Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rebel with a Cause

Film: Viva Zapata!
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Whitewashing has been a problem with Hollywood movies for a very long time. It still goes on, of course. You don’t need to look further than the casting of British Tilda Swinton as an ancient Tibetan in Doctor Strange to see it. It somehow seems more egregious in older cases, though, where entire collections of people were replaced by white actors in various cosmetics. And it wasn’t just whitewashing. Ricardo Montalban was cast as Japanese at least once. With Viva Zapata!, the crime seems to reach a new height. The title Mexican folk hero is played by Marlon Brando, while the elder brother was played by Anthony Quinn, who was Mexican. Revenge may be sweet, though; Quinn won a Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.

Emiliano Zapata (Brando) begins the film as a simple farmer, who goes with a group of fellow farmers to see long-time Mexican president Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope) about a land claim. He and his fellow farmers have been kicked off their traditional land by wealthy farmers who have planted sugar cane in their cornfields. Diaz, notoriously corrupt, passes off the farmers’ claims, saying that fixing the problem will take time. The farmers, however, don’t have time—without corn, they won’t be able to eat. Diaz even tries to bribe Zapata with a decent tract of land, but Zapata rejects the offer. Soon enough, Zapata and his brother Eufemio (Quinn) are openly rebelling against the Mexican government.

The Zapata brothers are not alone. Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) rebels in the north of the country, and the various forces unite under the leadership of well-meaning but naïve reformer Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon). Soon enough, the rebellion is successful. Diaz flees the country and Madero is placed in control. Madero, for all of his lofty ideals, is both too trusting and too weak to really be in charge. Shortly after he takes over, having made both of the Zapatas generals, he places his trust in General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera), who is out for power himself. Huerta suggests killing Zapata since he is a dangerous man, but Madero refuses and goes to see Zapata himself. Huerta takes this opportunity to eliminate Madero and declare war on Zapata. A the same time, Eufemio has more or less set himself up as a petty dictator of the area, taking over the land that started all of this rebellion in the first place.

A subplot that runs through the entire film concerns Emiliano Zapata’s marriage to Josefa (Jean Peters, in another case of whitewashing). Her father (Florenz Ames) does not approve of Emiliano, not wanting his daughter to live the life of a common farmer’s wife, especially after her wealthy upbringing. When Zapata becomes a general, his tune changes and the two are wed. Peters managed to get second billing on the film, but her entire role feels like an afterthought here, as if it was necessary to include this part of Zapata’s life either because every movie needs a romance or because it was an additional way to humanize the man.

Viva Zapata! is tells a story that isn’t very new. Reformers rebel against the government, manage to achieve a successful coup, and eventually turn into the men that they first rebelled against. In fact, the thing that makes Emiliano Zapata most noteworthy in the film is that he manages to resist the temptation to become another wealthy landowner oppressing the people around him. When he’s offered a large ranch by Madero for his services, he refuses. When his brother installs himself as a petty tyrant, Emiliano fights against him, siding with the poor farmers who he most identifies with.

One of the more interesting attributes of Viva Zapata! is that it comes with a John Steinbeck screenplay. Steinbeck wrote this directly for the screen, and there are a number of places where it very much feels like a natural extension of other Steinbeck works. His heart is clearly with the peasants here just as it was with the migrants in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck’s muse was always the poor and downtrodden. That Zapata became something more does not deter the man here. After all, Zapata (at least according to this screenplay) never forgot his roots.

Brando is good, if not great. The brownface he is forced to act in here is just about as noticeable and just about as strange as that of Charleton Heston in Touch of Evil. Brando handles the role well, but there’s no disguising that nasal voice of his, even when he attempts to slap a Mexican accent over the top of it. It’s initially distracting. I got used to it by the end of the movie.

But I do have to wonder…why Brando? You’ve got Anthony Quinn, born in Chihuahua, Mexico, who had three Mexican grandparents (one grandfather was Irish) as a member of the cast. Why not put him in the lead role? If you really want Brando here, make him Eufemio and give the guy with the heritage and no need for extensive makeup the lead. Quinn could’ve nailed this role.

