Viva Zapata! Review

Brought to life by Marlon Brando in a performance that would have won the OSCAR for a lesser actor, Viva Zapata! is the story of Emiliano Zapata, the legendary Mexican revolutionary. Noted director Elia Kazan works off a powerful screenplay by John Steinbeck, which covers the rise of Zapata from a simple man to a general in the Mexican Revolution and iconic figure across his country. This is a classic political movie from major talents working within the Hollywood studio system of the early 1950s. It holds up as entertainment today just as strongly as when it was first released.

Emiliano Zapata is the central figure as Brando, fresh off his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, gives another nuanced and dashing turn as the Mexican folk hero. Zapata led the rebellion against the corrupt, oppressive dictatorship of president Porfirio Diaz in the Mexican Revolution. The movie lionizes the man’s accomplishments while humanizing Zapata in the process. Anthony Quinn shows up in his OSCAR-winning role of Zapata’s brother, as he fights alongside his brother every step of the way. The powerhouse cast features such luminaries as Jean Peters, Joseph Wiseman and Alan Reed.

Viva Zapata! breezes through a large period of history, trying to condense Zapata’s rise from a remote region to de facto president of Mexico, while also trying to include a romance between him and his eventual wife. You would think problems might arise because of it, but pacing and editing are ingenious in knowing exactly what to show and what to leave out in depicting important events. The narrative does tend to romanticize the man and his actions as revolutionary leader, so it works much better as Hollywood entertainment than instructional guide.

While not the main focus of the story, the smoldering chemistry between Brando and Jean Peters, playing his love interest and eventual wife, Josefa, is amazing to behold on the silver screen. Zapata’s courtship of the beautiful Josefa rounds out Brando’s portrayal of the one-time outlaw. It is a tender and revealing moment in the movie when Zapata reveals to his new bride he can’t read, asking for her help in the process. The script is finely crafted by Steinbeck, balanced with wry doses of humor and sharp dialogue. It does have a tendency to wander into speech-making mode at times, but the acting performances save the script from being another ponderous piece of politicized lines.

They do not make movies like this anymore in Hollywood, if they ever did. Marlon Brando delivers yet another iconic acting performance under the steady direction of Elia Kazan, in a film that has a lot to offer today’s audiences. You know a movie is great, when its worst failing is that it feels far too short and you wish it to continue. Viva Zapata! is one such movie, a true classic from Hollywood’s golden era.

Movie ★★★★★

Outstanding facial detail @ 51:26

Outstanding facial detail @ 51:26

Viva Zapata! barely missed out on the widescreen revolution, as it was made right before the time Hollywood decided to move beyond the Academy aspect ratio. The 113-minute film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37:1 at 1080P, in an excellent transfer that will please all but the pickiest of viewers. The main feature’s AVC-video encode averages a moderate 18.10 Mbps, though compression artifacts are not a problem.

The strong black-and-white cinematography of Joseph MacDonald holds up quite well on Blu-ray. A patina of grain is retained in this filmic transfer, with virtually no cues indicating edge enhancement or other serious digital manipulation. Film elements appear in remarkable shape, with few serious signs of debris or wear. A couple of shots may have brief glimpses of stress lines or gate scratches, but aside from some very minor telecine wobbling, Viva Zapata!’s film elements appear to have survived the years in excellent condition.

As a black-and-white movie, crisp black levels are critical to enjoyable video quality. Viva Zapata!’s black levels are strong throughout the movie, bolstered by velvety shadows rendered with precision. From brightly-lit exteriors set in the fields of Mexico, to the dark interiors of a village hut, a proper and steady contrast is marred only by white levels that occasionally run a bit hot. Close-ups demonstrate a solid amount of fine detail, though some longer shots lack the same amount of refined resolution.

Elia Kazan’s classic movie deserved a great film-like transfer for the Blu-ray age and Fox has delivered. The legitimate criticisms which could be lobbed against it are few, and Viva Zapata! has received a much stronger treatment than many other catalog efforts in recent years. Short of a massive restoration effort, this movie looks as good as it ever will in 1080P.

Video ★★★★★

Alex North’s OSCAR-nominated score sounds superb in its original mono mix, preserved in lossless fidelity on this disc in 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound. Clear dialogue and a surprisingly punchy mono mix for 1952 are the highlights here, as the sounds of the Mexican Revolution spark the soundtrack. It is certainly one of the better vintage mono mixes of the period preserved on Blu-ray, as sharp gunshots and powerful explosions fill the stereo speaker channels. No one will mistake it for the power of a modern surround experience, but Viva Zapata! has likely never sounded better since its debut. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound is missing that thin, reedy quality so common to vintage mono mixes. The audio restoration is nothing short of perfection.

Two dub options have been provided by Twentieth Century Fox. The Spanish mono audio is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital at 224 kbps, while the French mono audio is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital at 224 kbps. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered as possible choices, both in a white font.

Audio ★★★★☆

The primary weakness for this disc is the lack of substantial bonus features, especially for a film that was nominated for multiple OSCARS and starred Marlon Brando in his prime. The Spanish trailer is interesting in that it focuses more on the romance in the story, between Zapata and his wife.

Theatrical Trailer (03:18 in 4:3 480i) – The vintage theatrical trailer shows its age.

Spanish Trailer (02:48 in 4:3 480i) – Intended for the Spanish-speaking market of the period, it is cut differently than the normal theatrical trailer. Spanish subtitles accompany the English soundtrack.

Extras ★☆☆☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.