The Zapata Screenplay contains Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck’s (Academy Award-nominated) screenplay for “Viva Zapata!” that in 1952 became a film directed by Elia Kazan with Marlon Brando as Zapata (109 pages), a very discursive (lecturing even) pre-screenplay treatment, “Narrative in Dramatic Form of the Life of Emiliano Zapata” (183 pages), informative and insightful introductions to both documents by Steinbeck Quarterly editor Robert Morsberger (34 pages), film credits, a filmography of adaptations to film of Steinbeck work (22 pages) and a pithy essay by Morsberger on Steinbeck on film (6 pages). I found what Morsberger wrote more interesting than the Steinbeck materials, which is not to say that what Steinbeck wrote about Zapata and his dramatization of Zapata’s career as an agrarian rebel is uninteresting.
Morsberger deploys Albert Camus’s distinction between those who rebel at injustice and “revolutionaries” who use dissatisfactions to bring about their own rule of social engineering in the name of the people and recurrent waves of terror. Camus’s and Steinbeck’s rebel “stands for freedom and is willing to die for it but reluctant to kill for it…. The revolutionary, by contrast, speaks of liberty but establishes terror; in the name of equality and fraternity, he sets up the guillotine or the firing squad. For the sake of an abstract mankind, he finds it expedient to purge the unorthodox individual.” For the anticommunist critic of oligarchy and oppression Steinbeck and for the former communist HUAC “friendly witness” Kazan, the doctrinaire communist was the anti-Christ. Although the Mexican Revolution preceded the Bolshevik seizure of power from the first 1918 Russian Revolution, the character of Fernando (played by Joseph Wiseman) is sinisterly inhuman and bloodthirsty a revolutionary, competing for the soul of the revolution (and direction of the commander of the revolutionary Army of the South, General Emiliano Zapata) with the humane (read liberal anticommunist) Pablo (played by Lou Gilbert). They parallel Mac and Jim in Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle in particular but also the union boss and priest (Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden) in Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” made two years after “Viva Zapata!”
Both the real Zapata (1879-1919) and the one in Steinbeck and Kazan’s movie are charismatic leaders, not ideologues. Although the vigorously anticommunist Steinbeck was recurrently accused (especially by California agribusiness) of communist leanings, it is clear that what he venerated (consider the dream of George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men, and also of the Okies who fled to California in The Grapes of Wrath) was the small-scale, independent farmer, which is to say the Jeffersonian ideal, which was an echo of the civic virtue of Republican Romans, embodied by Cincinattius taking up arms and returning to his farm as soon as he could (or George Washington refusing to be king). The political theory of “Viva Zapata!” is explicitly stated by Zapata: A strong leader makes a weak people. strong people don’t need a strong leader” (echoing The Moon Is Down). Or as Zapata’s (later: 1969) biographer, John Womack, put it, Zapata “did not want power. He wanted an end to harassment from outside, and local peace” (with land seized by hacienda owners returned to the peasants.”
The drama of the clash between the humane Pablo and the inhumane Fernando was close to the hearts of Steinbeck and Kazan, but was one of the ways of making the film dramatic (another was the contrast between the single-minded Emiliano and his undisciplined and self-aggrandizing older brother Eufemio (played by Anthony Quinn). In the pre-screenplay treatment Steinbeck addressed the problem for someone trying to write a drama rather than a hagiography: “Character on stage is usually a balance of weaknesses and strengths but this man [Emiliano Zapata] had practically no weaknesses. Therefore, he has practically no character dramatically. For drama is a resolution within one’s self during the play. The resolution in Zapata seems to have been born in him. That is the way it really was, and if I make it anything else, I will be lying about him. Even the people who hated him agree that he was devoted, incorruptible, and fearless always. There was no internal struggle in the man…. Compared to him, Eufemio, with his weaknesses, his violence, his drunkenness and lechery, becomes rather dear.”
In the screen treatment, Emiliano dealing with Eufemio’s excesses is far more central than in the screenplay (though Anthony Quinn managed to make the character vivid enough in the reduced number of scenes allotted him to garner an Oscar in the role). Eufemio is the head of the family and the deference due him complicates his being subordinate to his younger general within the revolutionary army.
Kazan cut the scenes of the enlightened—or pragmatic—hacienda owner trying to convince his peers to moderate their usurpation of land rather than risk losing everything, and a scene of Zapata’s grubby father-in-law complaining to his daughter that Zapata was not paying attention to enriching himself (like a good cacique, this also puzzled Madero when Zapata refused a ranch for his service to the revolution.
Kazan also extended the entirely fictitious dramatization of wanting to learn to read. Contrary to historical fact, Steinbeck turned Zapata into an illiterate and made this a major component of Zapata’s unease in dealing with politicians in the capital (both the old dictator Diaz and the reformist Madero, the Kerensky of the Mexican Revolution). Kazan turned Zapata into a monogamous husband (Steinbeck having already made Josefa more important than she seems to have been to Zapata). Steinbeck is responsible for making starting to learn to read the climax of the wedding night, and Kazan piled more onto this, but Steinbeck included other amours.
In addition to a capsule history of Mexico at the start of the treatment, Steinbeck began with scenes of childhood of Emiliano and Eufemio and early consciousness of their father’s land being taken away. Having just seen the 1934 movie “Viva Villa!” I wonder if that had some part in Steinbeck’s schema. Even more than “Viva Villa!”, “Viva Zapata!” ignores the later parts of the Mexican Revolution. Both show the defeat of the Diaz ancien regime, Madero’s vacillations about acting against his class and the general (Huerta) who will seize power and have Madero assassinated. Both films show taking up arms again, this time against Huerta. (Neither film shows the US ambassador’s supporting Huerta’s coup and the murder while in custody of Madero.)
“Viva Zapata!” misrepresents the attempt to disarm Zapata’s followers and kill those close to him as entirely Huerta’s doings, whitewashing Madero’s role (early) and the role of the final victors (who became the ruling Institutionalized Party of the Revolution for the next 90 years) who had Zapata eliminated (though the successful plot is shown accurately, involving a disgraced colonel pretending to defect, proving himself, and then luring Zapata to his death).
To learn about Zapata and his role in the Mexican revolution, one should read John Womack’s biography (first published in 1969). Morsberger shows how the characters Steinbeck imagined (based on considerable familiarity with Mexico and interviewing a number of those who had known Zapata in 1948-50) fits in Steinbeck’s oeuvre and how the screen treatment and screenplay dramatizes some recurrent Steinbeck themes such as the nature of leadership (specifically leadership of oppressed farmers who have lost their land), the willingness of those like Fernando to sacrifice the lives of others to advance their agendas (though Fernando was right that toppling Diaz was not enough to recover the peasants’ land), the ultimately self-defeating greed of agricultural capitalists, the corruption that can tempt reformers once they gain a modicum of power, the brutality of people carried away by mass violence, and the mythologizing of slain idealists. Despite an overlay of conventional romance, considerable telescoping/simplification of history and some mythologizing (especially the white horse escaping at the end), “Viva Zapata!” is a dramatization of political ideas, and the commentary of Robert Morsberger brings these out as well as providing considerable information on the genesis of the film project.
(Steinbeck in 1962, public domain photo from the Nobel Foundation)
This was part of a writeoff on epinions that I hosted for Steinbeck’s centenary.
©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray