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Poster designed by Leopoldo Mendoza for The Tornado Came and Lifted Us Up

(Mexico, 1949, Juan Bustillo Oro) offers an example of “folkorized” images of the
Mexican landscape historicized through allusions to the Mexican Revolution in the
tornado and a fiery red sky. Archivo Filmico Argrasanchez, Harlingen, Texas.

2 Zuzana M. Pick
ZUZANA M. PICK

A RO MAN C E WITH M EX I CO: TH E E P I C S P ECTAC LE O F


TH E R EVO LUTI O N

The Martin Walsh Memorial Lecture (2000)

Résumé: En plus d’examiner certaines questions historiographiques soulevées par


trois films portant sur la période de la guerre civile qui marqua la Révolution mexi-
caine, l’auteure étudie aussi les interprétations interculturelles que ces films encour-
agent. Les éléments thématiques et iconographiques des ces films sont aussi mis
en parallèle avec le processus de signification qui constitue le discours de la
Revolución.

T his article outlines some of the historiographical issues raised by cine-


matic representations of the Mexican Revolution. It considers how The
Wild Bunch (USA, 1969, Sam Peckinpah), Reed: Insurgent Mexico (Mexico,
1972, Paul Leduc,) and Old Gringo (USA, 1989, Luis Puenzo) historicize
the civil war phase of 1910-1917. Since the main protagonists are
Americans, I will consider how these films encourage cross-cultural read-
ings. I also want to show how their thematic and iconographic elements
are aligned with the signifying processes that transformed the ideological
confusion and social turmoil of that period into a coherent narrative. These
processes are the cornerstone of la Revolución: the discourse of the revolu-
tion that was constructed in the post-revolutionary period and has since
been mythologized, contested, and revised.

“THE WIND THAT SWEPT MEXICO:”1 THE REVOLUTION 1910-1920

istorians recognize that the occurrences associated with the Mexican


HRevolution arose from the conflict between the interests of metropol-
itan and foreign elites aligned with the state and popular forces. In power
since 1876, the government of Porfirio Díaz supported landowners,

CANADIAN JOURNAL OF FILM STUDIES • REVUE CANADIENNE D’ÉTUDES CINÉMATOGRAPHIQUES


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provincial bosses, factory and mine owners against the growing demands
for broader participation by ideologically, politically, economically and
culturally divergent groups of peasants, workers, intellectuals, petty bour-
geoisie and regional elites. The seeds of this revolution were sown in the
first decade of the century. With the slogan “Order and Progress,” the
Porfiriate wanted to turn Mexico into a modern state. It relied on the abo-
lition of communal property titles and seizure of Indian lands, on real
estate speculation and foreign investment. It was supported by the propo-
nents of technology, industrial development and capitalist investment, as
well as by the landowning oligarchy and the army. As the contradictions of
modernization became untenable, conflicts intensified.
Deprived of economic and political rights, peasants, miners and fac-
tory workers revolted against exploitative labour conditions. The petty
bourgeoisie and regional elites, who had historically opposed state cen-
tralization, demanded a return to local political and administrative control
and democratic electoral processes. Out of this clash between defenders of
rural traditionalism, advocates of industrial capitalism and partisans of rad-
ical socialism grew a modern bourgeois nationalist state in the 1930s. But
before that could happen, a bitter 10-year civil war was fought.
The civil war began in 1910 with a rebellion launched by local chief-
tains in the name of Francisco I. Madero, who was a prominent liberal
landowner and industrialist, and ended with the inauguration of Alvaro
Obregón as president in 1920. It consisted of a series of uprisings as peas-
ant and small landowner groups used the opportunity to force solutions to
old grievances. The most legendary uprisings were led by Pascual Orozco,
Doroteo Arango (a.k.a. Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa) and Emiliano Zapata.
Revolts were followed by anti-insurgency operations as political factions
fought either each other for government control or against civilian and
military sectors sympathetic to the former regime. Battles between rebel
armies and government troops produced one million dead out of a total
population of 15 million, and the insecurity in rural areas and the loss of
property displaced entire populations within Mexico and across the border
into the United States.
In the ensuing chaos, and as one government after another fell, the
state’s administrative apparatus and the economy collapsed. With peace
treaties signed between warring factions, but not enforced, the revolution
could not sustain itself. The implementation of revolutionary principles
was hampered by the opposing agendas of a peasantry fighting for land
and a bourgeoisie determined to preserve past privileges. Ultimately, the
bourgeois sectors were the winners of this struggle. With the ratification

