The final efforts of the Mexican people to throw off European domination were accomplished in 1867, during the time of Benito Juarez (1806-72), who would become the country’s first indigenous president. The Spaniards had been driven out of power in 1821 and a brief period of republic had seen the loss of half the country to the Americans– see Alamo movies. In 1861, while the Americans were distracted by their Civil War, France made a move to take over Mexico and install Archduke Maximilian in a new monarchy under French control. At the top of the hill in a large Mexico City Park sits Chapultepec Castle, once the residence of Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota in what was called the Second Mexican Empire. In earlier centuries, this place had been sacred to the Aztecs. At the edge of the colonial city of Querétaro, there is a gem-like chapel memorializing the spot where Maximilian was executed by order of Benito Juarez in 1867. On the hilltop above the chapel, is a monumental statue of Juarez commemorating the foundation of the Restored Republic.

Juarez (1939)

Chapel marking the site of Maximilian’s execution in 1867, just outside the colonial city of Querétaro. The Austrian government received permission to build the memorial in 1901. In 1967, the Mexican government erected a monumental statue of Juarez on the hilltop above the chapel. I have taken the liberty of using Photoshop to put the looming statue immediately behind the chapel.

Chapel marking the site of Maximilian’s execution in 1867, outside the colonial city of Querétaro. The Austrian government received permission to build the memorial in 1901. In 1967, the Mexican government erected a monumental statue of Juarez on the hilltop above the chapel. I have taken the liberty of Photoshop to put the looming statue immediately behind the chapel.

Paul Muni plays the stern but kind Indian man who is President of the Republic of Mexico, Benito Juarez. In truth, this is the story of Archduke Maximilian. It opens in France with Napoleon III speaking of French designs on the conquest of Mexico, calling it a holy mission. When word comes of Lee’s loses at Gettysburg, there is serious retrenching at the French court, as they had been counting on the aristocratic South of the USA to win the Civil War and support the French in Mexico. There is talk of sidestepping the Monroe Doctrine, and of aggravation with the democratic aspirations of the rabble in Mexico, led by Juarez, who was elected in 1861. Napoleon’s queen counsels that the clever solution would be to send a monarch to rule in Mexico. It has worked in other places over the last few decades. They prevail upon the good natured Maximilian von Hapsburg, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Carlota (Bette Davis) to journey to Mexico. A plebiscite is held in that country and illiterate peons are forced to vote for the monarchy. Maximilian is mostly ignorant of these manipulations of power. His ship lands somewhere near Vera Cruz, and his royal procession follows the route of Cortez to Mexico City. No Mexicans come out to greet him, and he is somewhat mystified. There are rumors that he resembles the blond god, Quetzalcoatl, and that the Indians are in awe of him. This worries Juarez, who observes that blind faith enslaves people.

Once Maximilian is installed in his palace, the Imperial forces launch an attack on the Republican army. The Mexicans are overwhelmed, and Juarez resolves to maintain a “capital on wheels,” conspiring to defeat the Emperor through guerrilla tactics. Juarez had hopes of support from Abraham Lincoln, and the news of his assassination is a bitter blow. Maximilian is not an evil man, but merely a dupe to the machinations of European royalty. There is a minor subplot involving Carlota’s inability to bear children and their adoption of a young boy to be invested as the Crown Prince. The Emperor attempts to negotiate in good faith with Juarez, but things go badly, and the Juaristas attack the palace. The Emperor, fearing for the safety of his family, signs orders for brutal retributions. There are many executions.

In the midst of all this, Napoleon III sends orders for the French troops to evacuate Mexico. Outraged at this betrayal, Carlota rushes to Paris. The people’s faith in Juarez is restored, and they kill the puppet governor. In Paris, Carlota confronts Napoleon III with his duplicity. He brushes her off, determined to abandon Maximilian in Mexico. She learns that Juarez is marching on Maximilian and that all will surely be lost. She goes mad with royal paranoia, and is sent to Vienna for treatment from “a celebrated doctor of mental diseases.” Maximilian resolves to abdicate, but is persuaded to stay and protect his loyal supporters. The palace is besieged. In a pathetic denouement, Maximilian attempts to surrender to the Juaristas, but is treated with disdain. He is tried and sentenced to death. Juarez refuses to intervene. The Emperor goes to his death with quiet nobility, after being granted his request to hear the song “Paloma” one last time. He faces a simple firing squad on a hillside. Carlota cries out to him from her confinement in Vienna. Juarez visits the body in a church and asks forgiveness. Though John Huston contributed to the writing, this is more of a history lesson than a heart-pounding movie.

