Despite the fact that Viva Zapata (1952) hardly represents the best work of either writer John Steinbeck, director Elia Kazan or actor Marlon Brando doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthy endeavor. If it isn’t quite an essential of 1950s American film, neither is it too far removed from it. As a biography of Emiliano Zappata, it’s both sketchy and at times of dubious veracity (well, what biopic isn’t?). The point of the film is clearly more focused on the political views of Kazan and Steinbeck — and presumably Brando. That’s fine, but it would be better if Steinbeck had managed to provide dialogue that wasn’t quite so full of symbolism and Importance (very much with a capital “I”) — often to the point of being unintentionally amusing. However, Kazan’s approach to the material in a visual sense is equally symbolic (the influence of Sergei Eisenstein is everywhere apparent), and rather than compounding the problem, it actually helps to make the film feel very much of a piece. The same cannot be said of Brando’s performance, which is interesting without ever being quite convincing. Playing Zapata in his (then) stock mumbling “method” style is more distancing than effective — something that comes across even more when he plays against Anthony Quinn’s relaxed naturalism.
But for all its shortcomings, Zapata not only remains a vital work, but one that has a curious resonance today in light of Kazan’s subsequent decision to “name names” for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The vision of Zapata as a revolutionary who is ultimately disillusioned with the revolution he’s fighting for — as well as the people with whom he must fight it — now seems like a set-up for Kazan’s self-justification for his own actions. Was this conscious? That’s impossible to say, but it makes for an intriguing late-in-the-day line of thought about the film’s actual meaning and intent.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke