Fernández, Ten of a Kindby
Maggie Van Ostrand
was Emilio Fernández who posed nude for the statuette so zealously sought: the
when you think you know everything about the golden age of movies, along comes
still more information to snap you back to reality. You may not have ever heard
of him yourself, but one of the most famous people in the history of Mexican cinema,
was Emilio Fernández Romo, fondly nicknamed "El Indio." |
It's not only
that Fernández was famous in the movie industry (more about that later), but his
entire life was so fascinating that you'd be sure to invite him to dine, just
to listen to his stories.
Fernández was born in 1904 in Coahuila, Mexico,
and grew up to be a strong supporter of Mexican cultural nationalism. He also
grew up to be quite tall for those days, nearly six feet.
He was alleged
to have had "violent machismo," rooted in the Revolution of 1910-17. This violent
streak would surface many years later.
Born of a Spanish father and an
Indian mother, the boy was a mestizo (mestizaje).
As a teenager, Fernández
quit school to serve as an officer in the Huertista rebellion, which broke out
December 4, 1923. Pancho Villa had been ambushed and killed the previous July,
and it was theorized that he was assassinated by agents of then Mexican President
Alvaro Obregón Salido. Obregón had defeated Villa in four successive battles,
collectively known as the Battle of Celaya, when he served as a general during
the Revolution. This Battle remained the largest military confrontation in Latin
American history, until the Falklands War in 1982.
According to Fernández'
biographers, and here we have a bit of a history lesson which ultimately involves
our subject, under the Constitution of 1917 that Obregón himself helped write,
Mexican presidents could not succeed themselves. (Obregón would later have the
constitution amended so he could serve a second, non-consecutive term; after winning
the presidential election of 1928, he was assassinated before his inauguration.)
Obregón had won the presidency in 1920 after inciting a successful military
revolt against President Venustiano Carranza, who had planned on naming Ignacio
Bonillas as his successor rather than Obregón. The revolt began when the governor
of the Mexican state of Sonora, General Adolfo de la Huerta, broke with President
Carranza and declared the secession of Sonora. This was a signal for the beginning
of the successful uprising against Carranza led by Obregón and supported by General
Plutarco Elías Calles. After Carranza was killed in an ambush, General Huerta
served as provisional president of Mexico from June 1 to December 1, 1920, until
elections could be held. When Obregón won the federal election, Huerta became
Minister of Finance in the new government.
General de la Huerta considered
himself the natural successor to President Obregón, just as Obregón had considered
himself Carranza's natural successor. The murdered Villa was seen as an ally of
de la Huerta, who had publicly announced his candidacy for the presidency. Obregón,
however, planned to remain in power by handpicking his successor, a tradition
that lasted throughout 20th century Mexican politics. When President Obregón named
his anti-clerical Minister of the Interior Plutarco Elías Calles as his heir,
General de la Huerta rose up in a rebellion that eventually affected half the
Mexican army. A native like de la Huerta of Sonora and a general in the Mexican
army, Calles had preceded him as governor and military ruler of their home state
De la Huerta assumed his service and loyalty to Obregón would
have brought him the presidency, but Mexican presidents, not allowed to succeed
themselves and limited (mostly) to one term, tried to extend their power by naming
political puppets as successors. (Calles would outdo Obregón by controlling the
Mexican presidency outright or through puppets from 1924 to 1934.)
rebellion was very serious, but President Obregón was able to quash it by using
loyal army units, battalions of workers and farmers, and United States intervention.