4 Zuzana M. Pick
of the 1917 Constitution, and after the popular forces were crushed by the
Constitutionalist (now Mexican national) army, a presidential election was
possible. It confirmed Obregón as president in December of 1920, con-
cluding the military phase of the revolution.
The bloodiest incidents of the civil war occurred between February
1913 and October 1914. This period began with the assassination of
Madero ordered by his former chief of defence Victoriano Huerta. It
ended with the defeat of the Federales by the Constituationalist army led by
Venustiano Carranza and Obregón and supported by Villa and Zapata.
The Aguascalientes peace treaty was short-lived. Pacification campaigns
aimed at consolidating Carranza’s power led to retaliatory actions against
former allies and dissident groups, and culminated in the assassinations of
Zapata (1919), Carranza (1920) and Villa (1923).
The events and personalities that marked the 1910-1920 years inform
la Revolución, a narrative painstakingly and selectively re-constructed in the
1920s and celebrated in the 1930s. As historian Thomas Benjamin writes,
“Contemporaries told stories, drew comparisons, and made arguments
about recent events in particular ways to justify their actions, to condemn
their enemies, to win converts and to do much more. Their talking,
singing, drawing, painting, and writing invented la Revolución: a name
transformed into what appeared to be a natural and self-evident part of
reality and history.”2
The great majority of Mexican and foreign films dealing with the rev-
olution have privileged the 1913-1914 years. This chaotic and repressive
period has provided a fitting time frame for epic representation, expedient
characterization and clear-cut moral and ideological positions. From this
perspective, Mexico and the revolution had much to offer to the post-war
western. Relocated to the other side of the border, the landscape of west-
erns filled once again with formidable heroes moving alongside cowards,
drunks and traitors to become interchangeable once the struggle for social
justice turns into an orgy of violence.

AN EPIC OF THE REVOLUTION: WILD AMERICANS AND MEXICO


The Wild Bunch is an exceptional western among all those using Mexico and
the revolution as their setting. In this film, as Arthur G. Pettit points out,
Mexico “serves as a vehicle for Peckinpah’s moral pronouncements on sex,
sadism, violence, law, crimes and social orders—especially social orders.”3
While I agree with Pettit, I think that it is imperative to move beyond the
self-evidence of his statement. The representation of Mexico in The Wild
Bunch is highly mediated. It draws simultaneously on what Americans have

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 5


considered as typically Mexican, and
a variety of foreign and national
models for representing Mexico and
the revolution. To understand the
film’s historicity, then, requires
retracing iconographic sources and
looking into the role played by cul-
tural interaction and exchange in
American perceptions about, and
representations of, Mexico.
While scholarship on Sam
Peckinpah has shown that he had
professional contacts and affective
bonds with Mexico, details about
the film’s preproduction and produc-
tion phases indicate a conscious
Poster designed by Antonio Caballere for effort to scrutinize historical materi-
The Memories of a Mexican (including
reproductions of lithographs by Leopoldo
als. In spite of Yul Brynner’s com-
Mendez). ments after reading the script for
Villa Rides that he “knew nothing
about Mexico,” Peckinpah had
gained knowledge about the revolution from films, photographs and
books at the Paramount research department.4 He may have seen Mexican
archival films upon Wallon Green’s advice passed on by Roy Sickner.
Green wrote an early treatment of Sickner’s story that Peckinpah turned
into The Wild Bunch screenplay. In discussions with Paul Seydor, Green
speaks of his own research on German involvement in Mexico and screen-
ing Memories of a Mexican, a compilation documentary by Carmen Moreno
Toscano released in 1950.5
The location scout, as David Weddle indicates, was Chalo González
the uncle of Peckinpah’s thrice-married wife Begonia Palacios.6 All the
locations chosen are in the state of Coahuila near Torreón and are tied to
the revolutionary epic. Torreón is where Villa’s troops defeated Huerta in
1914 and is a certificate of authenticity in any self-respecting film on the
revolution. Standing for the Texas town of San Rafael, Parras is known for
being the birthplace of Madero, the affluent liberal in whose name the rev-
olution was fought. Yet, the historicity of locations reaches beyond explic-
it meanings to become signifiers of the revolution. The Hacienda Ciénaga
del Carmen that stands for Agua Verde is, with its aqueduct, wine cellars

