Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata! is a 1952 biographical film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando. The screenplay was written by John Steinbeck, using Edgcomb Pinchon's book Zapata the Unconquerable as a guide. The cast includes Jean Peters and, in an Academy Award-winning performance, Anthony Quinn.

Viva Zapata!
Theatrical release poster
Directed byElia Kazan
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Written byJohn Steinbeck
StarringMarlon Brando
Jean Peters
Anthony Quinn
Music byAlex North
CinematographyJoseph MacDonald
Edited byBarbara McLean
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • February 7, 1952 (1952-02-07) (United States)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.8 million[1]
Box office$1,900,000 (US rentals)[2]

The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata from his peasant upbringing, through his rise to power in the early 1900s, to his death.

To make the film as authentic as possible, Kazan and producer Darryl F. Zanuck studied the numerous photographs that were taken during the revolutionary years, the period between 1909 and 1919 when Zapata led the fight to restore land taken from common people during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.

Kazan was especially impressed with the Agustín Casasola collection of photographs and he attempted to duplicate their visual style in the film. Kazan also acknowledged the influence of Roberto Rossellini's Paisan.[3]


Emiliano Zapata (Brando) is part of a delegation sent to complain about injustices to corrupt longtime President Porfirio Díaz (Fay Roope), but Díaz dismisses their concerns, driving Zapata to open rebellion, along with his brother Eufemio (Quinn). He in the south and Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) in the north unite under the leadership of naive reformer Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon).

Díaz is finally toppled and Madero takes his place, but Zapata is dismayed to find that nothing is changing. Madero offers Zapata land of his own while failing to take action to distribute land to the campesinos who fought to end the dictatorship and break up the estates of the elites. Zapata rejects the offer and seeks no personal gain. Meanwhile, the ineffectual but well-meaning Madero puts his trust in treacherous General Victoriano Huerta (Frank Silvera). Huerta first takes Madero captive and then has him murdered.

Steinbeck meditates in the film on the tempting military force and political might, which corrupts men. As it becomes clear that each new regime is no less corrupt and self-serving than the one it replaced, Zapata remains guided by his desire to return the peasants their recently robbed lands, while forsaking his personal interests. His own brother sets himself up as a petty dictator, taking what he wants without regard for the law, but Zapata remains a rebel leader of high integrity. Although he is able to defeat Huerta after Madero's assassination, as a result of his integrity, Zapata loses his brother, and his position.

Although in the end Zapata himself is lured into an ambush and killed, the film suggests that the resistance of the campesinos does not end. Rumors begin that Zapata never died, but is instead continuing to fight from the hills, feeding the campesinos a sense of hope. As several scenes suggest, over the years, the campesinos have learned to lead themselves rather than look to others to lead them.



Filming and casting

Filming took place in various locations, including Durango, Colorado; Roma, Texas, San Ignacio, Texas located in Zapata County; and New Mexico.

The film tends to romanticize Zapata and in doing so may distort the true nature of the Mexican Revolution. Zapata fought to free the land for the peasants of Morelos and the other southern Mexican states. Additionally, the movie inaccurately portrays Zapata as illiterate. In reality, he grew up in a family with some land and money and received an education. John Steinbeck wrote a book titled Zapata.[4] The original screenplay was written by the author and the book contains a newly found introduction by Steinbeck, the original proposed screenplay, and the official movie script.

Barbara Leaming writes in her biography of Marilyn Monroe that the actress tried and failed to obtain a part in this picture, presumably due to Darryl F. Zanuck's lack of faith in her ability, both as an actress and as a box office draw.  


Viva Zapata! received generally favorable reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 67% critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.3/10. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave a highly favorable review and noted that the film "throbs with a rare vitality, and a masterful picture of a nation in revolutionary torment has been got by Director Elia Kazan."[5] Variety, on the other hand, criticized the direction and script: "Elia Kazan's direction strives for a personal intimacy but neither he nor the John Steinbeck scripting achieves in enough measure." The late Senator John McCain listed Viva Zapata! as his favorite film of all time.[6]


Academy Awards

Anthony Quinn won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[7]

The film was also nominated for:

BAFTA Awards

Marlon Brando won the 1953 BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Film from any Source.

Cannes Film Festival

At the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, Brando won for Best Actor, while Elia Kazan was nominated for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film.[8]

Directors Guild of America

Elia Kazan was nominated for a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures in 1953.

Golden Globe Award

Mildred Dunnock was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1953.


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


  1. Solomon, Aubrey (January 1, 1988). Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 247. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  2. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  3. Thomas, Tony (November 6, 1975). The Films of Marlon Brando (second ed.). Citidel Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0806504810.
  5. Crowther, Bosley (February 8, 1952). "THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; Marlon Brando Plays Mexican Rebel Leader in 'Viva Zapata!' New Feature at the Rivoli". The New York Times.
  6. McCain, John. "FAQ - United States Senator John McCain".
  7. Steinbeck, John (January 16, 1975). Viva Zapata! The Original Screenplay. Penguin. ISBN 978-0670005796. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  8. "Festival de Cannes: Viva Zapata!". Retrieved 2009-01-18.
  9. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
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