By the time the rebellion ended in March 1924, 54 generals and 7,000 soldiers
had been terminated from the country's armed forces via death on the battlefield,
execution, exile, or dismissal. Obregón banished de la Huerta to exile in the
United States, where he lived in Los Angeles, supporting himself as a music teacher.
was the cauldron of violence and nationalism in which the young Fernández came
into his manhood. He received a 20-year prison sentence for his participation
in the rebellion -- and because he was on the wrong side.
by following de la Heurta into exile in Los Angeles, Fernández learned the rudiments
of filmmaking as a bit player and extra working in Hollywood in the 1920s and
early `30s. With the election of Lázaro Cárdenas as president in 1934, the Heurista
rebels were granted an amnesty. General de la Heurta was recalled from exile by
Cárdenas in 1935 and served in several posts, including Inspector General of Foreign
Consulates and Director General of Civil Pensions.
to Mexico in 1934 and began working in the Mexican movie industry as a screenwriter
and actor. His Indian looks, which gave him his nickname "El Indio," also brought
him his first lead role, playing an Indian in Janitzio (1935). Due to his physicality
and Indian face, El Indio was cast as bandits, charros (cowboys), and revolutionaries.
The Cárdenas government of 1934 to 1940 established the framework in which
the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema could be realized. The political system that
dominated Mexico for over half a century was consolidated during his regime. The
government incorporated trade unions, campesino (peasant) organizations, and middle-class
professionals and office workers into the ruling Party of the Mexican Revolution
(later the Party of the Institutional Revolution). Cárdenas oversaw the redistribution
of millions of acres of land to peasants and the expansion of collective bargaining
rights and wage increases to workers.
Cárdenas and all subsequent PRM/PRI
presidents (all presidents of Mexico in the 20th Century beginning with Calles
were PRM/PRI members; Vincente Fox was the first from outside the party in over
three-quarters of a century).
More historical events leading up to Fernández'
coming importance to Mexico must be written here as the foundation in which he
prospered and in which his creative juices began to flourish.
Cárdenas' most notable achievement was the nationalization of Mexico's oil industry.
After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate better terms with Mexican Eagle, the
holding company owned by Royal Dutch/Shell and Standard Oil of New Jersey, Cárdenas
nationalized Mexico's petroleum reserves and expropriated the equipment of the
foreign oil companies in 1938. A spontaneous six-hour parade broke out in Mexico
City to celebrate the event.
Unlike Castro's nationalization of foreign
assets in Cuba, Shell and SONJ were compensated for their expropriated assets.
Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Mexican model became a beacon for other oil-producing
nations seeking to gain control over their own energy resources from foreign companies.
Lázaro Cárdenas was the only PRM/PRI president who did not make himself rich.
After retiring as Minister of Defense in 1945, the post he took after relinquishing
the presidency, he assumed a modest lifestyle. He spent the last years of his
life supervising irrigation projects and promoting education and free medical
care for the poor. This was the man who set the tone of the modern Mexico that
arose from the Revolution and Civil Wars of the 1920s, who cleared the ground
for the great economic boom of the 1940s in which the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema
reached its zenith.
classic Mexican cinema had mostly been ignored in the United States due to the
language barrier and a colonialist mindset. When the Mexican cinema was noticed
by those north of the border, the focus fell on the brilliant cinematography of
Gabriel Figueroa, who shot films for John Ford and John Huston, or on former Hollywood
star Dolores del Rio, about whom you have read
in an earlier edition of this publication.
One of the most interesting
and little-known incidents in the life of this fascinating man, Fernández, was
his platonic relationship with Dolores del Rio.
Her famous husband, the multi-Oscar-winning designer, Cedric Gibbons, had been
assigned by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the task of designing
a statuette to be awarded annually for excellence in film. Dolores del Rio introduced
Fernández to her husband and suggested that he would make a good model for the
Gibbons agreed that Fernández would indeed be perfect. It
was Emilio Fernández who posed nude for the statuette so zealously sought: the
We told you he was fascinating.
Mexico has often served as a locale for American films - tales of sweet young
things imperiled by Mexican bandits and of Americans in revolutionary Mexico,
to say nothing of Zorro and The Cisco Kid - have been part of the Yankee cinema
since the East Coast-based film companies began relocating to southern California
in the early 1910s. Gringo Warner Baxter won the second Oscar ever awarded for
Best Actor for his portrayal of The Cisco Kid. We wonder if he knew who the model
was for his award.
