ZAPATA: Marlon Brando
HUERTA: Frank Silvera
EUFAMIO (Zapata's brother): Anthony Quinn
DIAZ: Fay Roope
FERNANDO: Jose Wiseman
JOSEFA: Jean Peters
Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
Written by: JOHN STEINBECK
Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
About the Film. Viva Zapata was made by one of the most respected directors of the 1950's, Elia Kazan. Kazan adapted works of the renowned author, John Steinbeck, on more than one occasion. He also directed James Dean in his first and most enduring film portrayal, that of Cal in Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. In Viva Zapata he directs a young Marlon Brando. Brando plays the title role in this story of the famous revolutionary leader of the Mexican revolution that took place during the second decade of the twentieth century. The revolution was a peasant uprising in the name of democracy. Pancho Villa, a revolutionary leader even more well known than Zapata in the United States is also portrayed in this film.
More than about revolutionary leaders, however, the film uses the Mexican revolution to document the fate of revolutionary movements generally. Most importantly, it shows how the use of force as a means to produce change corrupts some of the revolutionaries and how the attainment of power corrupts others so that when they are successful and seize control of the government, they become only superficially different from the enemies that they displaced. Zapata is interesting because he realizes his corruption, corrects it, and, in the process, suffers a fate and a fame that is exceptional in the annals of the history of revolutions. A second major theme of the film is the contrast between the intellectual revolutionary and the "human" revolutionary and how Zapata is torn between ideological goals of revolution as represented by his intellectual advisor and the human goals of "kindness and land" as represented by his best friend, the one he later orders to be executed.
The Story in Viva Zapata. The first several scenes in the film show how Zapata became a revolutionary leader. One of a group of farmers who come to President Diaz's palace to complain that large landowners had seized their land and fenced it off posting guards to drive off its former owners, Zapata expresses dissatisfaction with the President's response. Diaz does encourage them to identify the markers that identify their land; to do so they have to break through the fences and risk being found and attacked by the landowners' guards. They do so, are attacked, fight back, and, in the process, Zapata becomes an outlaw forced to flee to the hills to hide. His leadership potential induces the revolutionary Madero to send his representative to Zapata in order to recruit him for the revolution.
Zapata is torn between his desire to fight the injustice of his government as part of the revolution and his love for Josefa whose father, a bourgeois opportunist, would never permit his daughter to marry a penniless outlaw. His love of, and great skill with, horses provides him with an opportunity to get a good job working for a respected "patron" and a pardon from Diaz. He defends a hungry child who has been caught eating from the feed of his patron's pampered horses. His patron protests against his aggressive defense of the child: "Are you responsible for everybody"; "you can't be the conscience of the world. In the world of business few people like each other, but they have to get along or else there wouldn't be any business." Zapata apologizes to the foreman he caught beating the child and later tells Madero's representative: "...tell him to get another man. I don't want to be the conscience of the world; I don't want to be the conscience of anybody." Nevertheless, he tries to defend a farmer being led to "justice" walking with a rope around his neck dragged by horsemen. When Zapata tries to protest, the horsemen gallop off killing the peasant by dragging him in the dirt.
Telling Zapata that while all humans are equal in the sense that we are all made of clay, "a jug is not a vase," Josefa's father rejects him as a suitable husband for his daughter. Arrested as he is leaving Josefa's house, he is put in the same position as the peasant he had defended: led off by horsemen with a rope around his neck. The entourage finds itself surrounded by peasants who join singly and in groups until there are literally hundreds hemming in the troops; when it finally runs face-to-face into revolutionaries led by Madero's representative and Zapata's brother, the intimidated captors release Zapata to them and depart. To prevent them from contacting reinforcements, Madero's representative instructs the men to cut the telegraph line. The Captain of the troops warns them not to: "Don't touch that; this is rebellion!" Zapata responds: "Cut it!"
Zapata joins the revolution and becomes one of its leading and most successful generals along with Pancho Villa. As the revolution prospers and Madero grows in power and prestige, Josefa's father is only-too-happy to allow him to court his daughter and ask for her hand in marriage. The courting scene expresses the extreme formality of the traditional wealthy Mexican family. Zapata meets with Josefa but only with chaperons. Josefa's conversation is in proverbs, but Zapata is clever enough to answer with his own: Josefa says, "Man well-dressed is man well thought of." Zapata replies: "Monkey in silk is still a monkey"; and later, "I believe that love cannot be bought except by love and he who has a good wife has heaven in his hat." Word suddenly arrives that Diaz has fled; the revolution is successful. Francesco Madero is inaugurated as the new President, and Zapata and Josefa are married with the blessing of her father.
