- William Dieterle
- Reviewed by
- Gon Curiel a.k.a. Groucho
- Review date
- Thursday, May 26, 2005
Curious, isn’t it, that a film named after one character interests me on account of two others. The reason is simple: The project was originally born as an adaptation of the story of the Emperors of Mexico, not the Mexican liberator. Based on a play by Franz Werfel and a book by Bertita Harding, screenwriters John Huston, Æneas MacKenzie, and Wolfgang Reinhardt worked on the script. That’s when Paul Muni came into the project and changed the whole scope.
Now, getting into details here is gruesome, because most historians consider that Muni ruined the project, and I have to agree. Being one of the most influential actors in Hollywood back then, and having made two very successful biographical films, Muni’s casting as Benito Juárez was obviously irresistible and well-worth pointing the main spotlight of the film towards him. This reportedly infuriated John Huston, but that’s how it went.
Luckily enough, the highfalutin story thread did not completely manage to undermine the original intention, and what’s left of Maximilian and Carlota’s story is precious, so much so that it’s worth finding the film and watching it.
Just to make it clear: I’m not saying Juárez’s story is not interesting; on the contrary, it’s one of the most intriguing of this country. However, the way it’s handled here is all wrong. Let me get into detail.
The story begins at the moment Napoleon III (Claude Rains in a truly memorable performance) decides to establish a monarchy in Mexico in order to keep the territory controlled against the growing menace of the United States’ northern forces led by Abraham Lincoln during the civil war. Thus Maximilian von Habsburg (Brian Aherne) and his wife Carlota (Bette Davis) are made believe the Mexican people want them there, and off they go, little suspecting that the freedom-fighters in that foreign country are way more dangerous than it seems, and that the opposing forces from the northern country are sure willing to join the campaign against them.
It’s not that bad for them, however, except for their personal drama: They can’t have any children, and the prompt adoption of a Mexican noble boy is a direct hit to Carlota’s pride. It starts getting even worse when General Bazaine (Donald Crisp) finds it difficult to control the rebels, and when finally, due to international pressure (mostly proceeding from the United States), Napoleon III decides to retire the French Army from Mexico, leaving the Monarchs unprotected.
In the meantime, we get the story of Benito Juárez in doses filled with pretension. As opposed to the fully-fledged Emperors, whose pledge is clear on a personal level, Juárez comes directly from a history text book: Never a personal motivation, never a glimpse into his day-to-day life; just facts as they’re known, same as if you read them in your encyclopedia, or rather, all the more ludicrous here. What’s worse: Muni as Juárez looks like a wax statue; under such heavy makeup, he’s unrecognizable, and completely absent of apparent emotion. His ceremonious performance doesn’t help; he’s pretty dreadful, to be completely honest.
Maximilian and Carlota always come as a breath of fresh air throughout the film. Aherne leads the way and gives a charming, gallant performance, with Davis lending good support. However, towards the end, it is Bette who sticks to the mind, especially in the best scene of the movie, that in which she demands an explanation from Napoleon III. One can see why Davis accepted to be relegated to a supporting part; brilliant as always.
Another actor well-worth mentioning is John Garfield. Despite what seems to be an earnest attempt to capture the mannerisms of Mexicans back in the 1860s, his portrayal of General Porfirio Díaz is plain laughable. His modern-day Bronx-Mexican accent comes off like a bad joke, and his scenes lose all possible credibility. He’s clearly the worst performer in the film.
Other than that, nothing to complain about. The period is recreated sumptuously, as expected from a sumptuous Warner Brothers production of this category. Good attention is paid to political and social circumstance, even though the story plays with facts as expected. Orry-Kelly’s costumes are flawless, and they even include a symbolism related to Carlota’s mental health. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music score is probably not one of his best, but still very effective. Tony Gaudio’s cinematography, on the other hand, is highly innovative and undeniably flawless.
This film came so close to being a masterpiece that it ironically reminds of Mexico’s monarchs’ own flirting with greatness. They deserve a better movie though. But I’m still glad this one’s around.
“Answer me sire!”
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