak a tossed salad version of what each actor figures ethnic dialect would sound like. Though the acting runs very good to exceptional—Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing Zapata’s brother, Euphemio—you’re still stuck trying to believe that all these white guys are really of Nahua and Spanish ancestry. A few of them look as if they went a little overboard on the brownface and axle grease.
Although Marlon Brando won Best Actor at Cannes and the BAFTAs, his own peculiar way to convey the peasant-to-general ethnicity of Emiliano Zapata was to play him squinting or with slightly crossed eyes. Even then, a little Stanley Kowalski pokes through, but without the bowling ball and chest scratching. Brando also earned an Oscar nomination, but it had more to do with his own intense, special brand of acting than his ability to bring a historical figure convincingly to life.
Then too, the focus on character comes with a price. No less a genius than John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, which excels in dialogue and political introspection, featuring powerful scenes and affording director Elia Kazan and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald plenty of chances for artful composition and framing. As a result, the scenes themselves are accomplished. However, Steinbeck fails to make sense of the complicated Mexican Revolution (1909-1919) for viewers, offering confusing jumps in time, an overly reductive view of the politics involved, clumsy segues, and very little action for a film that’s really about war.
In other words, don’t look to this film for a true and definitive account of the Mexican Revolution, or even of Zapata and his wife (Jean Peters)—a plot thread that seems woven in just to illustrate the difference between Zapata’s values and the values of the landowners he’s trying to represent along with the Indians.
“Viva Zapata!” begins with a group of peasants from the southern state of Morelos going to Mexican President Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope) to complain that rich noblemen have gobbled up their land and are killing those who try to farm their ancestral plots. It’s suggested that Zapata is a meek and reluctant-to-serve fellow who rises to power because he lagged behind to question Diaz one-on-one. In reality, the community elected Zapata to represent them, and the ambitious leader had already been involved in politics by opposing a local candidate for governor.
The 1910 Revolution is a bit of a blur in “Viva Zapata!” Before you know it, Diaz is unseated and Francisco Madero, the man who asked for Zapata’s help in the South, is elevated to the presidency. All this happens way too quickly in the film and without any explanation. Then, just as quickly, General Huerta is set up as the next man of ambition, who kills Madero (in this film, a foolish straw man) and tries to do the same with Zapata. Then there’s a sequence about General Zapata in the South and General Pancho Villa in the North joining forces and Villa saying he’s tired of fighting and leaving the presidency to Zapata, who just walks away from it and . . . it all gets a little fuzzy. There’s no mention of U.S. involvement, Zapata is romanticized, and Huerta is demonized—the latter, rightly so, but again, historical facts and chronologies have been heavily altered.
“Viva Zapata!” is stylish, though, and far more authentic looking than it is its treatment of facts—in large part because Kazan filmed some scenes in Mexico and based his Oscar-nominated costume and set design on historical photographs.
Black and white is a forgiving medium, and while long shots with atmospheric light tend to be overexposed, the bulk of the film sports strong black levels that make for rich contrasts. There’s a fine layer of film grain throughout, and the feature is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. A year later Hollywood would gravitate toward widescreen movies, and I found myself thinking that there were quite a few frames that felt needlessly and ineffectively cramped—scenes that would have been helped by the wider format.
The audio is an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono, with additional audio options in Spanish and French, and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer (@24MBPS) produces a clean and crisp sound. Given the age, you would expect there to be more imperfections than there are. Clearly, the source materials for this film were well preserved—something for which we can probably thank the five Academy Award nominations the picture received.
The only bonus features are a pair of theatrical trailers, one in English and one in Spanish, both with subtitles. There are no inserts, either, though this is the 60th anniversary of the film.
“Viva Zapata!” is one of those films that, while it continues to have impressive aspects, just doesn’t hold up as well as it did when it was first made. You find yourself wishing it were in widescreen, and that they had hired at least ONE Latino actor.