"Viva Zapata," film by Elia Kazan, 1952
In the U.S. we don’t talk much about revolution. If we do, it’s always in its counter-revolutionary form. You know, the "Tea Party Revolution." (Actually a counter-revolution.) When Russell Brand recently told an obnoxious BBC interviewer that he wanted a left revolution, and wouldn’t vote, naive American commentators were stunned and confused. Really? What’s wrong with Russell?
In fact, just south of us across the border, Mexico had a revolution. Not in 1776, but starting in the early 1900s. Emiliano Zapata was involved from 1909 until 1919, when he was assassinated. This black and white film covers Zapata’s life as the most upright revolutionary of that long, confusing period of warfare that culminated in the social reforms of Cardenas in the late 1930s.
Marlon Brando plays Zapata in a great performance for a gringo. John Steinbeck wrote the script, which does not always adhere to historical truth. Elia Kazan, a leftist who later denounced reds in the film industry before the McCarthy committee, directed Brando in this and “On the Waterfront.” The volcanic Anthony Quinn plays his brother Eufemio, and Jean Peters his long-suffering and beautiful wife. The film’s graphic quality is almost documentarian and photographic, reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. The story centers around Zapata’s unwavering position to give land back to the poor campesinos of Morelos and every other state. In order to do that, the farmers had to oppose the dictatorial hand of the federal government and the troops who back up the local landlords and hacienda owners. Zapata's first revolutionary act was to lead a land occupation, after much time spent in frustrating negotiations with lying landlords.
Steinbeck’s script makes several left political points, then backs off and makes some liberal clichés about the inevitable corruptions of power or uselessness of warfare. The script does show the need to meet violence with defensive violence, how giving up weapons can be fatal, and to stick to your principles even after you 'win.' It is not specific as to the actual nature of Zapata’s position on land. Zapata supported Indian communal ownership of land and older village rights to lands, forests, and water, and the breakup of the hacienda system. Zapata, after all, spoke fluent Nahuatl, the native language. His Ayala plan is not mentioned, nor is Zapata’s work on an agrarian party, a land bank or sugar cooperatives at the federal level. He could read and later became familiar with anarchism, neither of which the film indicates. Zapata is portrayed only has an honest, romantic, instinctual rebel.
Madero, who was the titular head of the first wave of the revolution that overthrew Porfirio Diaz, is shown as a clueless liberal in bed with the bloody military head, Huerta. Huerta eventually imprisons, then kills him. This made a strong impression on me, as many bourgeois liberals, like Castor and Pollux, have a military yang to their ‘yin’ - Obama/ Petraeus; Johnson/ McNamara; Carter/ Brezezinski; Clinton/ Cohen; Nixon/ Kissinger; Kennedy/ McNamara - all have their deadly doubles.
Huerta is later defeated in battle by Zapata and Villa in 1914, but both refuse to take national leadership. The famous photograph of the two of them is reenacted in the film, with them humorously running away the second after it is taken. In a completely literary scene, Zapata is supposedly acting as President of Mexico in Mexico City after this victory. There he responds to one Morelos farmer about abuses by his brother in the same way he was addressed by Diaz earlier. In the film's initial scene Zapata and a group of Morelos farmers talk to Diaz and Zapata makes the same objection about the lack of time as the young man he has just put down. Zapata realizes his hypocrisy and rushes back to his hill-side shack to avoid the 'corruptions of government.' In Morelos state for several years after that the federal government did not dare to tread, and the campesinos and poor farmers were the power.
One sinister character in the film is the Madero representative, who might be a guy named Robles Dominguez. This character encourages Zapata to stay true to land reform, even in the face of Madero’s hesitations, and later becomes a traitor. He sets up Zapata’s assassination at the courtyard of the hacienda of San Juan Chinameca, this by the forces of the liberal/conservative president Carranza. I’m not sure if this person is a creation of Steinbeck’s or a real person, but he makes little sense.
The emotional issue in the film is the relationship between Zapata and his wife Josefa, again probably a creation of Steinbeck’s. Zapata falls in love with the daughter of the richest businessman in his town of Anenecuilco. Yet both father and daughter look down on Zapata, who at this time supposedly didn’t have any farm or property, even though he was a famous horse trainer. These scenes reflect poorly on the grasping money-love of the local businessman. When Zapata is named a ‘general’ by Madero, they suddenly grow fond of the stiff love-sick man with bandoliers. Actually by this time Zapata had been elected head of the town council. Josefa ends up marrying him, then living in his dusty house on a hillside that her father warned would be her fate, fearing for Emiliano’s death, which she quite correctly divines. Zapata is shown as refusing land given him by Madero as a bribe, so he never got rich by being a general of the southern army.
At the end of the film, the ‘spirit’ of rebellion in the form of his great white horse escapes to the mountains. The farmers insist that Zapata is not dead, as you ‘cannot kill an idea’ – he is waiting in the hills to be called on again. However it was another 20 years before land reform of any kind came to Mexico. The Zapatista indigenous rebellion against corporate/landlord/military power in Chiapas in 1994 shows that this might be true, because the land question is still not solved.
Adolfo Gilly’s great history of the confusing stages of the Mexican Revolution indicates that in 1914 the Mexican proletariat was not strong enough to hold power, and that Zapata’s campesino/farmer revolution was limited in that regard. Given the development of the Mexican working class both in the U.S. and in Mexico since then, that is no longer true. Where is our proletarian Zapata?
October 27, 2013