Viva Zapata! (1952): Kazan’s Oscar Nominated Biopic, Starring Brando and Anthony Quinn in his First Oscar Performance

The success of Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Pinky” proved that mature themes, such as anti-Semitism and racism were no longer taboo at the box office.  As a result, he was able to convince Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck that there are both political and commercial values in filming the story of the legendary Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata with Marlon Brando in the lead. 


For Zanuck, the story was a thrilling spiritual adventure, which could and should appeal to young boys as well as mature and educated viewers.  But ultimately, “Viva Zapata!” is a mediocre film, neither exciting in its action sequences nor entirely compelling in its characterizations.


For his screenplay, John Steinbeck used as guide Edgcomb Pinchon’s book “Zapata the Unconquerable.”  Kazan’s goal was to capture a bloody era of Mexican history, but in fact, his tale is marred by pretentious brooding and replete with moralistic statements about the corruptive influence of power. Even Brando’s interesting interpretation cannot justify the liberties taken with facts.


The real Emiliano Zapata was a short man with dark eyes, a tenant-farmer who rose against the tyrannical rule of Porfirio Diaz, as did Pancho Villa in the North, and led an army to victory over Diaz.  The civil wars from 1911 to 1919 were waged not to conquer Mexico but to free the lands for the peasants of Morelos and other provinces. Whereas the actual Zapata was a barbaric who executed his enemies en masse, Kazan presents a whitewashed version of the leader;


Zanuck was unable to convince the Mexican government of his sincerity in dealing with historical material.  The Mexicans have long objected to Hollywood depictions of their country and their people and the film was shot in Texas.  To give the film greater authenticity, Kazan studied photographs that were taken during the revolutionary years, when Zapata led his people to restore the land taken during the dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz.  Impressed with Casasola’s collection of photographs, he tried to duplicate their visual style. 


“Viva Zapata!” represented a departure in style from Kazan’s previous films, his first attempt at a large-scale action picture.  Kazan said he was inspired by Rossellini’s movies, specifically “Paisan.” 


Brando conducted research on Zapata and spent time with Mexicans in order to study their mannerisms.  Physically, he strangely looks like Indian, slanting his eyelids and thickening his nose.  He plays Zapata as a simple, quiet, unemotional man, who accepts his fateful calling as a leader, effectively projecting the hero’s dedication and anguish.


The saga begins with Zapata’s exposure to politics, when he leads a delegation of peons from his village of Ayala to the palace of President Diaz in Mexico City, where he makes known their protests over the stealing of their lands by the wealthy landowners.  Approaching them paternally, Diaz advises them to survey their boundaries before bringing legal action. 


Later, when Zapata and his brother Eufemio (Anthony Quinn) lead their villagers in a survey of their expropriated fields, a squad of mounted police attacks them, shooting men, women and children indiscriminately.  Zapata’s fight back labels an outlaw, and he and entourage retreat to a mountain hideout, where they are located by the newspaperman Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a political agitator who claims his typewriter is the sword of the people. 


Aguirre tells of Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon), exiled in Texas but intent on leading a revolution to oust Diaz, prompting Zapata to send his friend Pablo (Lou Gilbert) to interview Madero.


In Ayala, Zapata meets and courts to Josefa (Jean Peters), the daughter of a prominent citizen, who rebuffs him despite being attracted to him. She says he must improve his social position before she considers his proposal.  Bent on reform, Zapata goes to his influential friend Don Nacio (Arnold Moss) and asks for his aid in dismissing the charges against him.  


Pablo returns from Texas and reports that Madero is sincere and wants Zapata as a leader in his revolution.  However, intent on marrying Josefa, Zapata declines.  He changes his mind later when he witnesses the whipping of children in the stables as punishment for minor violations and the brutal killing of old farmer by the police.  When Senor Espejo (Florenz Ameo) refuses to consider him as a suitor to his daughter, Zapata is arrested by the police and led away with rope around his neck.  As the police walk him, they are joined by masses of ordinary citizens who march along.  Realizing the situation, the police stop and remove the rope from Zapata.  Once again, destiny has singled Zapata out as a leader.


