Anthony Quinn worked with some of the finest international directors during his long career, from Cecil B. DeMille, Vincente Minnelli in the earlier years, to Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan and Sir David Lean later. In those years he played a plethora of ethnic characters: Greeks, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Arabs, Italians, Native Americans and some time, even Mexicans. Continuing my focus on the unique contributions of people of Hispanic backgrounds during Hispanic Heritage month, note that Quinn was born in Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1915. He became the first Mexican American to win an Oscar in 1952 for best supporting actor, playing Eufemio Zapata, brother of Emiliano Zapata in Elia Kazan’s “Viva Zapata!”
The film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay was written by American novelist John Steinbeck, an author who had great empathy for the Mexican-American experience, who centered many of his stories in the central valley of California, near his birthplace of Salinas, CA.
Their story begins in 1909 and concerns approximately ten years in the life of Emiliano Zapata, who with a group of local Indian farmers from the State of Morelos, come to the capital of Mexico City for a meeting with President Porfirio Diaz to lodge a formal complaint about land rights and property stolen from them.
The president is very demeaning and dismissive of the farmers, telling them they must be patient, frequently calling him “my children”. When the group disperses, one stays behind and asks more challenging questions. He is Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando). By making himself known, the President has Zapata’s named circled in his notebook, marked as a dangerous influence.
Days later, federal troops attack Zapata and his men and with brother Eufemio (Quinn) the farmers stand their ground in the hillsides. Fernando Aguirre (Frederick Wiseman) joins their group claiming he knows Francisco Madero, a fellow freedom fighter from Texas, will join their effort shortly.
Zapata leads the rebellion against the oppressive Diaz regime. And with the help of Madero (Arnold Gordon) and later Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) they successful overthrow the government and liberate the Mexican people. But Emiliano is a reluctant leader who states early on: “I don’t want to be the conscience of the world. I don’t want to be the conscience of anybody.” Soon Emiliano begins courting the beautiful Josefa (Jean Peters) who will quickly become his spouse.
But Madero’s weakness at leadership and his strongman General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera) prove they’re nearly as bad for the people. From “Kazan on Directing” (2009) he recalled, “The first thing that attracted me to Zapata was the sense that power was corrupting him. He didn’t want it. That’s how I felt a lot. The other thing was that John (Steinbeck) and I were both ex-Communists and Zapata’s story allowed us to show metaphorically what happened to the Communists in the Soviet Union—how their leaders became reactionary and repressive rather than forward-thinking and progressive.”
Kazan also notes a really important quality about the film’s authentic, often poetic, visual style and cinematography of cameraman Joseph MacDonald. Kazan remembers, “I loved Viva Zapata! The visual style of the film was taken from five books by two Mexican still cameramen, the Casasola photographs (referring to the works of famed Mexican photographer Agustín Casasola)—this was the most photographed war up to that time. Some of those photographs I imitated pretty exactly. When Zapata and Pancho Villa meet, and their staffs gather around them—that’s an exact reproduction right down to the casting.” The film’s ending images of a white horse galloping on the hillside with villagers noting how the legendary deeds of Zapata will live forever is truly awesome.
The film’s acting is compelling. Despite receiving an Oscar nomination for best actor, Brando’s performance seems somewhat mannered–he doesn’t sound very Mexican nor does he look too authentically ethnic either. On the other hand, Quinn’s performance as the macho, heavy drinking womanizer is done with genuine gusto. He’s especially compelling in a scene, where after being reprimanded by his brother, he lashes back justifying his behaviors as payback for years of devotion to the cause.
Quinn would go on to win his second Oscar for best supporting actor in 1956, playing French painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s bio-film on Vincent van Gogh “Lust for Life.” He would also receive Oscar nominations for best actor as Gino in George Cukor’s “Wild is the Wind” (1957) and as Alexis Zorba Michael Cacoyannis’ “Zorba the Greek” (1964).