Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
Emiliano Zapata is an even more mythic figure than Pancho Villa. Zapata had no aspirations toward power or wealth. He simply wanted his people, the peones of Southern Mexico to own and control their land. Not as individuals but as communities in villages which had existed for millennia. Together the farmers would raise communal crops and individually the vegetables, fruits, and herbs needed by immediate families. That is all he wanted. The simplicity of his vision and the greed of powerful land-grabbing hacendados pushed Zapata into the role of a revolutionary leader, followed and loved by thousands of white-cotton clad peasants. Zapata’s struggle, his victories, and finally his assassination helped create the legend, based on many historic events and then embroidered by subsequent generations looking for an ideal, selfless role model.
It was this real and yet mythic character that fascinated Hollywood film director Elia Kazan. He particularly was fascinated by Zapata having power in his hand once he and Villa entered Mexico City in 1914 and then walking away from it. Kazan discussed his ideas about Zapata with his neighbor, John Steinbeck, who was already well respected for his novels, including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Both Kazan and Steinbeck thought Zapata’s life would make a good film.
Consequently Steinbeck went to Cuernavaca, a city in the state of Morelos, which contained the village of Anenecuilco, where Emiliano Zapata had been born and raised. The author did “a thorough research job” according to Kazan, who, in the meantime, pitched the idea for a Zapata film to Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox Studio. Zanuck knew little, perhaps cared less, about stories of the Mexican revolution, but he did like the idea of a film about a rebellious character. The studio boss was apparently indebted to Kazan for having taken over direction of PINKY (1949) after John Ford showed no interest in directing a film about a young African-American woman “passing for white.” So, when Kazan told Zanuck about this proposal for his next film, the studio head gave the project a green light. It also helped that
Kazan’s most recent film, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, had been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, even though winning only four. Although that film was made for Warner Bros, Zanuck was glad to secure Kazan’s services again.
After Steinbeck returned from Mexico, he and Kazan began polishing the initial script. While Steinbeck got out his tools and did some leatherwork, they would talk back and forth, trying out dialogue as Kazan typed it all out. The director said in later interviews that he often felt Steinbeck was thinking more about his next novel, East of Eden, than he was about the Zapata story. That wasn’t necessarily a bad situation for Kazan, since he would later direct the film version of that sprawling novel. They were obviously excellent friends and could work easily together.
In talking about the script later, Kazan said, “Its virtue was that it covered a lot of ground in very swift, vivid glimpses. The result was that you sometimes didn’t know where you were or why. We took jumps and left out a lot of intervening history….” Much better than the 1934 movie VIVA VILLA!, the Steinbeck-Kazan script of the Zapata story did contain a lot more historical facts and events. But, for dramatic purposes, some events were strictly from the imagination: Zapata meeting Porfirio Díaz in Mexico City in 1909, which is neatly balanced by a later scene in which Zapata, as de facto President of Mexico, is angered by a group of peasants petitioning him for faster land reform. Neither happened. But Kazan wanted to show Zapata walking away from the power he suddenly found in his hand, so for dramatic purposes he and Steinbeck created those powerful scenes, which were certainly true to the nature and personality of the real man.
Naturally Kazan wanted to shoot the film in Mexico. He traveled to Cuernavaca with Steinbeck to meet Gabriel Figueroa, the world-famous director of photography, who had given so many of Mexico’s films of the 1940s their wonderful compositions in black & white. But, unsurprisingly, Kazan and Figueroa disagreed on the way the film should look. Kazan was also disturbed by Figueroa’s leftist connections. Kazan was having severe problems with the House Un-American Activities Committee (forerunner of the McCarthy-era witch hunts), who were busy ferreting out all real or imagined Communists and leftists in Hollywood. As a former Communist in the 1930s in America, Kazan shied away from working with Figueroa. Complicating the matter of making the film in Mexico was the fact that Figueroa was head of the Mexican union of film workers and might roadblock Kazan’s desire to shoot the film in Mexico. It is unfortunate that Kazan and Figueroa couldn’t see eye to eye, because the film would have looked wonderful through the lens of Gabriel Figueroa. Nonetheless, the Fox cinematographer chosen to shoot the film, Joe MacDonald, did a good and sometimes excellent job of composing the frames and even capturing imitating Figueroa’s style. IMDB indicates that MacDonald had actually been born in Mexico City and had begun his career as cinematographer in Hollywood in the mid-1930s on several Spanish-language films made at 20th Century Fox. So, despite lack of written evidence, it would seem that Kazan had relatively good fortune in the selection of his director of photography. Together Kazan and MacDonald studied the famous Casasola photographs of the Revolution, many of which have become iconic representations of the people, places, and actions of that ten-year period.