Revolution overtakes Mexico, and police and soldiers are ambushed, armories are seized, ammunition trains are wrecked and looted.  After one particular battle, a young boy is cited for his bravery in attacking a machine gun and saving the lives of his fellows.  As a prize, the boy chooses what Zapata cherishes the most, his magnificent white horse, and Zapata abides by his promise. 


Senor Espejo offers Zapata the rank of general, making it impossible for him to reject him as son-in-law.  After marrying Josefa, Zapata confesses that he is illiterate, asking her to be his tutor as well as his wife.


When Diaz flees Mexico, Madero is declared president.  Zapata urges the new leader to give back to the peons the lost lands, but Madero is hesitant, trying to placate Zapata with an estate.  It soon becomes clear that Madero is used as a pawn by the venal advisors, including General Huerta (Frank Silvera).  The president is unable to halt the growing power of his military aides, who seize leadership of Mexico after they assassinate him. 


Again rising to lead his people, Zapata joins forces with Pancho Villa, the head of the revolution in the northern provinces.  Villa declares his lack of interest in office, instead suggesting that Zapata become the president.  Later, Zapata deserts his office and return home, despite Fernando’s warning, “If you leave today, your enemies will be here tomorrow.” 


In Ayala, Zapata reprimands his brother, now a drunken, swaggering bully who later dies in a fight over a woman.  As expected, Fernando switches his allegiance to the military, urging them to get rid of Zapata.  Colonel Guajardo (Frank De Kova) offers a deal to turn over his men and supplies, but Zapata suspects a trap.  At a semi-ruined hacienda in Chinemeca, the two men meet, and Guajardo offers Zapata a special gift, his old white horse.  While Zapata buries his face in the horse’s mane, the horse rears and snorts, and Zapata finds himself alone in the courtyard.  Soldiers with rifles appear at every wall and Zapata is riddled with bullets.  Fernando orders to capture the horse, but according to legend he was never captured, and later seen in the mountains a reminder that Zapata’s spirit was still alive.



“Viva Zapata!” has been criticized on political grounds as a platform for American liberal views.  The film presents an idealized concept of Zapata, whom historians claim was self-seeking and bloodier than depicted by Steinbeck and Kazan. 


For many critics, Brando’s Zapata is too much of a symbolic figure, a kind of Everyman of Mexican revolution, a titan arising from the masses at the command of fate.




Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando)

Josefa (Jean Peters)

Eufemio Zapata (Anthony Quinn)

Fernando (Joseph Wiseman)

Don Nacio (Arnold Moss)

Pancho Villa (Alan Reed)

Soldadera (Margo)

Madero (Harold Gordon)

Pablo (Lou Gilbert)

Senora Espejo (Mildred Dunnock)

Huerta (Frank Silvera)

Aunt (Nina Varela)

Senor Espejo (Florenz Ames)

Zapatista (Bernie Gozier)

Col. Guajardo (Frank De Kova)

General Fuentes (Joseph Granby)

Innocente (Pedro Regas)

Old General (Richard Garrick)

Diaz (Fay Roope)

Don Garcia (Harry Kingston)

Officer (Ross Bagdasarian)

Husband (Leonard George)

Lazaro (Will Kuluva)

Fuente’s Wife (Fernanda Eliscu)

Captain (Abner Biberman)

C.O. (Phil Van Zandt)

Garcia’s Wife (Lisa Fusaro)

Nacio’s Wife (Belle Mitchell)




20th Century-Fox Production.

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.

Directed by Elia Kazan.

Screenplay by John Steinbeck.

Photographed by Joe MacDonald.

Art direction by Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller.

Edited by Barbara McLean.

Musical score by Alex North.


Running time: 112 minutes.