6 Zuzana M. Pick
and collapsing walls, both a fictional backdrop for a brutal massacre and
a relic of a wasteful war.
The Wild Bunch allows cross-cultural readings because it re-constructs
the mythologizing signifiers of the western and re-locates them in Mexico.
Yet, this Mexico is the result of a convergence of culturally specific
imprints and historical awareness. It relies on the tropes of “civilization”
and “barbarism” that inform the categories “Mexico” and “West.” While
notions of difference, and modes of constructing self/other relations, sus-
tain the film’s discourse, they destabilize the distinct representational sys-
tems that make them intelligible. The contrast between Angel’s village and
Mapache’s stronghold, for instance, serves to represent two rival
Mexicos—one primitive, the other brutal—that contribute to the
American fascination with Mexico.
Here is a good example of the shifting positions that these contrast-
ing (and concurrent) stereotypes have occupied in the history of US rep-
resentations of Mexico. During the 1910-1917 period, the civil war
brought back stereotypes of the Mexican-American war of 1847 popular-
ized in pulp fiction and early film: the bandit and the greaser. But images
of the colonial and rural past remained fashionable because they rein-
forced the nostalgia for less threatening times. Folkorized images emerged
in the United States during the Porfiriate, and were circulated by railway
companies seeking additional revenue for their freight lines. Ancient vol-
canoes, desert cacti and peasants in traditional costume were used in mate-
rials promoting Mexico as a tourist destination. Yet, these images belonged
to the repertoire of costumbrismo, the picturesque tradition developed in
response to the work of European scientists and traveller-artists in the mid-
1800s. Mexican artists modified foreign depictions of landscape and cus-
toms to represent local sensibilities and traditions. Directed toward a new
rising middle class, these popular images were integrated into an emerging
nationalist and populist discourse. In the 1920s, they were modernized and
re-directed to become part of la Revolución.
While primitive Mexico (as pointed out by American film critics)
counteracts the moral nihilism of The Wild Bunch, it is the brutal Mexico
that dominates. Within the film’s historicizing scope, brutality articulates
the dehumanising and destructive absurdity of the revolution. Yet, this
inhumanity is also a legendary component of revolutionary folklore. It was
documented by eager (mostly American) photographers and sung by pop-
ular balladeers in innumerable Mexican corridos. By evoking folklore, the
film is able to reconcile what otherwise seems unreconcilable. As promi-
nent Mexican film historian Emilio García Riera writes, “Peckinpah did not

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 7


Emililio “El Indio” Fernández as Mapache in The Wild Bunch.

Rural militia under General Carlos Rincon Gallardo on the way to Aguacalientes, May 18,
1914. Cassasola Archives, Mexico City.

pretend to explain Mexico; instead, he was able to record gestures, attitudes


and all kinds of details defining a national ambience and mode of being.”7
As certain elements of The Wild Bunch spill over into the mytho-dis-
cursive realm of la Revolución, tensions emerge: for example, in the charac-
terization of Mapache and the performance of Mexican director Emilio “El
Indio” Fernández as this particular archetype of films on the revolution.
With a name meaning racoon in Spanish, Mapache is linked explicitly to

8 Zuzana M. Pick
Federal troops at the Battle of Ojinaga (1914, Mutual Film Corporation). The Library of
Congress.

Battle in the streets of Ciudad Juarez (date unknown, Mutual Film Corporation). The
Library of Congress

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 9


Victoriano Huerta who personified, for both Mexicans and Americans,
treachery and deceit. In 1915 Francisco Padilla González called him the
“new Santa Anna, the jackal, ‘the Zapotec Caligula,’ and legitimate son of
Cain.”8 Liberal journalist Carleton Beals described him as a “bloodthirsty,
drunken troglodyte.”9 While comparable descriptions of Mapache/Huerta
are plentiful in film criticism, rare are those connecting the character and
performer. Writing on the film’s casting, Weddle says: “For the role of
General Mapache the choice was simple: ‘El Indio’ Emilio Fernández, the
gun-toting murderer-movie director who lived in his own castle in Mexico
with a harem of fifteen-year old girls. Fernández was Mapache incarnate.”10
These racist comments say more about the writer than the actor;
nonetheless, they encapsulate the decline of a man who once represent-
ed the revolution: a public figure whose mercurial personality and exces-
sive behaviour made him a favourite target of the yellow press.
Fernández who had been one of the leading directors of what is called
the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (1935-1950) was in the 1960s “a has-
been celebrity.”11 Although he created some of the most enduring arche-
types of la Revolución in the 1940s, in the next decade Fernández parodied
his own work by constantly reusing ideas, themes and dialogues. With
producers systematically rejecting his projects, and with debts to be hon-
oured, he took acting roles in films by his Mexican and Hollywood
friends.12 His performance as Mapache alludes to a character-type that had
become Fernández’s cartoon-like alter-ego: Rodrigo Torres, the bandit
bent on revenge, whom he portrayed in his own film Flor Silvestre (1943).
For Mexicans, Mapache is an extreme and objectionable parody because
he compounds the western bandido, the demonized Huerta and the pathet-
ic figure of the, by then, sixty-four year old Fernández. Yet, in more gen-
eral terms, the character and performance are expressions of a process
whereby the legitimacy of the official symbols of the revolution was
undermined and submerged in a barrage of folkloric images.

