A shot nobody particularly remarks upon in its first iteration goes on to become famous in LAST TANGO IN PARIS…
It’s odd the things that stick in your mind. I remember some TV review of the year show at the end of 1982 and Billy Connolly was on it reviewing KING OF COMEDY, which he said had become his new favourite film — “Apart from VIVA ZAPATA!” So there you go, now you know what Billy Connolly’s favourite film is. I mean, I’m sure it hasn’t changed.
Another odd thing — since I’m younger than cinema itself, marginally, I find myself experiencing film history backwards sometimes. Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE is a film I retain some considerable fondness for, though I’m more and more bothered by the misogyny. But when I finally watched Billy Connolly’s favourite film, I was fascinated to see the influence it had on Leone — specifically an execution in the rain with an artfully-lit rain-speckled car window. Though Leone was clearly working off the American western tradition, it’s relatively rare that I spot a moment in one of his films that owes a noticeable visual debt to any specific movie. Sir Christopher Professor Frayling has pointed out shots borrowed from HIGH NOON, and I was quite smug when I noticed that the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY owes a recognizable debt to William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (gunfight indoors, filmed from outdoors, with a camera movement motivated by somewhat abstract means), but no doubt partly because of the new tools of widescreen and the zoom lens, and pertly because of his own distinct visual mannerisms (extreme closeups from eyebrow to lower lip intercut with spectacular wide shots, and deep focus compositions which combine ECU and ELS), Leone’s films never seem to me like a patchwork of influences. I also don’t really feel they have anything in common with anybody else’s spaghetti westerns, a genre which seems to me to have produced almost no distinguished work outside of Leone.
Anyway, to VIVA ZAPATA!, a relatively early Kazan/Brando, which really does come to life in its scenes of personal violence (battles, not so much). Kazan is continuing the very in-your-face deep focus approach he used in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (which at times looks like it was shot for 3D, so much thrusting into the lens goes on). There are lots of great expressive shots which develop and transform as you watch, a hallmark of Kazan’s approach since he decided to make PANIC IN THE STREETS “like Hitchcock.”
THUNDER FURY! whaaa?
There is a slight problem with the whole Mexico thing. This Fox production credits no Mexican actors at all, apart from special case Anthony Quinn, though there are plenty in small roles. Allowing for Hollywood fantasy (which one doesn’t have to allow for in Kazan’s very best films), actors like Joseph Wiseman and Arnold Moss make semi-credible substitutes, and Jean Peters doesn’t really try, which wins her points. Brando is the problem.
It’s an interesting makeup. Apart from darkening his skin and hair, the makeup team (including Ben Nye and gorilla specialist Charles Gemora — did somebody ask for a guerrilla fighter and get misunderstood?) have given him wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery oriental eyes, which combine with dark contact lenses to make Brando/Zapata seem boss-eyed. And they’ve given him a mustache many, many times smaller and punier than the famous original. Brando’s ‘tache would only look like a Zapata if glued to Herve Villechaise for some kind of ill-advised TERROR OF TINY TOWN scaled-down remake. That’s a strange choice. We don’t require our leading man to look exactly like the historical figure he’s impersonating — but Zapata’s mustache was very famous indeed, and he gave his name to it. Which must have been confusing. “Are you talking to me or my mustache?
Suspense-building cutaways — Kazan probably wished he had a half-dozen more of these for the climax, but he gets by with two, thanks to Barbara McLean’s taut cutting and Joseph Walker’s marvelous photography.
The ending is a stunner — well, not so much scenarist John Steinbeck’s inspirational coda, which I found noble but corny — but the action climax is proper proto-Peckinpah, no slomo required. Brando, like Peckinpah, is an artist of violence, particularly inspired by moments of pain and death, and he approaches the assassination with a lot of interesting ideas. Look out for a major Brando project from me shortly…