Mexico has been the site of such blockbuster films
as Viva Villa! (1934), Juarez (1939), Viva Zapata! (1952), Vera Cruz (1954), The
Professionals (1966), and The Wild Bunch, but except for Caza del Oro, La, (1972),
they seldom featured Mexican actors in anything other than bit parts. with the
exception of half-Mexican, half-Irish Anthony Quinn, one of the few to achieve
Salma Hayek, who later also achieved the elusive status
of superstar, is of mixed Mexican and Arab parentage, is arguably the first Mexican
since Lupe Valez and Dolores del Rio to cross
over and still remain identifiably Mexican.
the 1990s, Mexican movies themselves seldom strayed into Yankee consciousness,
except for the rare one like La Perla (The Pearl) (1947), based on a novella (only
96 pages) by John Steinbeck. The Pearl was directed by our friend, Emilio Fernandez.|
The film came into being when Steinbeck met Fernández while on vacation in
1941. The two hit it off, and Steinbeck entertained Fernández by telling him a
Mexican folk story he had heard from the locals, the story of a pearl.
Fernández was equally
impressed and told Steinbeck he should write the story as a book, and to also
think about it as a film. Steinbeck wrote The Pearl as a novella, with the movie
in mind. Fernández worked with Steinbeck to turn the story into the final movie.
When the two, with the assistance of Jack Wagner, were finished, they assembled
an incredible cast. The hero, Quino, was played by Pedro Armendariz. One of the
biggest stars in Mexico, Armendariz was brilliant in such Mexican films as Maria
Candelaria with timeless beauty and Fernández friend, Dolores
del Rio, and el Bruto for director Luis Bunuel. Green-eyed and oozing virility,
Armedariz was also a hit with American director John Ford, starring in such films
as Three Godfathers and Fort Apache. |
The film won the Mexican Academy
Award for Best Picture, Figueroa won the Golden Globe Award for best cinematography,
and Fernández was nominated for a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
Golden Age of Mexican cinema stretches back to 1936, and peaked in the mid-1940s
when two of Fernandez's films won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and
were nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, thereby receiving
international recognition at long last.
This international importance
terminated in the mid-`50s, with the end of Fernandez's 25-film collaboration
with cinematographer Figueroa.
Mexican movies typically were genre pictures,
melodramas, romances, musicals, comedies, and horror, which addressed all aspects
of Mexican society, from love stories about the proletariat to dramas about the
Indians. Mexican movies are a mirror of Mexican society, including history (19th
century dictator Porfirio Díaz and his court, The Revolution and Villa and Zapata),
obsessions (both familial and erotic), and mythology (Indian and urban culture).
With its proximity to Hollywood, and the fact that many stars of the Mexican cinema
were familiar with Hollywood production values, the indigenous movie industry
set a high standard for itself to measure up to Hollywood product.
Fernández was not only a revolutionary, a model, and a director, he was also an
actor. He made his motion picture debut as an actor in Chano Urueta's Destino,
El (1928), but his early work in movies was in American westerns churned out by
Monogram director Joseph P. McCarthy, including the Bob Steele programmers Oklahoma
Cyclone (1930), The Land of Missing Men (1930), Headin' North (1930) Sunrise Trail
(1931), and the Tim McCoy horse opera The Western Code (1932). After playing a
supporting player in Enrico Caruso, Jr.'s Buenaventura, La (1934), he made his
return to Mexican pictures in 1934, starring in Corazón Bandolero (1934) and director
Fernando de Fuentes Cruz Diablo (1934).
first film as a director was La Isla de la Pasion (1942), in 1941, which he also
wrote and played a bit part in. The movie starred Pedro Armendáriz, who El Indio
would cast in many of his films. Another favorite collaborator was his wife, Columba
El Indio rapidly gained a reputation as Mexico's premier
director making populist dramas. His film María Candelaria (1944) put Mexican
film on the map when it won Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. The
film has been variously praised as "the highest triumph of Mexican plastic arts
on celluloid" and as "a titanic promise for strictly patriotic [Mexican] cinema."
