Viva Zapata! has one of the finest collections of talent behind it ever assembled for a film. With a script written by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, direction by two-time Academy Award winner (plus an additional honorary Oscar) Elia Kazan, a crew full of Academy Award nominees, and co-starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, each of whom picked up two Academy Awards for acting, it is no wonder Viva Zapata! is such a well-crafted and intelligent film. However, at times the film feels weighed down by the subject matter.
Viva Zapata! was the first film made starring Marlon Brando after his star-making lead role in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the film reunited him with director Elia Kazan, who had previously won an Oscar for directing Gentlemen's Agreement. The film is a biopic of the life of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary who led the revolt against President Porfirio Diaz. In the film, Zapata helps take down President Diaz, only to witness that nothing has changed with his replacement. Emiliano Zapato is one in a line of roles Brando played early in his career of angry young men fighting against a corrupt system - Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar - and though Viva Zapata! is the least inspired of these films, it is a noble effort.
By modern standards, Brando was a curious choice for the lead role; indeed, Brando could not have played this role in modern Hollywood due to improved cultural sensitivities. Wearing skin-darkening makeup and a thin mustache, Brando exhibits none of the raw masculinity that he oozed in Streetcar, instead projecting a calm, noble presence worthy of his character. Brando appears lost at times, perhaps weighed down by his first experience of playing a real person, and for the most part seems so focused on being Zapata that he forsakes the freedom his previous and later roles afforded him to push the boundaries of acting. His performance is still confident and captivating, but the vulnerability he would imbue in his most masculine characters is in short supply in Zapata!, and would have added another layer to his character. Anthony Quinn, who was considered for the lead role (and as a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, would have made a more sensitive choice), picked up his first Oscar for his portrayal of Zapata's brother, a well deserved award. I have thus far seen very few Anthony Quinn films (though I have many to look forward to in the Every Oscar Ever project), but he is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors ever. He perfectly complements Brando, and is the highlight of Zapata!
The film is masterfully directed, no surprise considering that Elia Kazan is one if the finest directors in the history of American cinema. He reportedly borrowed the film's look from the photography of photographer Agustin Casasola, a look which gives the film a stark, flat appearance that creates a feel of a documentary.
John Steinbeck's screenwriting is often overlooked due to the undisputed brilliance of his literary output, but Steinbeck's three Academy Award nominations prove that he was also an outstanding screenwriter. Some of Steinbeck's favorite themes (greed and power) are on display throughout the film, always subtle and understated, but sometimes the film explores these scenes at the expense of the characters. The actors do not have enough scenes that give them room to breathe, and with Brando, there should always be room for him to breathe. Steinbeck was a politically passionate writer, and was enthralled by Zapata, and it is obvious he is trying to pack as much into the script as possible. But as often happens with passion projects, the script loses its way at times while buried underneath the weight of the writer's self-created ambitions.
Aside from its nominations for Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, and Screenplay, the film was also nominated for its black and white art direction (Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Thomas Little, and Claude E. Carpenter) and its score (Alex North), losing the first to The Bad and the Beautiful and the second to High Noon, one of the most perfect scores ever composed.
I didn't enjoy Viva Zapata! nearly as much as the other Kazan-Brando collaborations, nor do I feel it is quite deserving of the semi-cult status it has gained. It is, however, a beautifully crafted film that is a credit to all involved, and definitely worth watching.
Remaining: 3166 films, 880 Oscars, 5449 nominations