Friday, January 15, 2010

Max Mex Movies Post VI: Juarez

In looking at films about the period of the second empire in Mexico one stands out from the rest and that is, of course, the 1939 classic “Juarez” starring Paul Muni in the title role, Brian Aherne as Emperor Maximilian, Bette Davis as Empress Carlota and featuring Claude Rains at his villainous best as Emperor Napoleon III, John Garfield as Porfirio Diaz, Donald Crisp as Marshal Bazaine and Gale Sondergaard as Empress Eugenie. Although by no means perfect this is probably the best film of the period yet made. One of the biggest flaws is the format itself; a bio-pic of the republican leader Benito Juarez. It was shot as essentially two movies and then cut together into a single piece but the film is easily dominated by the story of the ill-fated Maximilian and Carlota who easily overshadow the part of Juarez.

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!)

8 comments:

  1. I wonder if the Republican bias actually is as inneffetve to a Non-Monarhcist though. Say I where a Republican, or Average American who thinks all Monarhcy was Tyranny; How woudl I see this film?

    Of coruse I havent, but that is th epoint in asking.

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  2. If you didn't know anything about the prior and subsequent history of Mexico and were just going by this movie you'd probably feel justified in your republicanism but I would bet you still would sympathize with Maximilian and Carlota, no matter how republican you are. For the "average" American I would imagine the constant hovering presence of the spirit of Lincoln would be enough to transfer deification onto Juarez and the republican cause. If you know Mexican history, it's a whole different story. Emperor Maximilian's warnings about the dangers of unfettered democracy basically played out *exactly* as he warned.

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  3. The Deified Lincoln would make Juarez look horrible to this American. I live in Tennessee, and many here still resent him. But that is just an aside.

    And of course it did. I was recently banned twice from Tea Party Nation, because I got into a discussion about Monarchy. I did ot intend to push Monarhcism but merley explained that Republicanism was never stable. We glorify Americas past but we tend to forget that tthe American people have never truly been United, as is proven by the Civil War, and even before that in such things as the Whiskey Revolution.

    America as it stands now isn't even the same sort of Republic the Founders invisioned, and the Tea Party group and other NeoCons don't really want what the Foundrs wanted either. They think they do, because they project ontot h past theirown values and never bothred to learn History, but the truth is they want somethign different.

    Of course, I was told Monarhcies are always tyrannies, and withotu goign nto American Hisotry I mentioend free Monarhcies, and of couse the Soviet Union, which they think was not Democratic. Howeve, the ideals and principles of the Soviet Union are the same as Americas. Equality of all men, Freedom, brotherhood, and the ablition of anythign that divides us. The fact that to create htis requires oppressiona nd tyranny doens't hinder the fact that the ideology itself is base dont he same principles.

    But Americans never udnerstand this. They simpluy ignore what doesnt fit ino their preasent ideolised version of history.

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  4. OH, and on that note, I know they id. I am no expert on MExican history but do know that Mexico now as a Republic is in a good condition for a new revolution, and seems never to be free of cporuption, division, and poverty.

    It is hard to beelive that once, the Mighty Mexico was the Supreme Economic Force in the Americas, with the Storngest Army.

    Kn fact, many Americans assume Mexico has always been poor!

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  5. The dirty little un-pc issue is that Mexico was never more prosperous and advanced than when it was New Spain. But the argument Maximilian makes in the movie is basically that democracy looks good on paper but in reality often turns into the rule of a mob who follows whatever demagogue promises them the most, whereas Juarez argues in the film that since people never vote themselves into bondage liberty flows from democracy like a stream.

    Mexican history proves Max's cinematic argument correct. At one point Mexico was averaging more than one president a year, one even had a tenure measured in minutes! It was one coup after another with some elections held to validate whatever ruling elite was then in power. Juarez himself was never democratically elected by the whole nation, broke the constitution he himself wrote on numerous occasions and a number of other dictators followed after him. For about 70 years after the 1920's Mexico was a Marxist one-party state under the PRI who won every "election" until international monitors prevented at least massive voter mainpulation and Vicente Fox of the PAN came to power (I would add that one of the founders of PAN was a distant relation of the ill-fated Emperor Iturbide).