Then again, he did win the Supporting Oscar, so maybe he got the last laugh after all.

Why to watch Viva Zapata!: Good story, almost in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: That damn whitewashing!.


  1. And Quinn later on wore makeup and a prosthetic hooked nose for his role as Auda in "Lawrence of Arabia." Interesting Wikitrivia here:

    "Quinn got very much into his role; he spent hours applying his own makeup, using a photograph of the real Auda to make himself look as much like him as he could. One anecdote has Quinn arriving on-set for the first time in full costume, whereupon Lean mistook him for a native and asked his assistant to ring Quinn and notify him that they were replacing him with the new arrival."

    1. Quinn was the precursor to Cliff Curtis in that sense. Name an ethnicity, and Quinn probably played it at some point. Cliff Curtis, a Kiwi, has had much the same career path.

  2. While the history of the picture was interesting I found this a struggle to get through. Much of that was that I found the pace sluggish but the distraction of Brando, Peters etc. flitting around in dusky makeup, especially next to Quinn, didn't help. A little of Quinn usually goes a LONG way for me but he is the only one in the film that seems real perhaps why he was able to stand out so.

    As far as Jean Peters goes she was in the midst of her brief rapid rise to the top of the Fox heap before her retirement upon marrying Howard Hughes and the studio was casting her against all their big stars to cement her status. So in that aspect her casting makes sense but the kicker is that Katy Jurado was in Hollywood at the time freelancing! Maybe there was concern her casting would point up Brando's miscasting all the more.

    1. Quinn certainly liked to play to the back of the room. There was a bit of Richard Burton in him in that respect. I tend to be okay with him, because he has the sort of screen persona that can pull that off in a lot of cases. He's not always my favorite actor on screen, but he was generally good with what he was given to do.

      Katy Jurado would have been great in the role, but the role is essentially a nothing. It bothers me less than the Brando/Quinn thing.

  3. Who would have watched this United States' film production in the United States had it been populated with only the greatest of Mexican actors or actors of Mexican descent instead of, arguably, the greatest actor of all-time, Marlon Brando, even if it wasn't one of his best roles or performances?

    This is why bankable stars are hired in the first place. To make the producers of films as much money as possible by getting as many people as possible into movie houses. This is why China is whitewashing "The Great Wall" with Matt Damon. Simple economics outweighs race/ethnic authenticity in movies/TV when it comes to the bottom line. However, using washed actors can sometimes cost producers as well as the producers of "The Great Wall" who hired Matt Damon will no longer be enjoying the $3 I would have otherwise spent on their seemingly entertaining film.

    1. I think you might be selling Quinn a little short. Additionally, there are plenty of movies that are successful how star people that no one knows. It certainly could have worked.

      And yeah, whitewashing is still a problem. I don't want to downplay the issue of, for instance, Tom Cruise starring in a movie called The Last Samurai. However, at least the filmmakers had the decency to not attempt to pass off Cruise as Asian. The same is true with Damon and The Great Wall. It's still a whitewashing issue, but at least Damon is playing a guy named William Garin, not Lee Ho.

      I wonder if we'll start seeing the opposite eventually as China and India become larger and more important markets.

    2. "I wonder if we'll start seeing the opposite eventually as China and India become larger and more important markets." The richest man in China, Wang Jianlin, is positioning China to become the world leader in both film exhibition (owning theaters around the world, including the U.S.) and filmmaking with his new giant studio that he wants to use to drive Disney out of business.

    3. Don't forget India. Bollywood is bigger than Hollywood, and there are a lot more people in India than there are in the U.S.

  4. I did not forget India, but it is still way too poor to compete. The industry there just doesn't have the clout, as of yet, to put much of a dent in the pricey tickets charged in most of the world. While China's Wang Jianlin is not only empire-building China's domestic entertainment landscape, he is buying up the U.S.'s. This year, New York's Times Square New Year's celebration will brought to you courtesy of Wang's acquisition of Dick Clark's production company.

    1. Fair enough, and not too surprising.

      The other country that's going to be an up-and-coming player in this is Brazil.