The story of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a rebellion against the corrupt, oppressive dictatorship of president Porfirio Diaz in the early 20th century.
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Viva Zapata was the second collaboration between Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, a partnership that is widely considered to be among the greatest between director and actor in film history. Despite only making three films together, two of the films have become required viewing for all lovers and scholars of film: A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. These films are seen as a turning point in film history; where actors started to use their own experiences and feelings to make their characters more believable, a technique known as method acting. From then on, actors would be expected to play their roles in an understated fashion, as opposed to the exaggerated acting of the silent era. This is when movies grew up.
The story revolves around the life of Emiliano Zapata, a general during the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century. Unlike many other current biographical movies, which attempt to explain a person’s life by depicting a childhood trauma, Viva Zapata does not begin with him as a child, but already as a young man, calling out his president to give assistance to the people who have been forced off their land. Right away he is seen as someone driven to oppose the corrupt Mexican government that will not come to aid of his people. Instead of trying to give account for Zapata’s actions, the film merely presents him as a good and honest man from the start.
More than anything else, including the writing or the directing, what really sells this film is the acting. Alongside Brando is Anthony Quinn as Zapata’s hard-drinking older brother, Eufemio, and Jean Peters as his wife, Josefa, two equally powerful performances. One cannot say enough about the power of Brando’s performance, especially in his early days. Brando could say more with just a look and a slight change of voice than any other actor of his time. He could do more without doing anything at all. His presence could speak louder than words.
The film does have some faults, including the presence of white actors donning dark-skinned make-up to make themselves look Mexican, and the fact that nearly every word in the film is spoken in English despite the subject matter being about the Mexican revolution. It is also a good bet is that most of the screenplay, written by John Steinbeck, is complete fiction. But, ultimately, none of these things really matter. What’s more important are the lessons the audience is meant to learn from the life of a man like Zapata. His ideals never falter, even as those around him, including his own brother, succumb to the same greed and self-indulgence they spend years fighting against. He is incorruptible despite everything he faces. In the end, that is the true legacy of Emiliano Zapata.
Viva Zapata was nominated for five Academy awards, including nominations for Brando, Quinn and Steinbeck. The movie did win one Oscar, but it wasn’t for Brando’s performance. It was Quinn who won for Best Supporting Actor, his first of two Oscars. Brando would have to wait another two years to win his: for Best Actor in On the Waterfront.