Judge Daryl Loomis is a revolutionary at heart, but a conformist in life.
Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die.
The collaboration between the cinematic legends of director Elia Kazan (Baby Doll) and actor Marlon Brando (Apocalypse Now) resulted in three films over four years. Two of them, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, are legitimately great productions, fully deserving of their reputation. Sandwiched between them is a movie with a similar reputation, but can't live up to it. Viva Zapata! has its moments and, maybe, some of what I don't care for about it comes from watching with modern eyes, but its weighty subject and historical accuracy (or lack thereof) keep it from being a real classic.
Facts of the Case
Emiliano Zapata (Brando) grew up in the early years of the 20th Century as a peasant. As the years wore on, though, he became increasingly aware of the feudal system that governed Mexico and got sick of it. He never wanted to be a revolutionary, but a moral imperative led him into the role. When the revolution of 1910 began, Zapata became one of the most important figures in the war. With his brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn, The Guns of Navarone) and a host of angry farmers, Zapata led a charge to reform Mexico, to make it a place where the poor can thrive, and at the same time, to woo Josefa (Jean Peters, Niagara) into marrying him, despite the protestations of her aristocratic father.
On paper, Viva Zapata! has all the potential for a legendary movie. Directed by Kazan, a screenplay by John Steinbeck, starring Brando and Quinn, there's no good reason it shouldn't be one of the greats. Yet, it's not. It has its reputation and awards to back it up, but the movie really doesn't work. Steibeck and Kazan play fast and loose with the history and, while that's certainly not unheard of in the world of biopics, it seems like a greatly missed opportunity.
This is two hours of Emiliano Zapata hero worship, and the Socialist message of the revolutionary leader is clearly in tune with both writer and director. They seem so enamored with the message, though, that they lost sight of the story. Zapata is presented more as an archetype than an actual character and, really, that's the heart of the problem with the movie. It's episodic and those episodes are not very well connected, making the plot disjointed and far less interesting than it should be.
Some of that problem, sad to say, comes straight from Marlon Brando. It's one thing if he's playing a screwed up, lovesick Stanley or a longshoreman determined to win respect; he makes sense in those roles. He's wildly miscast as Zapata, though, appearing with darkened skin and fake moustache as Marlon Brando playing a role, not embodying the character. Anthony Quinn is much better as Zapata's conflicted brother, but had the casting been reversed, the movie would have worked far better. Not only is Quinn ethnically correct, he actually seems to have the anger and desire that's right for the lead role. I like Brando but sometimes, and especially here, he appears to sleepwalk through his parts.
Viva Zapata! is problematic in many ways and doesn't come anywhere close to the potential of its cast and crew. The white actors in Mexican roles doesn't help (Quinn aside), but that practice was commonplace at the time. Really, the film feels much more like a soap opera than it should be, with so much time spent on the inessential relationship between Zapata and the woman he loves and his attempts to convince her father that he's worth it. It's an annoyance that distracts from a really interesting biographical story, part of his biography though it may be, and while Steinbeck and Kazan may not care terribly much about the real history of Zapata and his movement, this business really doesn't help.
However I feel about Viva Zapata!, and I'm sure that plenty disagree with me, I can't complain about the technical details of Fox's Blu-ray release. The 1.33:1/1080p image transfer looks fantastic. It's been cleaned up before, but it has never looked as good as it does here. Contrast is perfect and black levels are thick and strong. There is no damage to the print or digital artifacts anywhere at all. Sound is equally solid, with a crisp, clean mono track that features clear dialog and music without a hint of background noise. There's not a huge dynamic range in the single channel, but it works as well as one can expect. The problem with the disc is the lack of meaningful extras and, for a movie with this stature, it seems a shame that all that gets included are an English and a Spanish trailer.
People with fond memories of Viva Zapata! will almost assuredly continue loving the film, but it's far too problematic for me to really enjoy. It has its moments and is mostly entertaining, but I expect a little more from a subject with this kind of potential, not to mention a cast and crew with this much power. It's not a bad film, necessarily, but there are too many issues for me to recommend very strongly.
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