Is Emilio Fernández The Most Interesting Man in Film History?
On Sunday, April 3, AFS will present a rare 35mm print of Emilio Fernández’ 1946 classic ENAMORADA. The event will be hosted by Charles Ramírez Berg, whose latest book is “The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films.” He will introduce the screening and participate in an audience discussion after the screening.
As is the case with all great directors, we should take their own stories with a grain or two of salt, but from the official story, it may be possible that Emilio Fernández’ life-narrative trumps them all.
Born in 1904 to a revolutionary general father and a mother who was part Kickapoo Indian, Fernández first joined Mexican revolutionary forces as a teenager. When the uprising he was part of was quashed, Fernández went into exile in America. Finding a home in Hollywood, the handsome young man eked out a living as an extra and small part player in silent films. During this period he was introduced to art director Cedric Gibbons, who was designing the new statuette for the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences yearly gala. The very fit young Fernández proved to be an excellent model for the gold statuette which now goes by the name Oscar.*
In 1934, he and his fellow revolutionaries were granted amnesty by the Mexican government and Fernández returned to his homeland, armed with a great deal of film knowledge gleaned from his years on set in Hollywood. He became a screenwriter and actor, whose imposing presence and Indian features made him a very busy star. Nicknamed “El Indio” he became one of the most well known screen figures in Mexico.
With his great knowledge and commanding manner Fernández was a natural to direct films and starting in 1941 he directed many of them, helping to create what is now known as the Golden Age of the Mexican Cinema. In the next two decades he directed 37 features and became one the most highly esteemed of all native Mexican filmmakers. When financing dried up he continued making films for lower budget producer, many of which are held now in lower esteem than his golden age output.
As an actor he stayed very busy as well, starring in scores of films during this period. Additionally he acted in many American films such as NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, THE WILD BUNCH, PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, in which he delivers the titular death sentence. The latter three films were made by his close friend and kindred spirit Sam Peckinpah.
In 1976 the always volatile Fernández killed a farm laborer in an argument and served six months in prison. It was one of many altercations in his life. In one, it is reported that he actually shot a film critic who disparaged his work. In his old age he lived on his farm and made a living by selling produce. He died in 1986, the proud progenitor of a major world cinema.
*”Print the legend.”