French film critic Georges Sadoul, in his 1954 book "Histoire Général du Cinema,"
praised the film for its "authentic" portrayal of rural Mexican life and for addressing
The film remains controversial in Mexico over El Indio's
aesthetic choices, which emphasized the exotic and primitive, and his representation
of Mexican Indians, which some critics believed was inauthentic or "touristy."
The nationalistic Fernández wanted to articulate an idea of what it
meant to be Mexican that was uniquely Mexican, and not influenced by Hollywood,
whose films he felt were Americanizing Mexican cinema audiences. Terming his films
"autos sacramentales (passion plays) of mexicanidad," Fernández wanted to create
a Mexican cinema that Mexicanized Mexicans.
Maria Candelaria stars Dolores
del Rio, who had returned to Mexico after becoming disillusioned with the
American movie industry, as the daughter of a prostitute trying to survive just
before the Revolution. Set in the floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City,
del Rio's character is shunned by the indigenous locals. Her great desire is to
marry her lover, played by Pedro Armendáriz, but their romance proves to be star-crossed.
The climax of "María Candelaria" was a homage to Carlos Navarro's classic
"indigenista" movie Janitzio (1935).
Fernández's direction was flawless,
and Figeuroa's black-and-white cinematography was masterful. The collaborators
created one of the classics of not just Mexican movies but of world cinema. When
El Indio and Figueroa were making María Candelaria, they were part of a movement
in which Mexican filmmakers were consciously attempting to create an indigenous
art cinema that could compete with Hollywood product while simultaneously articulating
a vision of Mexicans that was rooted in the "indigenismo" and "mestizophilia"
of Mexican intellectuals. Gabriel Figueroa was conscious of the fact that he and
Fernández, a creative team that became known as "Epoca de Oro," invented an idea
of rural Mexico that did not actually exist. Figueroa established himself as the
leader in imagining a new, post-revolutionary Mexican consciousness though the
vehicle of the visual image.
Known as a "painter in light," Figueroa
learned his craft from Gregg Toland and Edward Tisse, Eisenstein's cinematographer.
Figueroa is credited with creating the classic Mexican film aesthetic in collaboration
with El Indio and other film directors. In over 200 movies, he developed the classic
imagery and aesthetic of Mexican cinema, which also influenced and was influenced
by contemporary Mexican artists. Figueroa pioneered an indigenous visual vernacular
that affected the muralist movement, and he has been referred to as the fourth
of the most important Mexican muralist after Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros.
Siqueiros himself called Figueroa's cinematography "murals that travel."
their 25 films together between 1942 and 1958, El Indio and Figueroa created the
idea of "mexicanidad" cinema while elevating the mestizaje identity, as well as
the status of the pre-Columbian culture. The epic visual style they developed
was indebted to Eisenstein's unfinished "Que viva Mexico." Their style fetishized
the Mexican landscape through beautiful, carefully composed, stationary long shots.
For two decades, Mexican art cinema was identified with the films resulting from
the Fernández-Figueroa collaboration. Their films not only affected Mexican audiences'
collective identity, but they affected how their audiences, both domestic and
global, viewed Mexico and its history.
In 1946, Fernández filmed an adaptation
of John Steinbeck's novella "The Pearl," in Spanish- and English-language versions.