THE MYSTIQUE OF THE REVOLUTION: RADICAL AMERICANS


AND MEXICO
The shooting of The Wild Bunch in Mexico finished in June 1968. Between
then and the film’s American release in July 1969, the myth of la Revolución
had been shattered by the repressive regime of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.13 On
October 2, 1968 the army killed hundreds of student protesters at the
Plaza de las tres culturas in the Tlalelolco district of Mexico City, ending
a growing popular democracy movement. This traumatic event would
change definitively the orientation of Mexican historiography. As Jean

10 Zuzana M. Pick
Franco writes, 1968 was “a watershed dividing a period when the nation
was considered to be united in moving toward a common goal of greater
equality and social justice from a ‘postnational’ period when the apparent
homogeneity of the state was shown to be mere appearance.”14
In this context, I want to consider Reed: Insurgent Mexico by Mexican
director Paul Leduc. This film is a significant attempt at demystifying the
Revolution. It incorporates the American radical, John Reed (Claudio
Obregón), into the pantheon of new revolutionary heroes, and validates
his participation and vision as part of a revisionist, postnational historiog-
raphy. While the film stresses the historicizing role of Americans, a
Mexican perspective dominates. Not only is Reed Mexicanized through
Obregón’s accent and performance, his subjectivity and agency are intri-
cately connected to the Mexican protagonists.
Through the foreigners who went to Mexico in the 1910s, the world
learned and saw what was happening there. For Americans, as political sci-
entist John Britton points out, “[C]ommentary on Mexico was a kind of
pioneering venture..., their first experience with a revolutionary movement
outside the more familiar territory of North America and Europe.”15 The
reports of diplomats, political activists and journalists, and the pictures
taken by news photographers and cameramen shaped foreign attitudes. In
the process, these visitors became the earliest historiographers of the rev-
olution. Yet, the American observers faced difficulties in describing the
events of the civil war because of the ideological confusion characteristic
of this phase. Unable to explain the changing alliances between the mili-
tary and political leaders of the uprisings, they often reverted to the well-
worn stereotypes of bandits and greasers. It is in this context that, in 1913,
Pancho Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation to
appear in a film biography, “to counter this image by making himself into
a screen hero.”16
Although photographers and cameramen began documenting the war
in 1910, they were most active during the uprisings against Huerta in 1913
and the American invasion of Veracruz in 1914. Among the photographers
who provided stock photographs for major news agencies were veterans
like Jimmy Hare and Gerald Brandon, and newcomers like Robert
Dorman, Edward Laroque Tinker, Otis A. Aultman and Walter F. Horne.
Among the cameramen were Carl von Hoffman, Victor Milner, Fritz Arno
Wagner on contract with Pathé and Leland M. Burrud, Herbert N. Dean,
and Charles Rosher with Mutual Pictures. If those who filmed the war were
concerned with turning chaotic events into a coherent story, their subjects
were aware that their gestures and actions could become part of a broader

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 11


A battle scene in Reed: Insurgent Mexico.

narrative. These images had an imaginary dimension produced by mutual


fascination and distrust. As Margarita de Orellana states, “The history of
the revolution through the fictional and documentary films of North
America is simply the story of a self-directed gaze and its transformations,
the history of a circular look.”17
Reed: Insurgent Mexico performs this “circular look.” The film is based on
John Reed’s account of the revolution. Insurgent Mexico was first serialized in
Metropolitan Magazine and then published as a book in 1914. Using only
selected chapters, the film maintains a vignette-like structure. It blends fac-
tual and fictional elements to construct the everyday experiences of the
civil war and to stress its confusion and chaos. Organized into two distinct
parts, the film opens with Reed crossing the Mexican border from El Paso
and details his stay with the troops of General Tomás “Tigre” Urbina
attached to Villa’s Northern Division. It uses Reed’s friendship with
Longino (Hugo Velázquez), one of Urbina’s officers ordered to be his
guide and mentor, to focus on biography and subjectivity. The second part
includes, what Ayala Blanco calls, a “parade” of historical figures.18 It begins
in Nogales (January, 1914) with Reed’s interview of Carranza and ends in
Gómez Palacio (April 1914) as the Villistas overtake the city evacuated by
the Federales. This part is more testimonial, more concerned with factual
events. It incorporates a reconstruction of the funeral of Abraham

