Viva Zapata was one of the movies that created the legend of method actor extraordinaire, Marlon Brando.
Elia Kazan directed this in 1952. This was just a year after A Streetcar Named Desire, but still to come were the even more legend-defining On the Waterfront and The Wild Ones. And it was made a full 26 years before Brando's finest moment, and finest role, when he assumed with such humanity and dignity the persona of Jor-El, father of Superman.
Viva Zapata is the acclaimed dramatisation of the career of the Mexican patriot Emiliano Zapata, the freedom-fighter who strived to rid Mexico of its tyrants, only to find that the new rulers, who had promised so much, were as bad as the old. It was written by John Steinbeck, who constantly pursued a social-equity goal in his writings such as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath.
The story seems set in the mid to late 19th century. But appearances are deceptive. It's with a real shock when, more than halfway through the movie, we suddenly sight 1920s motor-cars. They seem a total anachronism. That moment brings home just how Mexico really was an oppressed, poverty-stricken country, still waiting for the 20th century to discover it.
Viva Zapata had a huge reputation when it was first screened, perhaps because, in those Red-fearing days, anything smacking of anti-capitalism was seen as hugely daring. It's ironic that rat-fink director Elia Kazan, who informed on his Hollywood buddies, directed it.
The script, though probably simplifying and mythologising Zapata's life, is powerful and literate. The acting is generally strong, especially from Anthony Quinn as Eufemio, Zapata's brother (an Oscar-winning performance) and from Arnold Moss as Nacio, Zapata's disturbing and disturbed conscience-surrogate companion.
But nowadays, we can see that Brando's acting wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. To be sure, he really is a master of the meaningful mumble, and no-one can take that away from him. But I think too much of the acting credits really belong to the makeup artists for their splendid moustache, fat lips and slanted eyes. It's acting-by-greasepaint. Couldn't happen today, of course, Nowadays, no-one could get plaudits, even an Oscar, for just putting on a false nose or some-such, could they?!
Brando, the film's chief strength when it appeared, seems its main drawback today. But still, it's an interesting slice of real history, told with verve and good pace, with a nice fusion of philosophy and action. Just don't expect to see the Brando of legend here - he's hiding behind the makeup.