So, if not Mexico, then Kazan wanted to be as close to Mexico as possible for the bulk of outdoor production. Rio Grande City and Roma, Texas, both on the Rio Grande River across from Camargo and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico, became the primary locations. But for some scenes the crew had to shoot in New Mexico and Colorado. Replicating the southern Mexican state of Morelos was not really feasible in those locations, but dramatically the scenes often benefited from the natural locations.
With the Mexican towns being larger, Kazan and cast and crew often ate lunch across the river. The area was brutally hot and full of rattlesnakes. Even though Brando seemed to be “dying of the heat,” Kazan was pleased with the location and felt that such discomfort helped erase “the actorish look” from the faces of his cast. As pleased as he was with Brando as Zapata, Kazan was not at all happy about having Jean Peters cast as Josefa, Zapata’s wife, but he was stuck with her. She was an established star at Fox, so there was nothing he could do. He considered Julie Harris for the role (which seems even more ludicrous, no matter how great an actress Harris was). Kazan and Harris would have to wait until EAST OF EDEN before working together. Kazan understandably thought of having an established Mexican actress, of whom there were many, play the role of Josefa, but he finally decided against that, for fear that an authentic-looking Josefa would then make Brando “look like the Indiana boy he was.”
Indiana-boy or not, Marlon Brando had already proven what a great actor he was, courtesy of “The Method” and his own innate sensitivity to compelling characters, such as Ken in THE MEN (1950) and Stanley Kowalski in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), the role which had earlier propelled him into critical acclaim on Broadway. VIVA ZAPATA! was only his third movie, but having already worked with Kazan on STREETCAR, he was more than ready to take on the role of the almost reluctant Revolutionary leader.
Brando and Kazan worked together incessantly on securing the right characterization, but Kazan knew not to micro-manage the performance: “I think I directed him well, but you didn’t really work with Brando. You told him what you wanted and tried to describe it in words that had meaning for him. By the time you finished telling him what a scene was about, he’d be way ahead of you.” After directing a lot of actors in a lot of significant films, Kazan reflected: “One thing a director has to know is when to keep his mouth shut, to wait and see what the actor does instinctively, personally, without trying to fill any preconceived ‘patterns.’” There may be more historically accurate portrayals of Zapata in other films, especially from Mexico, but I think Brando provided a wonderful interpretation. In historic accounts Zapata is never described as revealing much emotion. He was cautious and kept many feelings to himself, while Villa seems almost bi-polar in his emotional range.
After talks with Kazan, Brando decided to show little or no emotion, whether in romantic scenes, leading his men into battle, being arrested or released, or even when walking almost knowingly into the ambush that would make him legendary, almost Christ-like in sacrificing his life for an ideal and new beliefs for his followers and later generations.
As strongly as Kazan felt about Brando’s performance and abilities, the actor greatly admired the director: “I have worked with many movie directors—some good, some fair, some terrible. Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for. [He] was the only one who ever really stimulated me, got into a part with me and virtually acted it with me.” Theirs was one of those wonderful symbiotic relationships that appear from time to time in the film world (Scorsese and De Niro, Bergman and Ullman, for example). ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) would complete the amazing trilogy of Kazan-Brando films.
However, that was not the case with Anthony Quinn, who played Eufemio Zapata, Emiliano’s more hot-headed brother. Kazan and Brando have somewhat conflicting memories of the relationship among the three on the set. Quinn, born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, had been acting in films since 1936 and therefore had a lot more film experience than Brando or Kazan. Though he gave an excellent performance as the fiery brother, Quinn was not very happy on location. Brando remembers: “Tony Quinn, whom I admired professionally and liked personally, played my brother, but he was extremely cold to me while we shot the picture. During our scenes together, I sensed a bitterness toward me, and if I suggested a drink after work, he either turned me down or else was sullen and said little.” Kazan, though recognizing that the two actors had a “macho competition going,” he felt that the two had “terrific affection for each other.” However, Kazan wasn’t blind to the fact that the “macho competition” on the part of the two actors lent credence to the tension shown between the two brothers, especially toward the end of the film. Kazan has nothing but great things to say about Quinn’s performance.
However, in later interviews he reveals the source of the problems between the two actors. While on location Quinn angrily pointed out that Kazan spent a lot more time with Brando discussing his character and scenes. Quinn blurted out, “He’s your favorite.” When Kazan told Brando of the problem, Brando then spent much more time with Quinn. Even though Brando doesn’t remember their becoming friends then, Kazan thinks that they did. Whatever, Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but was out-of-town and didn’t get to bound up onto the stage.
There were other, more predictable emotions flaring on location. Naturally, dawg that he was, Brando writes that he wanted to seduce Jean Peters. The only problem was that, just like her character Josefa, Peters had been provided with a chaperone/watchdog, a woman sent by Howard Hughes who was dating the actress back in Hollywood. When Brando tried to sneak into Jean Peters’ bedroom, via a rope and balcony, no less, he was caught by the chaperone and sent on his way. Perhaps he “punished” Jean Peters by portraying Zapata on the wedding night as more interested in his friends partying outside than in lying beside his new bride.
