One of the interesting things about this movie is just how comparatively fair it is toward the Mexican Imperial couple. The only real villains are the French and that starts in the opening scene in which Napoleon III hatches a plan to thwart the spread of American democracy by establishing an empire in Mexico; an idea suggested by Empress Eugenie. The French engineer a fraudulent referendum to trick Maximilian into coming to Mexico to become Emperor and all the while Juarez opposes them all while making grandiose speeches about the superiority of democratic republicanism. It would have been a much better movie had they focused entirely on Maximilian and Carlota and, indeed, Paul Muni became alarmed at how much screen time Davis and Aherne had compared to himself and insisted on inserting more scenes of his own.
The problem there is that the scenes with Paul Muni are plodding, preachy and downright boring. Muni plays a convincing Juarez certainly, but his dignified stoicism makes him appear wooden and no sooner than he appears on screen one instantly becomes drowsy. Also, obviously playing to American audiences, the film goes over the top in associating Juarez with the deified American president Lincoln. In fact Juarez is rarely seen on screen without a conspicuous portrait of Lincoln in the background to remind everyone that ‘Juarez is the good guy’ just in case the viewers are being too much won over by the romantic idealists Maximilian and Carlota. He also gives a number of speeches about the benefits of republicanism which will only sway those audience members who know nothing about the history of Mexico. One of these speeches is given to Porfirio Diaz who was almost won over by the sincerity of Maximilian only to have Juarez ‘set him straight’ about the superiority of democracy. This is ironic for those who know Mexican history considering that Diaz himself rose to power by means of his association with Juarez only to become a dictator himself later in life.
Bette Davis as Empress Carlota is at her best in this movie, effectively portraying the ambitious, well meaning, sincerely devoted wife and consort who is finally driven over the edge into insanity by French betrayal. Bette Davis plays the part as only she can and her final scenes confronting Napoleon III must rank among the greatest work of her career. It is, however, Brian Aherne as Maximilian who steals the show, playing the part to perfection as a noble, high-minded idealist, somewhat innocent but totally fair and sincere. The defense he gives for monarchy is flawless, especially in light of the larger history of Mexico. Neither Maximilian or Carlota are vilified in this movie, which is refreshing, though liberties are taken with the truth to improve the image of Juarez. The withdrawl of support by the conservative party (unfairly portrayed as rather too villainous in my view) and the reluctance of Maximilian to take stern measures against the republicans are simplified but in general accurate.
The movie is not filmed on a grand scale, but done with enough talent that it does not really show. The republican bias is there, but is delivered in so ham-fisted a fashion it is easily dismissed by informed viewers and this, combined with the sympathetic portrayal of Max and Carla, comparitively accurate (such as showing the loyalty of men like generals Miramon and Mejia) views of the characters involved make it a film that monarchists can and will enjoy. The truth of Mexican history rather puts the lie to the arguments of Juarez, whereas the arguments of Maximilian in favor of monarchy still stand the test of time. A film highly recommended.
(now, breath a sigh of relief, the Max of Mexico movie review series is done!)