Summoned to the Presidential palace by Madero, Zapata is offered a fine ranch to retire to after disbanding his troops. Insulted by the implication that he fought only for a reward, he leaves for his home in Morales saying he will hold on to his troops until Madero keeps his promise to redistribute the land. Things take time; this is a constitutional government, argues Madero. His revolutionary adviser objects, "Laws do not govern; men do" and characterizes his attitude and loyalty by observing, "I am a friend to no one except logic." The General of the regular army, Huerta, advises Madero to kill Zapata, but Madero says he trusts him. Zapata's peasant friend enters and asks Madero to go to Morales when Zapata disbands the troops saying, "You need him and he needs you." Madero agrees to go to Morales. General Huerta interjects: "Oh, the odor of good men" and then observes to his subordinates that while both Zapata and Madero believe in what they fought for, Zapata's a tiger and dangerous and so he must be killed while Madero's a mouse who can be handled.
In Morales Zapata's troops are gathering to disband and turn in their arms. Zapata and Madero are talking. Zapata: "I've been fighting too long". Madero: "Peace is the hard thing. I wonder how a man can stay honest under the pressure of peace." Huerta's troops swoop in. Zapata and his men escape. Madero stays, trusting Huerta and expecting his position as president will be respected. He is seized and placed under house arrest and eventually executed by order of Huerta who assumes control of the country.
Zapata and Villa are waging war on Huerta. Discipline is harsh. Breaches of security are punished by immediate execution. Zapata's good friend has been seen talking with the enemy trying to make peace. The revolutionary adviser tells him: "You deserted our cause." "No," is the reply, "our cause is land and peace, not a dream; kindness and a time for rest." And then Zapata's friend continues: "Can a good thing come from a bad; can peace finally come from so much violence? Can a man whose thoughts are based in anger and hatred govern in peace?" Finally, when it is clear that he will be executed, he tells Zapata: "Emiliano, not strangers; do it yourself." Zapata shoots him as, outside the cell, news arrives that Huerta has surrendered.
Villa and Zapata meet to determine who will be new president. Villa decides to go home: "Only one man can lead. Can you read?" he asks Zapata, "then you're the President. There isn't anyone else; do I look like a President. There's no one else."
Zapata becomes President. A delegation comes from Morales to complain about Zapata's brother. Zapata says, "I will look into it." A young man, very much like Zapata in his youth stays to protest as the other start to leave the room: "These men haven't got time!" Zapata goes after them to Morales; the revolutionary adviser objects. Zapata leaves him describing his character: "No fields, no home, no wife, no woman, no friends, no love, you only destroy; that is your love."
In Morales, Zapata sees the abuses of his brother and gives the farmers the legacy of his wisdom telling them they must protect themselves: This land is yours, but you must protect it. It won't be yours long unless you protect it, if necessary, with your lives and your children with their lives. Don't discount your enemies; they will be back. And if your house is burned, build it again; if the corn is destroyed, re-plant. If your children die, bear more. If they drive you out of the valley, live on the sides of the mountain. But LIVE. You've always looked for leaders, strong men without faults. There aren't any. They're only men like yourselves. They change. They desert. They die. There are no leaders but yourselves. A strong people is the only lasting strength." Shots ring out. Zapata's brother is killed. Zapata tells the farmers, "I'll take him home with me."
A new President in the palace. He orders the rebels wiped out. But the soldiers say they can't. An older general comments: "This is not a man we're destroying but an idea, and its spreading". The revolutionary adviser says: "Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die." The old general replies: "Ideas are harder to kill than snakes." They set the trap for Zapata as the film rushes to its dramatic and moving conclusion.
The History of the Mexican Revolution. The revolutionary period covered by Viva Zapata stretches from 1910 (the 100th anniversary of Mexican independence) to 1920 when the revolutionary leaders were all either eliminated or assassinated. General Porfirio Diaz had seized power in 1876 and remained as President by means of controlled and rigged elections. For some reason, still clouded in mystery, Diaz proclaimed in 1908 that he would retire in 1910 at the end of his term and that the election of a successor would be free and open. The opposition coalesced around Francesco Madero who was a wealthy landowner committed to bringing about democracy. When Diaz changed his mind and decided to run again, he cracked down on the opposition. Madero fled the country for the United States and became the rallying point for the revolutionary movement against Diaz. The revolution began on November 18, 1910 when armed forces proclaimed their support for Madero and stood against the authorities in Puebla. By spring Diaz had fled and the provisional government scheduled elections for October. Practically unopposed, Madero won handily and was sworn in as president on November 6. He was overthrown in a military coup led by General Huerta in February 1913. After that, civil war broke out.
The two states where discontent continued were Morales in the North and Chihuahua in the South. Emiliano Zapata was one of the primary leaders of the resistance, and although his plan for the redistribution of land was eventually adopted in October 1914 and placed in the Constitution of 1917, he himself was assassinated in 1919.