Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by John Steinbeck
The western genre has its fair share of notable directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Mann, etc. But I don’t think it’s all that often that a traditionally non-Western master crosses over, but that’s exactly what we have here with Elia Kazan and Viva Zapata!. Now, I should make it clear that this film is tangentially a western. I think it certainly qualifies, as it covers fighting in the Mexican countryside during the Mexican Revolution, but it’s also not quite a traditional western in many senses. That said, Kazan and his star Marlon Brando are both welcome sights in this marathon, as they not only bring something completely new and different to the table, to break the malaise of western after western after wester, but they also bring sturdy resumes, with Brando being arguably the greatest actor of all time, and Kazan making some stunners in his career.
In this collaboration, Brando play Emiliano Zapata, a common country farmer who goes to the capital with his fellow farmers to complain of a boundary dispute causing his people strife. In this meeting, he shows both moxie and courage, which gets his name circled as a potential troublemaker. His intentions are pure, and soon he teams with other revolutionaries like his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) and Fernando (Joseph Wiseman) to overthrow the President and establish a new government. The struggle is continuous, with all parties seeming to have a personal motive, most of which involves a thirst and hunger for power. But Zapata remains steadfast, hoping to help his people and return to the countryside with his love Josefa (Jean Peters).
Viva Zapata! feels like it’s on a different level of filmmaking from other films in recent past in this marathon. The filmmaking is light years ahead of anything else I’ve seen recently. Kazan just has a knack, a touch, a vision which is unrivaled. He makes the most compelling and beautifully constructed narratives. You can feel his confidence behind the camera in every shot, which results in a finished product which feels far more polished and thought out than just about anything else I’ve seen to this point in the marathon. I’ve not seen a film I didn’t like from Kazan, and seeing Viva Zapata! just makes me want to seek out the rest of his work. This film is beautifully directed and shows what a difference a sure-handed helmsman can make on a film.
It probably also helps that the screenplay was written by author John Steinbeck, as the narrative flows very fluidly, and features great dialogue and dramatic exchanges. It’s a match made in heaven along with the previously mentioned Brando. Released shortly after his breakout performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (also directed by Kazan), Viva Zapata! showcases Brando command of the screen. His presence is felt throughout. Such a phenomenal performer, and while this may not be his most notable performance, it still stands out as a tremendous achievement. He sinks everything he has into these roles and proves time and again to exhibit not only great sympathy and connection to these characters, but also the bravado needed to walk in someone like Emiliano Zapata’s shoes.
The combination of talent (which also includes good performances from Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn and Dr. No himself Joseph Wiseman), is just overwhelming in this film. It’s a true achievement in filmmaking and stands as one of the better experiences I’ve yet had in this marathon. And because it is likely more historical than western, it would be one of the easier films to recommend, especially for non-western fans who enjoy Brando and Kazan’s other works. I would love to see more westerns along these lines, where the filmmaking and acting take prescedence over the tropes. I understand I’ve entered the historical era where so many westerns were made, many for cheap, but I look forward to seeing a few bigger budget, more polished works like this one sprinkled in with the small budget, star driven gems that I am sure are in there too.