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Emilio Fernandez, one of a kind

Maggie Van Ostrand

Just 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. 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. 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 in 1915-16.

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.)

The 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.

Such 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.

Escaping prison 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 Huertista rebels were granted an amnesty. General de la Huerta 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.

Fernández returned 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.

Arguably, 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. Petroleos 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.

The 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 Río, 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 Río. 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 Río introduced Fernández to her husband and suggested that he would make a good model for the statuette.

Gibbons agreed that Fernández would indeed be perfect. It was Emilio Fernández who posed nude for the statuette so zealously sought: the Oscar.

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 La Caza del Oro (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 superstar status.

Salma Hayek, who later also achieved the elusive status of superstar, is of mixed Mexican and Arab parentage, and is arguably the first Mexican since Lupe Vélez and Dolores del Río to cross over and still remain identifiably Mexican.

Until 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 Fernández.

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 María Candelaria with timeless beauty and Fernández friend, Dolores del Río, and el Bruto for director Luis Buñuel. 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.

The Golden Age of Mexican cinema stretches back to 1936, and peaked in the mid-1940s when two of Fernández'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 Fernández'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 the Hollywood product.

But 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 El Destino (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 La Buenaventura (1934), he made his return to Mexican pictures in 1934, starring in Corazón Bandolero (1934) and director Fernando de Fuentes' Cruz Diablo (1934).

Fernández' 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 Armendariz, whom El Indio would cast in many of his films. Another favorite collaborator was his wife, Columba Dominguez.

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 General du Cinema, praised the film for its "authentic" portrayal of rural Mexican life and for addressing race relations.

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.

María Candelaria stars Dolores del Río, 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 Río's character is shunned by the indigenous locals. Her great desire is to marry her lover, played by Pedro Armendariz, but their romance proves to be star-crossed.

The climax of María Candelaria was an homage to Carlos Navarro's classic " indigenista" movie Janitzio (1935).

Fernández' direction was flawless, and Figueroa'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 the 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 more than 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 muralists after Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros. Siqueiros himself called Figueroa's cinematography "murals that travel."

In their 25 films together between 1942 and 1958, El Indio and Figueroa created the idea of " mexicanidad" cinema while elevating the mestizo 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 México. 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, La Perla (1947) won El Indio a nomination for Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, further solidifying Fernández'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, Armendariz 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 director 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 Una Cita de Amor (1958), which starred El Indio's half-brother Jaime Fernández, the collaboration was essentially over in the mid-'50s, when they made La Rosa Blanca (1955) and La Tierra del Fuego se Apaga (1955). Their last great film together was La Rebelión de los Colgados (1954).

The '60s led to a revival of government support for the industry in the 1970s, which established 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 declined.

He began acting more, though he directed a picture every few years. Gradually, the notoriety of his life began overtaking his reputation as a filmmaker.

El Indio lived out the fantasy of perhaps every director when he shot a critic in the testicles 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, Fernández'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 Fernández, 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).

After playing Mexican General Mapache Juerta in director Sam Peckinpah's classic The Wild Bunch (1969), Fernández 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).

El Indio's last two films as a writer-director were México Norte (1979) and Erótica (1979), in which he also starred.

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 or demeaning.

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 Figueroa 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 so the remarkable story of Emilio Fernández continues.

Published or Updated on: April 6, 2006 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2006
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