A Real Revolution Captured on Film
The word “revolution” today is so overused it has almost lost its meaning. Just about everything can be touted as a “revolution” of one kind or another — from the Tea Party’s claim to a second
American revolution to the Apple iPhone’s revolution in telephony.
Historians, with their longer perspective, use the term much more sparingly. Some believe only three revolutions have occurred since the Age of Enlightenment: the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution. A fourth might be the American Revolution — even if it did not upend a class system, it did give birth to an entirely new form of government.
Here, we focus on the revolution that occurred in Mexico roughly between 1910 and 1920. Some scholars extend it as far as 1929 because, even though open warfare had ceased for the most part, there was still much struggle between different factions as the country moved toward establishing a functioning government.
Because movies came into their own during this time as a way to capture human experience, the Mexican Revolution proved a ready subject for film directors on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico
border seeking to capture the convulsing nation in documentary and dramatic reels. Legendary American producer/director D.W. Griffith, with colleagues at Mutual Film Corp., famously made a deal with the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa to star as himself, allow daylight filming of the fighting, and if necessary, recreate battle scenes for the movie The Life of General Villa.
Among the Mexican directors, one of the earliest and most clear-eyed was Fernando de Fuentes, whose Mexican Revolution trilogy, in 35mm format, comes to the Autry Oct. 16 and 17, fresh from the New York Film Festival. The movies, El Prisionero 13, El Compadre Mendoza, and Vámonos Con Pancho Villa, are a warts-and-all view of the triumphs and failures of the Revolution.
“Film was key to the Mexican Revolution,” said Jesse Lerner, professor of media studies at Pitzer College and one of the panelists in a discussion of the trilogy scheduled for Saturday afternoon. “There is really no way to view and study it that doesn’t include the movies that were being made
at the time.”
De Fuentes was at his peak as a movie director in the thirties, at the very beginning of what is
today known as the golden age of Mexican Cinema, said Alejandro Pelayo, cultural ataché to the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles and a movie director in his own right. This trilogy was de Fuentes’ unvarnished critique of the Revolution, a topic still fresh in people’s minds at the time.
“We’re talking 1933, about something that began less than 23 years before and had only finished a decade later,” Pelayo said in Spanish. “So there’s already a vision that said: ‘Warning: this thing that was so strong, so full of ideals, so important, is being corrupted’.”
Pelayo considers the films historic, too, because they show a cinema whose techniques are still developing. Most movie directors of the time came from the theatre and thought of film-making in terms of a stage, with a static camera and the exaggerated performances and projecting voices necessary for the theatre. Not de Fuentes.
“Fernando de Fuentes had been a movie entrepreneur and distributor; he had been the manager
of a very famous movie theatre in Mexico City called The Olympia. He arrives without a theatrical type education,” Pelayo said. ” So he made a very cinematographic cinema … that was less theatrical, a very realistic cinema, based on a critique of the revolution.”
Of the three films, Pelayo says El Compadre Mendoza, based on a short story, is the sharpest.
“It’s precisely the history of opportunism, of an agricultural entrepreneur who makes money off both warring parties,” he said.
De Fuentes illustrates this with a scene at Mendoza’s hacienda that centers on a picture on the wall. Depending on which faction is about to come visit him, he hangs a picture of its respective leader.
“Depending on who arrives, he hangs the photo, so he is on good terms with everyone,” he said. “He sells them guns, he makes money off them.”
El Prisionero 13 is the story of a rich and corrupt landowner fond of having those who disagree
with him arrested and sent to the firing squad. The day comes when that conduct results in disastrous consequences for the landowner.
Vámonos Con Pancho Villa, despite its title, is actually a strong critique of Villa that, Pelayo said, was willing to show the man’s thirst for blood as well as his cleverness and compassion.
“De Fuentes’ achievement is to portray that time, including this current that is critical of the Revolution,” Pelayo said. “At the same time, he exalts Mexican nationalism.”
After the trilogy, de Fuentes made some conventional commercial films, including Allá en el Rancho Grande, which marks the beginning of the ranchera movie genre, portraying domestic dramas and idyllic lives in haciendas. But by the time the really classic Mexican films began to be made in the forties, Pelayo says de Fuentes was more or less played out.
Presentation of the Mexican Revolution trilogy is a joint production of, among others, Filmoteca UNAM and the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles, a non-profit that since 2000 has been working to give more exposure to classic and contemporary Latin American films in Los Angeles and to give young Latin American filmmakers scholarships to study in Los Angeles.