12 Zuzana M. Pick
González, the governor of
Chihuahua and mentor of Villa,
who was assassinated in March
1913 on Huerta’s orders;
includes a re-enactment of
Reed’s interview with Villa; and
replicates archival footage in
sequences of trains filled with
Constitutionalist troops on
their way to Torreón.
By reworking archetypal
anecdotes and images, Leduc
draws a compelling portrait of
Reed’s Mexican adventure.
Interaction among characters
often occurs in mundane situa-
Claudio Obregón (in the forground) as John tions and serves to articulate
Reed in Reed: Insurgent Mexico. motivations, prejudices, hopes
and fears. A sequence in which
Reed joins Urbina’s chiefs of staff for lunch, for instance, becomes an
opportunity to re-narrativize the revolution. The officer’s recollections of
Madero, their tales of honour and bravery and perceptions of gringos like
Reed, evoke the early literature of the revolution: that of journalists-
turned-novelists like Rafael Felipe Muñoz (Memorias of Pancho Villa, 1923)
and Teodoro Torres (Pancho Villa, una vida de romance y tragedia, 1924) serial-
ized in El Universal Gráfico. Like these novels, Leduc’s film is more interest-
ed in storytelling than in mythologizing the heroism and betrayals of the
revolution.
A sequence in which the railroad is being repaired by torchlight and
Reed discusses political commitment with two American correspondents
gives expression to Reed’s political awakening. Here the film steps back
from the narrative of Insurgent Mexico. It re-reads Reed from outside-in, so
to speak: no longer as the idealist American narrator but as a war-weary
participant like Longino. Not that Reed has gone native, but he no longer
believes in objectivity and is critical of the cynical complacency of his fel-
low countrymen. The anti-epic qualities of Reed: Insurgent Mexico are best
expressed in the moments of lassitude. In the waiting period that precedes
and follows the battle, the mise en scene emphasizes the dilapidated build-
ings and arid landscape rather than characters and action, and the desert
of Durango, as Ayala Blanco points out, becomes “the desert of war.”19

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 13


The film’s historicizing position is critical of the larger-than-life nar-
ratives of the Mexican muralist movement. Its style challenges the folk-
lorized-to-death spectacles of the 1960s Mexican cinema, which, in the
words of Mexican cultural critic and commentator Carlos Monsiváis,
changed a “historical movement into a spectacle filled with trains, sol-
daderas, executions, horse cavalcades, canons, admirable deaths on the por-
tals of Progress.”20 Reed: Insurgent Mexico is one of the handful of films that
avoids the totalizing tendencies of nationalist epics by explicitly providing
a perspective on characters and situations. Here the revolution is not a his-
tory lesson: it reveals the lives concealed behind the official imagery.
Moreover, the film is an attempt to recapture the legacy of the earli-
est image-makers of the revolution. It evokes the period images of the car-
icaturist and newspaper illustrator José Guadalupe Posada and the mostly
anonymous Mexican and American photographers whose work can be
found in the Agustín Víctor Casasola and Hugo Brehme archives and in
the innumerable illustrated histories of the revolution. The documentary
impulse of these images was abandoned in the 1920s with the commis-
sioning of large murals in public buildings by José Vasconcelos, writer and
education minister of the Obregón government. With the murals of Diego
Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfáro Siqueiros, the imagery of
the revolution acquired the ideological dimensions of la Revolución.

THE MYSTIQUE OF MEXICO: LOS TURISTAS OF THE REVOLUTION


After the 1848 war and loss of half of its territory to the US, Mexican gov-
ernments were eager to populate the North. The Díaz regime sold land at
low cost to willing settlers, including immigrants from Europe and the
American South. William Randolph Hearst and the Guggenheim brothers
were among the high-profile American landowners and investors in the
states of Sonora, Coahuila and Chihuahua. When the revolution broke out
in 1910, the United States obviously had a stake in what was happening in
Mexico. Until 1917, and with most of the fighting concentrated around
border twin cities in Arizona and Texas and along train lines in the north-
ern states, Americans became spectators and participants of war. While
residents of Douglas and Nogales in Arizona, Presidio and El Paso in Texas
could watch the battles from the safety of the border, many others crossed
the Rio Grande to report on and take part in what Americans called “the
Mexican war.”
The civil war coincided with the development of modes of visual mass
media with newsworthy and utilitarian value. Postcards, as Claire Fox
explains, “experienced a brief resurgence during the Mexican Revolution as

14 Zuzana M. Pick
Postcard: “Americans in El Paso Watching Mexican Insurrectos across the Rio Grande,”
photo by Alexander [sic]. El Paso Public Library. El Paso, Texas.

Postcard: “Three Soldiers of the revolution,” photo by Otis A. Aultman. El Paso Public
Library, El Paso, Texas.