Kazan claims that no makeup was allowed, but some of the supporting characters look suspiciously made up, especially since there were no tanning beds in those days. Perhaps they were forced to spend a lot of time in the sun along the Rio Grande River. Kazan does admit that Brando “did something with his eyes.” That is reminiscent of what he would do with his cheeks and jowls later in THE GODFATHER. Even in 1956 he tried to “look Japanese” by once more “doing something with his eyes” for the role of Sakini in THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. Looking back at his many films, I’d have to say that he had maybe a bit too much of Lon Chaney in some of his portrayals. Still, Brando is at least somewhat plausible in the role of Zapata. But the moustache should have been a lot larger.
Overall, Elia Kazan was very pleased with VIVA ZAPATA! It received five Oscar nominations (none for director, but one for the screenplay). While Brando won the Best Actor award at Cannes, Kazan was at least nominated for “Grand Prize of the Festival.” Aside from the various accolades and near-misses, Kazan felt personally rewarded by making the film. He later said, “It was a well directed picture, better than I knew at the time. I had worked very hard in preparation. John’s notes were marvelous, too. That was the first picture I did where I felt, I can really be a good director.”
Despite having a good director of photography, Kazan himself, unlike some other actors’ directors, also thought about the look of his films. “My ideal of films is that they are a series of vividly, highly colored moving photographs.” His genius is being able to think of a film’s composition as well as work closely with the performers. One of the most powerful moments in VIVA VILLA! shows the white-cotton-clad peasants streaming down from the hills, machetes in hand, large sun-blocking sombreros atop their heads, all coming down to surround and silently walk along with the few rurales (government military in the countryside) taking Zapata to jail or death by ley fuga [“killed while trying to escape”]. Their numbers finally terrify the captors, who quickly release Zapata, who has said not a word nor revealed any emotion of surprise or gratitude. That scene of silent solidarity among the peasants was Kazan’s own creation. With the location scout, he looked for the right place to film that sequence of powerful images.
Another Kazan contribution to the look of the film was Aguirre’s success in finally tracking the elusive Zapata down in his rocky stronghold. As Aguirre’s voice reverberates with shouts of [a badly pronounced] “Zapata,” we do get a feeling already of the mythic power of his name. That scene could almost have become a battle cry for the later Zapatistas in Chiapas in the 1980s. Kazan reveals the inspiration for that scene came from a little known Soviet film by Dovzhenko -- AEROGRAD (1935)
Knowing that the historical Zapata was indeed gunned down by a hail of bullets in 1919, the ending of VIVA ZAPATA! was almost already written. According to written accounts, General Pablo González, a supporter of then-President Carranza, persuaded Lt. Col. Jesús Guajardo to pretend he was defecting from the government side to join Zapata’s forces. The two collaborators went so far in their deception as to have Guajardo actually attack and kill nearly 60 federal soldiers. When Zapata heard of the massacre by Guajardo, he was more receptive to meeting with him to discuss the defection. He came to the Hacienda de San Juan in Chinameca to meet Guajardo, but instead met his death. The sheer number of bullets which ripped his body seem to indicate the federal soldiers almost believed they were trying to bring down a super-human force. They then dumped his corpse in the plaza of Cuautla, just as in the movie.
When the fictional Aguirre gloats over the death of Zapata in the film, one of Carranza’s officers retorts, “Sometimes a dead man can be a terrible enemy.” Visually Kazan gave credence to that belief in the actual composition of Brando’s body dumped on the platform. Visually, a church tower juts up out of his heart, and the water flowing out of the pipe beneath him could certainly suggest purity, eternity, and continuation. Already beginning to create the myth, some of the followers surrounding the dead body proclaim that it can’t be that of Zapata. “Where is he? In the mountains. If we ever need him again, he will be back.”
Then we see his beloved horse, Blanco, on the hill overlooking the town. As little as Kazan initially liked Zanuck’s suggestion for that final shot, the director eventually came to see how powerful a part of the myth-making process it was. He concludes his discussion of the making of VIVA VILLA!: “…there’s a feeling, just a very simple notion, that he left something behind, that his life wasn’t lived in vain. It meant something to the peasants, especially the peasants who make myths. I think it’s a very good thing when the hero accomplishes something that he’s unaware of but other people aren’t.”
- Jeff Young, Kazan, The Master Director Discusses His Films (Newmarket Press, 1999)
- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me (Random House, 1994)
- Frank McLynn, Villa and Zapata, a History of the Mexican Revolution (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2000)
- Casasola Photographs
- Some photos from Casasola Collection can be seen here
- Emiliano Zapata
- Watch Dovzhenko’s AEROGRAD here
- Gabriel Figueroa
- Back to VIVA ZAPATA!