Movie Night With Urbaniak: Viva Zapata!

Biographical drama is hard. The writer is faced with a number of problems — either the audience knows too much about the protagonist, which means they’re way ahead of the narrative, or else the audience doesn’t know enough about the protagonist, which means the movie has to contain all kinds of tiresome exposition to explain who everyone is and why they’re important to the story.

Here’s the important thing to get across in a biographical drama: the protagonist should not know he’s the subject of a biographical drama.

Many years ago I wrote a biographical drama about Abraham Lincoln. I read all the biographies of Lincoln I could get my hands on. The dramas, without exception, sucked dead donkey’s ass. The worst is Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert E. Sherman. Here is a play about Abraham Lincoln moping around Illinois in the 1850s, griping about how everyone wants him to be president and he’s just not sure if he wants to do that. Every god-damned scene in the play, somebody is imploring Lincoln: "Abe, you’ve got to fulfill your destiny and free the slaves!" until Lincoln finally caves and says "Yes, you are right — it is my destiny to go to Washington and free the slaves." And everybody gathers at the train station to listen to his famous speech about going to Washington and he vanishes from Springfield and into legend.

I have no patience for bullshit like this. First of all, no one, no one, in the history of the world, has ever become the leader of a nation because other people wouldn’t stop pestering him to do so. People become president because they want to be president. Maybe they’re good people, maybe they’re deep and powerful thinkers, maybe they’re sub-literate buffoons, but not one president got there because he finally caved to popular demand. Second, the record clearly shows that Lincoln didn’t care one way or the other about freeing the slaves. Lincoln’s goal was preserving the union. If he could preserve the union by keeping slavery, he would have done that. As late as 1862 he was still floating ideas like gathering up all the slaves and shipping them to an island in the Caribbean. When his back was pressed to the wall and there didn’t seem to be any other solution to preserving the union, Lincoln decided to go ahead and draft the Emancipation Proclamation. But in Robert E. Sherwood’s mind, everyone Lincoln knew had already seen the movie of Lincoln’s life and was impatiently waiting for him to go already and be in that movie they’ve already seen.

Anyway, in spite of being saddled with the occasional 50s-era biopic device, I’m pleased to report that Viva Zapata! is largely free of this kind of bullshit. I, personally, know nothing of Zapata or Pancho Villa (played here by Alan Reed, forever known as the voice of Fred Flintstone) or whatever revolution they were fighting in, so I am perhaps the ideal audience for this movie. Zapata, especially as played by Marlon Brando, seems restless, easily bored, easily distracted and utterly without clue as to what he’s supposed to be doing or what his historical destiny is. Early on in the movie, he eloquently speaks on behalf of a group of farmers, gaining the suspicious interest of the president. And just when I’m thinking Aha, and now we’re going to see how El Presidente tracked him down and persecuted him, and he shot his way out and became a revolutionary, the movie spends a good fifteen minutes showing him chasing after tail, gnashing his teeth for not being wealthy enough to woo a local merchant’s daughter.

Zapata knows injustice when he sees it, but he isn’t sure what to do about it when it’s in front of him. He doesn’t have a plan for liberating Mexico, he’s just kind of feeling his way, stumbling into freeing a prisoner here, blowing up a train there, recriminating over a mistake somewhere else. He is spoken of as a great general, but there isn’t a single scene where we see him planning an ambush or directing troops. In fact, he seems almost peripheral to his own revolution, as though it’s kind of happening without him and he’s just there as a witness. He doesn’t seem to be a leader at all, he seems more overwhelmed by events — which is, I’m sure, exactly how it must have felt to the real Zapata, because that’s how life often feels. Zapata, in this movie anyway, is a simple man, the only thing he feels strongly about is his ability to judge horses. He doesn’t think of himself as a leader, a general, a president or anything else, just a simple man trying to do what he thinks is right, despite the hardship visited upon him because of his ideals.

Being almost totally ignorant of Mexican history, I was a little surprised that Zapata wins his revolution relatively early on in the movie. Because it turns out that Zapata’s revolution didn’t accomplish very much, at least as far as the movie’s concerned. The politicians Zapata fights to have removed are replaced by other politicians as easily corrupted as the first, and the army generals prove that politics is nothing compared to a well-organized militia. So a broken-hearted Zapata finds that he’s wasted his time and energy, and the lives of many, including some of his closest friends, to a revolution that, in some ways, only made things worse for the peasants he was fighting for. This is a surprising trajectory for a 1950s bio-pic, and says a lot about the pointlessness of violent revolutionin general.

Mrs. Zapata is played by Jean Peters, who shocked so as the dame in Pickup on South Street.  Joseph Wiseman plays a duplicitous journalist/politician and one can only watch with dread as his collar creeps upward, coming perilously close to the one he wears as Dr. No.

The screenplay is written by John Steinbeck, which gives a lot of the scenes a surprising lyricism and lilt I do not find in, say, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. It also means that there are not one but two "Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy" speeches. Brando delivers the longer of the two, while wearing a gigantic sombrero that doesn’t do him any favors.
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8 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Viva Zapata!”
  1. Anonymous says:

    The resilience of Lincoln as an icon seems like a fascination regarding the detail of his character, physiognomy, more than just his biographical story. Perhaps that is a by-product of being assasinated, death masks and all. But even one of the focus points on the Hall of Presidents animatronic Lincoln was how it had even the facial tics and hand gestures… as if any of us could have known those even to judge! And then he’s the President who appears the most in cartoons over the recent decades, it’s like he is the more popular Donald Duck to George Washington’s bland Mickey Mouse.

    As for Lincoln to Zapata bios, I assume “civil war” to be the shared term, and maybe Zapata’s somewhat detachment at the shape of things to come is being indicated by the film:

    “..revolutionary figures varied from liberals such as Madero to radicals such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. As a consequence, it proved very difficult to reach agreement on how to organize the government that emanated from the triumphant revolutionary groups. This period of struggle is usually referred to as part of the Mexican Revolution, although it might also be looked on as a civil war.” (wiki)

    I was wondering what reason in ’52 for a movie biography of Zapatista, as attractive for a Hollywood property then?

  2. greyaenigma says:

    First of all, no one, no one, in the history of the world, has ever become the leader of a nation because other people wouldn’t stop pestering him to do so.

    I’m sure there was someone in history who was pestered into leadership. (I often wonder if Bush was — he certainly spends enough time on vacation.) And obviously, lots of people, presidents especially, are concerned with their legacy. While some address this by trying to accomplish great things, others just try and make sure the history books say they did great things.

    But I fully accept your broader point that characters in history don’t go through their lives trying to figure out how to live up to their epitaph.

  3. mikeyed says:

    According to Sophocles, the perfect leader is a reluctant one. He does not desire that power, but is more there in service of the people, because he can do better what a man who merely wants an important title can. Not that any of this applies to Lincoln or anybody who’s ruled any governing body ever.

    • Todd says:

      The closest the US has ever come to Sophocles’s ideal was General Sherman, who was vastly popular yet loathed politics (and warfare) so much that he refused to profit from his successful prosecution of the southern theater of the civil war. “If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve” was his epitaph.

      • mikeyed says:

        Correction: I was actually citing Plato’s The Republic and not Sophoclese

        Wasn’t Sherman the guy who burned everything his army stepped foot on with his “scorched earth” policy? I don’t know how that reflects on your statement, but I don’t think he was thinking about his destiny when implementing that strategy.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Correction: I was actually citing Plato’s The Republic and not Sophoclese

          Sherman was a startlingly effective general, but a political leader he most certainly was not.