    Mexico is a beautiful country with a wealth of natural resources and seemingly everything needed to be the great empire Maximilian envisioned but corruption, instability and the republicanism that has fostered it have kept it in perpetual poverty. They have made some advances lately but recovering from the recent 70 years of socialist rule is not easy and of course the partisanship that comes with republicanism means that many do not support the PAN and never will. They almost had a revolution in their last election and in the long-run they will be no better off if Mexico becomes a one party state under the PAN than they were under the PRI.

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  6. Which is my point. I have heard an old saying, "To be steeped in History is to Cease to be Protestant". I beleive it is form Newman, but cna't recall at the moment.

    Nevertheless, and being that I am not Cahtolic, I appriciate his comment, for in many ways he is right. Many modrn Evangelical Churches are ignorant evenof Protestantisms History, or that of their own Church, and don't realise that things they teach often do not reflect hat was once beleived.

    But the same is true of Politis. Republicans tend to see the Ideal, and not the reality. The Narrative we follow is simple, that Monarhcies ar epromitive an doutdated, and besides htat do not allow freedom, and only Republicanism lets us stand in Liberty.

    Thus in the midn of a moderner, the only form fo Govermen thtey even thik about is Republicanism and Monarhcy is just absurd!

    But they dont read the History, and dont see freedom flourishign under Monarhcy, nor the division Republicanism can, has, and inded must produce.

    Mexico will always be divided so long as MExico is a Rpeublic, just as America will be forever Divided, and France.

    This is the Naturte of he BEast, but too many are too blind to see it.

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  7. Both issues deal with having a higher authority. Catholics predicted the Protestants would collapse because they denied the authority of the Pope and so would be disunited and divide themselves out of existence. Of course, Protestants are still here, because though lack of a unifying figure has caused numerous more divisions, they still held to the authority of Holy Writ and as long as they adhered to that there was something to enforce. Those Protestant churches that today have little Christianity about them at all are those which have effectively rejected even Biblical authority.

    On the political side, monarchial authority is necessary to avoid a long-term devolution into a house of Babel. I would prefer almost any monarchy over none at all but I do hold that a monarch should have some reserved powers, real authority, otherwise, as I think the Bishop Bossuet put it, they will be powerless to do good or repress evil. The U.S. has done better than most republics because there has been a greater (though by no means perfect) loyalty to the authority of the Constitution. It was hard for Mexico to replicate that because they have had so many competing loyalties, so many constitutions, racial strife in the early years, class warfare and so on. Even when the republic was fighting for its life against Emperor Maximilian their unity was not perfect and even then forced. After his execution Maximilian had hardly hit the ground before a number of state governors and generals began fighting Juarez and each other for power just as they had before. With no impartial monarchial authority government became an all-or-nothing game.

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  8. Which is of corus emy poiunt. Republicanism mainly came into existance in order to allow people to claim powr, but as they "Represent the people" t allows them to be toppled eaisly.

    American Unity is contengent upon the COnstitution, and Declaration of Independance, and a Romantic Notion to a Set of Ideals, and in that way so was the Republic of France. But, America still managed to nearly collapse, and eventually fought a Civil War which utterly desotryed the State Soverignty pinciple, leadign to Dominaiton by the Federal Government.

    Today, Americas Unity is maintained by Military might agaisnt Rebellion, though sitting some 150 years after the Civil War does mean ost no longer feel this. It sis tellign though that Robert E Lee said to a Friend in a LEtter than Americans talk often of their Liberty, but it is as much a GOverment of force as any other.

    Mexico simply never had an overwhelmingly powerful Government r Leader who coudl impose order and then survive a Deificaiton proccess.

    But you are right, Monarhcy is about Authority, and it is the Rebel Spirit that Animates Repubicanism. They mistake Castign down Authority with Freedom, when usually it just breeds petty tyrannies.

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