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 15


they satisfied a public hunger for images of war, especially for those who
did not have access to movie theatres, which had only thoroughly saturat-
ed urban areas by this time.”21 Encouraged by territorial proximity, tech-
nological improvements and market demand, studio photographers Walter
H. Horne and Otis A. Aultman from El Paso turned what was a cottage
industry into a profitable business. They took advantage of new portable
cameras designed expressly for producing divided-back postcards, and
placed them promptly into the market to be sold as personal mementoes,
to be sent home to families and supplied to newspapers.
Most postcards were targeted at specific consumers: tourists who were
the subjects of group portraits and soldiers who were posted along the bor-
der. Others were intended for travellers and featured revolutionaries in
combat gear or Mexican families in refugee camps. Connected directly to
the war, these postcards captured the imagination of the American public
because they presented a larger-than-life conflict pitching Mexicans against
each other and often reinforced ingrained attitudes towards Mexico. By far,
the most popular were postcards documenting a peculiar tourist phenome-
non: civilians watching battles and witnessing executions. Americans went
to the Arizona and Texas borders in search of souvenirs and to witness the
fighting in Agua Prieta, Nogales, Ojinaga and Ciudad Juárez. Horne’s best-
selling series “Triple Execution in Mexico” shows the step-by-step execu-
tion, by the Carranza troops, of three men accused of stealing. Reissued
with different captions, and even pirated, this series carried on the com-
modification of images of extreme violence and inhumanity, which began
with Jimmy Hare’s photographs from the 1898 Spanish-American war.22
With these postcards, the political impact of the revolution is neutral-
ized and acquires its entertainment value. For those close to the action, the
war is a spectacle; for those faraway, an object of consumption. Whatever
documentary impulse informs these images, it is predictably the American
point of view that dominates. In border images, Mexican soldiers are seen
either in the background of the shot or with their backs turned to the cam-
era. Images of executions show Mexicans defeated and dead, their corpses
exposed to scrutiny. Such images of bullet-riddled or disembowelled
corpses rotting in the desert and hanging from trees, fed the American fas-
cination for horrifying war images and reinforced the Euro-American tradi-
tion of representing Latin American violence as arbitrary, a reflection of
backward cultures and brutal political systems.
A film that places American characters, like the postcard tourists, as
observers of the Revolution is Old Gringo, one of the few recent films to
deal with the civil war. It is based on a novel written in English by Mexican

16 Zuzana M. Pick
Ambrose Bierce (Gregory Peck) woos Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda) in Old Gringo.

novelist and diplomat Carlos Fuentes and published in 1985. The


Argentine-born director Luis Puenzo and his co-scriptwriter Aida Bortnik
discarded the non-linear narrative of the novel, keeping only the basic
themes, plot and characters. The film does, however, preserve two aspects
of the novel that are relevant to issues discussed in this article: the role that
the American popular media played in creating the image of the revolution
and the presence of Americans as witnesses. Among the latter are a
Washington, D.C. governess, Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda) and the jour-
nalist and satirist, Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce (Gregory Peck).
Initiated by Jane Fonda, who purchased the rights in 1981 on the basis
of a draft entitled “The Frontier,” the film version of Old Gringo emphasizes
her own identification with the project. As opposed to the novel, where
Fuentes’ third-person narration centres on the aged Bierce, the film makes
Harriet the primary character through her voice-over and point of view.23
Yet, this point of view is not stable. Harriet’s position shifts back and forth
between reluctant voyeur and willing witness. Early in the film, for instance,
she watches the Villista officer Tomás Arroyo (Jimmy Smits) having sex
with La Luna, his soldadera mistress, in a sumptuous train car. At the end, she
hides in order to view Arroyo’s execution at Pancho Villa’s headquarters,

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 17


where she has gone to retrieve Bierce’s body. Harriet’s desiring gaze makes
Arroyo an object of both lust and aversion.
Old Gringo is a notable attempt to represent what Ronald G. Walker
calls, “the mystique of Mexico” that informs the simultaneous attraction
and hostility expressed in works about Mexico by foreign artists and writ-
ers. If Mexico has been, and remains, an object of fascination for foreign-
ers, it is because it contains all the necessary ingredients (history, land-
scape, violence and native cultures) to make it “a veritable treasure of the
exotic.”24 Some foreigners, like Ambrose Bierce, Sergei M. Eisenstein,
Antonin Artaud and Malcolm Lowry, were fascinated by the constant
threat of violence and the culture of death they found there. For Bierce,
going to Mexico meant to die. In October 1913, he wrote to his niece Lora
Bierce, “Good-bye—if you hear of my being stood against a Mexican wall
and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart
life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a
Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”25
It is this death wish that informs Bierce’s portrayal in Old Gringo. The film
uses his character to underscore and articulate the differing attitudes of
Americans and Mexicans towards death. In a mock execution scene, for
instance, he is shown as the figurative object and subject of violence.
Standing between inert bodies, Bierce is an explicit (albeit inverse) evoca-
tion of the Horne postcards; while Bierce’s corpse held up by ropes in
Arroyo’s execution sequence at the end of the film is its flip side.
The film also uses Bierce to replicate the responses of foreigners to the
imagery that most associate with Mexico and its national mythologies. In
the nighttime pageant of the Day of the Dead, where characters in skele-
ton costumes act out Arroyo’s infatuation with Harriet, Bierce is positioned
as eager spectator. In the battle sequence at the Miranda hacienda, his
position shifts from spectator to participant. After seeing a young Villista
die, Bierce takes his place to pull the switch that will derail the Federal
train. This alignment with death and bravery rehabilitates Bierce in the
eyes of Arroyo. It is also perfectly suited to the images that have histori-
cally sustained the mystery of Bierce’s disappearance in Mexico and make
the fictional Bierce an agent of romance in the film.26
Romance infiltrates all aspects of Old Gringo. By romance I mean an
affective, socio-cultural and ideological, dimension that re-stages the fas-
cination with the revolution. This dimension is exemplified by spectacle in
the many crowd and landscape scenes. The socio-historic details of these
scenes evoke a present-day articulation of the discourse of la Revolución, as
Fuentes indicates when he equates it to an explosion

