August 8, 1879 was the birthday of Emiliano Zapata, and having read that the late Senator John McCain listed “Viva Zapata!” as his favorite film of all time, I figured it was my duty to take a look at this movie, even though I wasn’t expecting much from a 1952 Hollywood production.
So I downloaded it and told my wife, “I have an old potboiler for us to watch tonight!”
A few minutes after the film started, I felt truly embarrassed for my ignorance and arrogance – and at the same time I felt elated at having discovered an unexpected treasure. The moment the credits appeared (at the beginning, naturally), my eyes popped. What? This movie stars Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn together – and it was directed by Elia Kazan? And then came the greatest surprise of all: The screenplay was by John Steinbeck! Not only that, but I later learned that this script is said to be Steinbeck’s greatest work after “The Grapes of Wrath.”
All that talent was not wasted. This is an extraordinary film. OK, as was customary once upon a time, we have English speakers playing the part of Spanish speakers and you can expect a few humorous mispronunciations here and there. Also, there are a few historical inaccuracies, such as Zapata briefly occupying the the Mexican president’s chair, but these minor trifles aside, “Viva Zapata” brings the Mexican revolution to life in a way that history books could never do, and succeeds admirably in painting the characters and events in realistic shades of gray, which tint the story every step of the way.
Although these events provide a perfect platform for Steinbeck’s preoccupation with social injustice, he knows how to use humor to advantage and occasionally displays a remarkable familiarity with not-so-well-known Mexican customs.
Take dichos (old sayings), for example. If you press me for one, I might come up with “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” but I might have a problem thinking of several more on the spot. Many Mexicans, however, display an amazing ability to elucidate a dicho or proverbio for just about any occurrence or subject. This skill is alluded to in a tongue-in-cheek manner during Zapata’s formal visit to the family of the young lady he wants to woo. This señorita and her relatives spew out pithy sayings left and right and Emiliano skillfully replies to each with an even pithier dicho, ultimately winning the admiration of his fiercest opponent, the girl’s father.
For example, when Zapata is reminded that “A man well dressed is a man well thought of,” he comes right back with his own proverb: “A monkey in silk is still a monkey.”
A few of the other sayings that are bandied about during this scene:
- When love and beauty come into the house, then throw out the lamps.
- A whipped dog is a wiser dog.
- Three women and a goose make a market.
- Love cannot be bought except with love.
Zapata starts out simply trying to help campesinos hold on to their land and soon finds himself accused of being a bandido. But as the flames of revolution spread, he ends up as one of many generals, most of whom are more interested in gaining power than in righting the wrongs perpetrated by ousted dictator Porfirio Díaz.
Having been either betrayed or let down by nearly everyone, including his own brother (portrayed by Anthony Quinn), Zapata gathers his people together for the high point of the film, where, in a moving monologue, he shares the awareness he has gained from all he has gone through. His words, I think, perfectly reflect the conclusions that John Steinbeck had reached in his own life:
“This land is yours, but you must protect it.
It won’t be yours long, if you don’t protect it.
If necessary, with your lives ... and your children with their lives.
Don’t discount your enemies. They will be back.
If your house is burned, build it again.
If your corn is destroyed, replant.
If your children die, bear more.
If they drive you out of the valley, live on the sides of the mountains,
You’ve always looked for leaders, strong men without faults:
There aren’t any.
They are only men like yourselves.
There are no leaders, but yourselves.
A strong people is the only lasting strength.”
In a final betrayal, the man who started the Revolution is ambushed and assassinated, but we are left with the hope that Zapata dead may eventually do more good than Zapata alive. One thing is for sure: he certainly has not been forgotten. Viva Zapata!