Cinco De Mayo La Batalla  (2013) – Mexican

The story of the famous Mexican victory over French invaders on May 5, 1862 is told on two primary tracks. First is the ordeal of General Ignacio Zaragoza who must rally a ragged and underequipped Mexican army and lead them to Puebla where they will face a far superior French force. Second is a peasant love story between a naïve foot soldier and a chaste woman who is helping to nurse the wounded. They try to run off together and escape the horrors of war but to no avail. It ends with the stunning victory at Puebla and makes no mention of the return of a much larger French army one year later to capture Mexico City. Maximilian would be installed as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III and Benito Juarez would be forced to wage war for three more years before driving Europeans permanently from American shores. Those who are critical of this patriotic film felt that the battle scenes went on forever.

Vera Cruz (1954)

This film is set in the period following the American Civil War, when mercenaries drifted south to join in the hostilities in Mexico during the reign of Emperor Maximilian. Good cast headed by Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine are low-lifes. The film eloquently captures the action and adventure of its times. It revolves around a “caravan” carrying gold to Vera Cruz. They pass through a site that looks like Teotihuacan (?). The opposition are the Juaristas.

The Zorro Movies

It did not immediately occur to me that the Zorro movies would have historical value. They were created in the early 20th century as pulp fiction, set against the background of life in Los Angeles, California in the time of Spanish and then Mexican rule. They would not want to be consulted for historical accuracy, but they offer a rich portrait of the colonial Southwest and probably account for what most of us know of this time. Many movies have been made from these popular stories. I will use The Mask of Zorro (1998), as a pivot point.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

This movie is in some respects the definitive treatment of the Zorro theme at the end of the 20th century.   I have memories of the Zorro TV show made by Disney in the late 1950s and had always thought, if I thought about it at all, that Zorro was a mere concoction of motifs from Robin Hood and Batman. This turns out to be not too far from the case. There is a general sense that Zorro was partly inspired by Robin Hood and there is actual testimony that Batman was inspired by Zorro. The Zorro character, originally conceived in 1919 by pulp fiction writer, Johnston McCulley, was presented against a backdrop of California history in the first half of the 19th century. Sadly, that historical frame has been so thoroughly trampled in the century since its conception that it becomes necessary to try and set the background facts straight.

Miguel Hidalgo Tlaquepaque, Mexico

Miguel Hidalgo
Tlaquepaque, Mexico

The Mask of Zorro opens in 1821 on the occasion of the declaration of independence for Mexico. This early revolution began in 1810 with the “Cry Independence” by Miguel Hidalgo. California was an outlying Mexican province under Spanish rule at this time and the action centers on opposition to the continuation of Spanish rule and solidarity with Mexican Independence. Involvement of the United States does not become significant in California until the Mexican-American War of 1846. General Santa Anna (1794-1876) is included in the frame of reference as this film jumps ahead twenty years to circa 1841, but he does not appear on screen (his scenes were cut). The Battle of the Alamo was in 1836.

When we first see Zorro in the opening scenes of the movie, he is played by Anthony Hopkins. He is in the act of rescuing some innocent peasants from a firing squad. The heroic bravado moves quickly to the point of the ridiculous but it is well wrought and shows the influence of producer Steven Spielberg. Hopkins is arrested by Don Rafael Montero, the Spanish governor. In the skirmish his wife is killed and Montero takes his infant daughter away to Spain. Hopkins escapes from prison twenty year later in time to be on hand when Montero returns from Spain to promise the skeptical citizens liberation from Mexican oppression and the formation of the independent Republic of California. Hopkins is about to assassinate Montero when he spies his daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

He later crosses paths with a petty thief named Alejandro Murrieta (brother of the historical bandit, Joaquin Murrieta) and decides to make him heir to the Zorro mask. A great deal of training will be required. Alejandro is ambitious and a fast learner and before long he is engaged in exploits. The middle of the film is romance and swashbuckle. A primary adversary for Zorro in love and war is Harry Love, a California State Ranger (also historical). Montero’s plan is to buy California from Santa Anna using gold from a hidden mine that is actually under the jurisdiction of the General. The joke was that they were going to buy Californian from Santa Anna using his own gold. Things go badly and the mine is blown up to destroy the evidence. On the DVD, there is a deleted final scene. Banderas, without his Zorro disguise, is leading the liberated slaves away from the destroyed mine when he encounters General Santa Anna leading a military unit. The two men have a brief conversation cementing their solidarity. The general rides away and Banderas has a long kiss with Zeta Jones. After test marketing, the filmmakers went with a simpler happy ending with Banderas and Zeta-Jones cooing over their new baby, who will inherit the mask. See The Legend of Zorro (2005).

In the decade of 1910 to 1920, a second revolution swept Mexico. This time it was a people’s movement not unlike the one in Russia at about the same time. Monarchy had been eliminated since 1867 but there remained a ruling class dominated by landowners and their haciendas. Now came the bandit generals, Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south. In 2011, PBS ran an engrossing documentary called The Storm That Swept Mexico, which established with abundant photos and film clips that the politics of Mexico in this decade were far more complicated than a two-pronged people’s uprising. But Hollywood likes rebels, and does not make movies about government officials trying to preserve the old order.