18 Zuzana M. Pick
bringing down the walls of isolation between Mexicans, and in effect
making the revolution, above else, a cultural one. A country in which
the geographical barriers of mountains, deserts, ravines and sheer dis-
tances had separated one group of people from another since ancient
times now came together, as the tremendous cavalcades of Villa’s men
and women from the north rushed down to meet Zapata’s men and
women from the south. In their revolutionary embrace, Mexicans
finally learned how other Mexicans talked, sang, ate, and drank,
dreamed and made love, cried and fought.27

The masses in Old Gringo are the figurants (extras) that embody what it
means to be Mexican and revolutionary. They are characters of a nation-
alist tableau that includes the soldadera in ample red cloth petticoat and
rebozo, the musician in wide-brimmed hat, short jacket and chaps, along
with the foot soldier dressed in white pants and shirt, straw hat and san-
dals. Complemented by cartridge belts strapped across the chest, the
clothes of the china poblana, the charro and the peon represent the popular
characters considered since the nineteenth century as “representatives of
the true national spirit.”28
Although the action is set in northern Chihuahua, the film uses loca-
tions in Mexico’s central valley. The landscape shots evoke the work of
painters Jose María Velasco and Dr. Atl (a.k.a. Gerardo Murillo). They
contain the same motifs: mountains, clouds that hide the horizon, cacti
that emerge from the barren soil. These familiar landscapes are an ideal
backdrop for public and group actions that either celebrate the ideals of
the Revolution or ritualise its conflict. The main setting in Old Gringo is the
Miranda hacienda. Like the town of Agua Verde in The Wild Bunch, it is a
signifier of the revolution. Through images of the ruins of the hacienda,
the film alludes to the wasted promise of the revolution, which is also per-
sonified in Arroyo who is torn between his allegiance to Villa and his
desire to possess the estate denied to him as a bastard son. The burned and
looted building sustains the film’s historicity. It is the material repository of
ideals corrupted by opportunism and a reminder of senseless devastation.
Old Gringo (the novel and the film) readjusts the historical revisionism
of contemporary historiography. It repositions the legacy of the revolution
through the centrality of the American protagonists. By moving beyond the
narrow confines of nationalism, it reinserts this legacy into Mexico’s newly
acquired identity as a partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It underscores the place of romance within a national narrative that has
been historically and, maybe, inevitably determined by the proximity of

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 19


the United States, and was articulated in the renowned statement by
Porfirio Díaz about Mexico as being “so far from God, so close to the
United States.”

CONCLUSION
In films dealing with the civil war period of the Mexican Revolution, histor-
ical representation and cultural stereotyping are the result of convergences
between different signifying systems. While some of these systems are
exclusively cinematographic, as is the case of the mythologizing signifiers
of the western in The Wild Bunch, others belong to other modes of cultural
representation. Because these signifying systems are used in a self-con-
scious manner, they also have a historiographical function. Thus, Reed:
Insurgent Mexico draws on the serialized novels of the revolution written by
Mexican journalists in the 1920s. Through its documentary impulse and its
re-enactment of John Reed’s own account, the film offers a critical per-
spective on the folklorized spectacles characteristic of Mexican cinema in
the 1960s. Similarly, Old Gringo privileges the perspective of American
characters and, with its stylised replication of the picture postcards pro-
duced in El Paso by studio photographer Walter H. Horne, refers back to
the role played by Americans as narrators and witnesses of the revolution.
Moreover, these films enable cross-cultural readings and highlight the
shifting positions of contrasting and concurrent stereotypes of Mexico and
the revolution. They are indicators of the films’ ideological and affective
investment in discourses of the revolution. This investment ranges from
the performances of Emilio “El Indio” Fernández as Mapache in The Wild
Bunch and Claudio Obregón as John Reed in Reed: Insurgent Mexico, to the
evocation of character types linked to Mexican identity formations in the
mass scenes of Old Gringo. Hence these stereotypes, along with the films’
recurring thematic and iconographic elements, indicate how the imagery
of the Revolution operates in conjunction with representations that make
up the mytho-symbolic universe of Mexico’s modern master narrative: the
discourse of la Revolución.
To the extent that this imagery has neither been exclusively produced
nor consumed by Americans and Mexicans, these films compromise
notions of authenticity and problematize the certainties upon which
national cinemas depend for their legitimation. To consider how the cine-
ma has represented and historicized the Mexican Revolution through films
produced by American and Mexican directors, one must construct an
expanded critical framework to deal with issues of influence, translation,
appropriation and cultural mediation. The films examined here replicate