Shot by Figueroa and starring El Indio's favorite actor, Pedro Armendariz, Perla,
La (1947) won El Indio a nomination for Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival,
further solidifying Fernandez's notoriety as a director and publicizing the Mexican
movie industry. The film also won him the Golden Ariel (the Mexican equivalent
of the Oscars) for Best Picture of 1948, and Fernández, Figueroa, Armendáriz and
Juan García won Silver Ariels for Best Direction, Cinematography, Actor and Supporting
Actor, respectively. Figueroa won a Golden Globe for Best Cinematography in 1949
from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
In 1948, his film Salón
México (1949) was released, written and directed by Fernández, with cinematography
by Figueroa. An urban melodrama, the film was ground-breaking in that it helped
usher in a new genre, the "cabaretera" (cabaret) film, racier and just as commercial
as the familiar genre of rancheras, which was then fading in popularity. The movie
recreates the atmosphere of the famous Mexico City dance hall and won Marga López
an Ariel Award, for her role as the taxi dancer Mercedes. The movie featured a
sensual soundtrack performed by the Afro-Cuban music group El Son Clave de Oro
By the end of the 1940s, Emilio Fernández was the most famous and prestigious
director in all of Latin America. He would continue his reign as Mexico's premier
director into the mid-`50s, when his powers began to decline and Spanish émigré
Luis Buñuel took over the title. As the most famous directors and biggest stars
aged or died, Mexican cinema began to decline commercially, and the Golden Age
of Mexican cinema came to an end.
Although the Fernández and Figueroa
last worked together in Cita de amour, Una (1958)_, which starred El Indio's half-brother
Jaime Fernández, the collaboration was essentially over in the mid-`50s, when
they made Rosa blanca, La (1955) and Tierra del fuego se apaga, La (1955). Their
last great film together was Rebelión de los colgados, La (1954).
`60s led to a revival of government support for the industry in the 1970s, which
establish the base for a revival of Mexican art cinema in the 1980s and `90s.
El Indio continued directing films until 1979, but when his collaboration with
Figueroa ended in 1958, his reputation suffered as the artistry of his pictures
He began acting more, though he directed a picture every few
years. Gradually, the notoriety of his life began overtaking his reputation as
El Indio lived out the fantasy of perhaps every director
when he shot a critic because the critic had dissed one of his movies. He shot
and killed a farm laborer, an act which he claimed was in self-defense. Convicted
of manslaughter in 1976, he served six months of a four-and-a-half year sentence.
By the 1960s, Fernandez's off-screen reputation as a violent man had
led to his typecasting as brutal villains in many Mexican and American films.
As an actor, Fernández appeared with his brother, actor Fernando Fernandez, in
John Ford's The Fugitive (1947), on which he also served as associate producer.
Other American films in which he appeared were John Huston's The Unforgiven
(1960) (on which he also served as second unit director) and The Night of the
Iguana (1964), in which he played the barkeep, the John Wayne pictures The War
Wagon (1967) and Chisum (1970) (on which he also served as second unit director),
Sidney J. Furie's "The Appaloosa" in which he had a supporting role to star Marlon
Brando, and Burt Kennedy's Return of the Seven (1966).
playing Mexican General Mapache Juerta in director Sam Peckinpah's classic The
Wild Bunch (1969), Fernandez appeared in two other Peckinpah films: as Paco in
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and as El Jeffe, who gives the order Bring
Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He was reunited with John Huston in Under
the Volcano (1984) and appeared in Roman Polanski's Pirates (1986).|
Indio's last two films as a writer-director were México Norte (1979) and Erótica
(1979), in which he also starred.
The Wild Bunch
|In all, Fernández
directed 43 pictures from 1942 to 1979. He was the credited screenwriter on 40
pictures, starting with Cielito lindo (1936). He also served as second unit director,
both credited and uncredited, on such American pictures shot in Mexico as The
Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he was attached to the American crew by the
Mexican film industry to ensure that the depictions of Mexicans were not racist
Fernández died in Mexico City on August 6, 1986.
In 2002, "La Perla" was named to the National Film Preservation Board's National
Film Registry, U.S. Library of Congress.
Emilio Fernández and his collaborator
Gabriel Figuerora were honored on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of El
Indio's birth at the inaugural Puerto Vallarta Film Festival of the Americas held
in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in November 2004.
And the remarkable story
of Emilio Fernández continues.
Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
March 23, 2006 column
Related Topics: People
| Texas | Mexico
| Books | Columns