A rousing and spirited motion picture that inspires with its themes of revolution and a call for social justice, 'Viva Zapata!' is a fictionalized, and highly romanticized, account of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. In case the title doesn't already make this fact clear. Although largely intended as a biographical picture during a tumultuous decade in Mexico's history, the film is also a modern western set in the early 20th Century, told on a grand, epic scale capturing the idealistic heart of a people's fight against government corruption and agrarian rights. The gorgeous cinematography of Joseph MacDonald ('My Darling Clementine,' 'Bigger than Life') is an impressive balance of sweeping desert portraits and expressively lavish displays of light and noir-like shadows.
Pulitzer-prize winning American author John Steinbeck ('The Grapes of Wrath,' ' East of Eden') wrote the original screenplay, which comes as both a surprise and an inspired endeavor. It suggests something universal in Zapata's cause and crusade for the poor working class, one that reaches beyond perceived cultural divides. The opening scene with a small band of Indian farmers bringing a case of injustices before corrupt President Porfirio Díaz sets the stage, and the war that soon follows is warranted, turned into an aim of ending the politician's reign. Although somewhat impaired by historical inaccuracies throughout, the story is redeemed by its goal of chipping away at the legend of this revolutionist, who is still revered as a martyr to this day, and humanizing him as the idealist fighter that he was.
Celebrated method-actor Marlon Brando has the honor of portraying the historical figure, and does so with a fiery charisma that electrifies the screen. Brando's Zapata is an explosive, passionate individual that turns from quiet, meek peasant farmer to furious, ardent warrior the instant he feels an injustice brewing in the minds of those with power. He is a rebel both feared and admired for his wholeheartedly belief in a cause bigger than himself. And in Brando's hands, he is also just a man, torn between his love for country and his desire to live peacefully, outside of war and politics, with the woman he loves, Josefa (the wonderful Jean Peters). At only 29 years of age, Brando was delivering a string of memorable performances — he followed this portrayal with 'The Wild One' and 'Julius Caesar' — and his role in 'Viva Zapata!' is just as impressive and unforgettable as anything else he did at the time or since.
This is not to dismiss or overlook the amazing talent displayed by the rest of the cast, particularly that of Anthony Quinn. As the only Mexican-born actor with a leading role, and whose father reportedly fought in the revolution alongside Pancho Villa, Quinn's performance as Eufemio, the older brother of the revolutionary leader, is another emotional weight. Living in the shadows of his younger sibling, Quinn carries the same passion for his countrymen but being often ignored, takes a toll on him and his relationship with Emiliano. Joseph "Dr. No" Wiseman also makes an appearance as Fernando Aguirre, another rebel idealist, and Harold Gordon gives a great performance as well-meaning but naïve reformer Francisco Madero. Best surprise is seeing Alan Reed, the indelible voice behind Fred Flintstone, appearing briefly as Pancho Villa.
'Viva Zapata!' is directed by Elia Kazan though sadly rarely mentioned, let alone altogether remembered by most, as part of his remarkable run as one of the most significant filmmakers of the 1950s. That honor justifiably belongs to eloquent classics 'On the Waterfront,' 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' and to a lesser extent 'Gentleman's Agreement.' But the camerawork displayed here is as equally noteworthy and striking as those films, tightly focused on the script's core about one man struggling against greater odds and shares similar themes of social issues. It deserves to be better recognized in Kazan's oeuvre as a polished and masterful portrait, however romanticized, of a man desiring justice confronted by unabashed corruption. In humanizing a legendary figure of history, 'Viva Zapata!' subtly celebrates the ideals of the revolutionary hero in an engaging and inspiring manner while concluding with a tense but moving finish.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Viva Zapata!' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc, housed inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, viewers are taken straight to a menu screen with static photo and music playing in the background.
'Zapata!' rides unto Blu-ray with style and grace, showing plenty of excellent definition and resolution in almost every scene. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode reveals the smallest stitch and wrinkle in the costumes of both peasant soldiers and the better-dressed military uniforms. Every pebble on dirt roads, every blade of grass and the tiniest fissure on large boulders are plain distinct throughout. Facial complexions appear natural with lifelike textures that expose pores and negligible blemishes, especially during close-ups.
Presented in its original Academy ratio, contrast is well-balanced and comfortably bright, allowing for some memorable and magnificent panoramic shots of the mountains and open fields. Black levels waver a tad, but are, for the most part, strong with outstanding gradational details, creating some amazing scenes in which cinematographer Joseph MacDonald makes wonderful use of the shadows. All in all, the high-def transfer is excellent.
The Elia Kazan classic also arrives with an equally excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, giving the film a great deal of presence. Presented in its original monaural design, the center channel delivers a soundstage that feels broad and highly engaging, particularly when the inspiring musical score of Alex North kicks in. The mid-range is detailed and precise, exhibiting terrific clarity and definition, even during the loudest moments of battle. Bullets and explosions fill the screen while the sounds of trumpets and violins swell with stirring exhilaration. The design doesn't allow for much in terms of low bass, but there's enough weight and thump to appreciate in the action, especially in North's music. Amid all this, dialogue is crystal clear and intelligible, making this a wonderful lossless mix for a little-recognized war biopic.
A rousing and inspiring motion picture from director Elia Kazan, 'Viva Zapata!' is the fictionalized and highly romanticized portrait of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. From a script written by famed American novelist John Steinbeck, the film features an extraordinary performance by Marlon Brando, who breathes life and humanity into a cherished historical figure that has grown to the status of legendary martyr. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation, but the bonus section leaves much to be desired. Still, the overall package for this biographical classic is worth the price and recommended.