Starring Marlon Brando, written by John Steinbeck, and directed by Elia Kazan… Need I say more? Okay, co-star Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for his support work.
“Viva Zapata!” is a biographical film based in part on the life of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, a peasant who rose to the heights of political power between 1909 and 1919.
As filmmakers are wont to do, Kazan is more interested in myth-making than telling the real story. So what we get is a sanitized look at a man (who was rumored to have been a bandit) who fought for “the people” and was brutally assassinated due to his unwillingness to compromise his principals.
Just because it might not be true, though, doesn’t mean “Zapata” isn’t a great film. The black and white photography, screenplay, and acting are all first-rate. The film is also a look at how bona fide artists like Brando and Kazan were able to work with integrity within the studio system. “Zapapta” might romanticize its protagonist, but there’s nothing glossy or old-fashioned about the production or simple about the politics involved.
Still working within the restrictions of the Production Code, Kazan also does a superb job of portraying the downfall of Zapata’s brother Eufemio (Quinn) — a victim of his own sexual appetites.
Though not as well known as some other Kazan/Brando classics, “Viva Zapata!,” one of the best biographical films of the 50’s, still deserves a place with them.
“Viva Zapata!” is available at Amazon.com.