20 Zuzana M. Pick
the complex processes that involved Mexican and American artists, writ-
ers and commentators (both inside and outside Mexico), who helped to
shape this revolutionary imagery from 1910 to 1929 and directly influ-
enced its dissemination on film since the 1930s. As such, these films are
significant contributions to a mythologizing project whose ideological
dimensions are national, but also transnational, and consequently call for
a cross-cultural critical approach of the sort I have introduced here.

NOTES
This article is a revised and abridged version of the Martin Walsh Memorial Lecture
delivered in June 2000 during the annual conference of the Film Studies Association of
Canada held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. My appreciation goes to Editor
William C. Wees for his comments and suggestions. Research for this project is support-
ed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

1. This is the title of a significant history of the Mexican Revolution published in 1940 by
Mexican-born journalist and writer Anita Brenner. This book contains photographs
assembled by George R. Leighton and was reprinted in 1971 by the University of Texas
Press in Austin.
2. Thomas Benjamin, La Revolución: Mexico’s Great Revolution as Memory, Myth and
History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 14
3. Arthur G. Pettit, Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film, edited with an
afterword by Dennis Showalter (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980), 231.
4. Paul Seydor, Peckinpah. The Western Films: A Reconsideration (Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 1997), 182.
5. Ibid., 43.
6. David Weddle, “If They Move…Kill ‘Em.”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah (New
York: Grove Press, 1994), 322.
7. Emilio García Riera, México visto por el cine extranjero. 3; 1941-1969 (Mexico D.F.:
Ediciones Era; Guadalajara: Universidad the Guadalajara, Centro de investigaciones y
enseñanzas cinematográficas, 1988), 165 (my emphasis).
8. Benjamin, 61.
9. Carleton Beals, Mexican Maze, with illustrations by Diego Rivera (Philadelphia: J.B.
Lippincott Company, 1932), 42.
10. Weddle, 322.
11. Jorge Ayala Blanco, La aventura del cine mexicano (1931-1967) (Mexico D.F.: Editorial
Posada, 1985), 24. “Has-been” is in English in the original text.
12. Julia Tuñon, “Emilio Fernández: A Look Behind the Bars,” in Paulo-Antonio Paranaguá,
ed., Mexican Cinema, trans. Ana M. López (London: British Film Institute in association
with IMCINE and Consejo Nacional para la cultura y las artes de México, 1995), 179-
192.
13. The Wild Bunch was not shown for two years because of being, as Ayala Blanco writes,
“defamatory to Mexicans” (216). At its release in 1971, it was consigned to working
class neighborhood film houses specializing in exploitation movies.
14. Jean Franco, Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (London: Verso,
1988), 176.
15. John A. Britton, Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the
United States (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 13.
16. Ibid., 26.

A ROMANCE WITH M EXICO 21


17. Margarita de Orellana, “The Circular Look: The Incursion of North American Fictional
Cinema 1911-1917 into the Mexican Revolution,” in John King, Ana M. López and
Manuel Alvarado, eds., Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas
(London: British Film Institute, 1993), 14.
18. Jorge Ayala Blanco, La búsqueda del cine mexicano. 2a. edición (Mexico D.F.: Editorial
Posada, 1986), 93.
19. Blanco, La adventura, 90.
20. Carlos Monsiváis, “Mythologies,” in Mexican Cinema, 119.
21. Claire F. Fox, The Fence and the River: Culture and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 77.
22. James Oles, “South of the Border: American Artists in Mexico, 1914-1947,” in South of
the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, México en la imaginación norteameri-
cana. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 59.
23. Fox, 68.
24. Ronald G. Walker, Infernal Paradise: Mexico and the Modern English Novel (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1978), 2.
25. Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1995), 249.
26. The film avoids the novel’s political scope. Except for cursory references in the dialogue,
the character’s political indictment of William Randolph Hearst’s manipulation in favour
of an American intervention in Mexico is completely left out.
27. Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), 308.
28. Ricardo Pérez Monfort, “The Mexico of Charros and Chinas Poblanas,” trans. Richard
Mozka, Luna Córnea 13 (September-December 1997): 146.

Zuzana M. Pick is Professor of Film Studies in the School for Studies in


Art and Culture at Carleton University, and author of The New Latin
Cinema: A Continental Project (1993).

22 Zuzana M. Pick