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Emliano Zapata, Cuernavaca

Emliano Zapata, Cuernavaca

Directed by Elia Kazan, and written by John Steinbeck, this black and white film tells the legend of Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando). It opens in Mexico City 1909. A group of peasants is petitioning the patriarchal President Diaz for help in reclaiming their land from the encroachment of the haciendas. Among them is young Zapata. Things go badly and Zapata and his brother (Anthony Quinn) become rebels in the mountains. Emiliano strives for respectability but cannot keep himself from rebelling. He is arrested and a great mass of peasants set him free.

Inevitably, the rebellion grows. Soon it is armed revolution. Diaz abandons the country and the people celebrate with cries of Viva Zapata! Things change. Emiliano is filled with anxiety because he cannot read. He meets with the new President, Madero, and is given a new ranch as a victorious general. He is angered because he fought for land for the people, not himself. Zapata, now married, returns to his home and Madero visits in an effort to create accord. There is discord between the executive and military branches of government. A general has Madero shot.

The revolution turns sour. It becomes clear that Zapata is an impulsive man possessed of a high level of identification with his people. There is talk of the more disciplined Pancho Villa in the north. After more political chaos, the two men meet. Villa is tired and wants to go back to his ranch. He convinces Zapata that he is the only man to be President. Giving in to the pressure, Zapata sits uneasily in the palace, dealing with the same grievances that he once complained of himself. He abdicates the palace, and goes to confront his brother who has become a landowner, throwing peasants off his land. He exhorts the people not to trust leaders, and to defend their land. His brother is shot. Emiliano goes back to the mountains and the life of a rebel. The struggle continues, and it becomes ever more clear to Zapata that it is the people who must be strong, not their leaders. “A strong man makes a weak people.” He rides off on a last mission, leaving his wife, looking like the Madonna, begging him not to go. He is assassinated in a courtyard by the army. Old women sit on the steps and pray. Almost immediately, the people begin a legend that he still lives in the mountains. Quinn got an Oscar; Brando lost to Gary Cooper.

There is an earlier film called Viva Villa! (1934), with Wallace Beery. I have not been able to find it or even an official trailer. There is, however, a good film clip on YouTube. Pancho Villa does not get the same level of biopic treatment as Zapata. He appears as a minor character in Viva Zapata! and also in the film, Old Gringo (1989), based on the novel by Carlos Fuentes. It was only in 2004 that he got a movie that bore his name, and it was made-for-TV.

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2004)

An HBO film, written and produced by Larry Gelbart. Antonio Banderas stars as Pancho Villa (1877-1923), and Alan Arkin is a Jewish mercenary from Brooklyn come to Mexico to help with the revolution. The film is framed by the experience of a young man named Frank Thayer in Fort Lee, NJ (“film capital of the world”) who works for D.W. Griffith. In January 1914, a contract has been made to film Pancho Villa in actual battle, and Frank is sent to handle the project. Villa is very image conscious, and sees the filming as an opportunity to influence the opinion of the American public, and Woodrow Wilson. As things go along, however, Villa is incensed at the efforts of the Hollywood types to distort his story. He is told that they must “give the people what they want.” The enemies are the Federales, forces of the contemptuous Presidente, and Pancho must continue the struggle after the filmmakers are done with him.

A skeleton film crew, including Frank, stays with him for a battle that does not go well. A peasant woman approaches Pancho to save her husband, but he has already been executed. The woman attacks him and he brutally shoots her. Frank is outraged and comes to see the brutality of this struggle on both sides. He leaves disillusioned. The resulting movie, a mawkish glorification of the Mexican hero, is presented at a premier on Times Square, and the audience loves it. Frank can’t sit through it. The movie is later shown in Mexico to cheering crowds, proving that “the lens is mightier than the sword.” In the end, the HBO film jumps ahead nine years and Frank is at his desk. He receives word that Pancho has been assassinated, and we see the deed in a Bonnie and Clyde-style shooting. The narration says that the footage of The Life of Pancho Villa has been lost. After his death, the name of Pancho Villa was stricken from the historical records, and it was not until circa 1976 that his body was brought to Mexico City for a hero’s burial.

Like Water for Chocolate  (1993)

A work of magic realism, this is a deeply feminine film. Based on the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, the action is bound together by themes of cookery. Set in Mexico, it is the story of a girl named Tita, who is raised by her stern and repressive mother to live as a spinster and care for the mother in her old age It opens in 1895 and jumps to 1910. The primary ingredients in this superbly atmospheric film are Tito’s longing for love and her bad luck at satisfying her needs. The Revolution is in progress and one of Tito’s sisters is carried away naked by a revolutionary on horseback. She will join in the fight against the landowners. Toward the end, the movie makes another jump, this time to 1934. The Revolution is over but there is still high drama among the women of the family. It ends with a ritualized consummation of flames. This was a high watermark for Mexican film.

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