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Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution

Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution
Cinema and the Archive

A vivid recasting of the revolutionary visual images that shaped modern Mexican identity.

January 2010
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265 pages | 6 x 9 | 65 b&w photos |

With a cast ranging from Pancho Villa to Dolores del Río and Tina Modotti, Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution demonstrates the crucial role played by Mexican and foreign visual artists in revolutionizing Mexico's twentieth-century national iconography. Investigating the convergence of cinema, photography, painting, and other graphic arts in this process, Zuzana Pick illuminates how the Mexican Revolution's timeline (1910–1917) corresponds with the emergence of media culture and modernity.

Drawing on twelve foundational films from Que Viva Mexico! (1931–1932) to And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003), Pick proposes that cinematic images reflect the image repertoire produced during the revolution, often playing on existing nationalist themes or on folkloric motifs designed for export. Ultimately illustrating the ways in which modernism reinvented existing signifiers of national identity, Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution unites historicity, aesthetics, and narrative to enrich our understanding of Mexicanidad.


Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Visualizing and Romancing the Revolution
  • Chapter 1. The Revolution as Media Event: Documentary Image and the Archive
  • Chapter 2. Historicity and the Archive: Reconstruction and Appropriation
  • Chapter 3. Pancho Villa on Two Sides of the Border
  • Chapter 4. Avant-Garde Gestures and Nationalist Images of Mexico in Eisenstein's Unfinished Project
  • Chapter 5. Reconfiguring the Revolution: Celebrity and Melodrama
  • Chapter 6. The Aesthetics of Spectacle
  • Chapter 7. Competing Narratives and Converging Visions
  • Conclusion. Thoughts on Working with the Archive
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Zuzana M. Pick is Professor of Film Studies at the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. She is also the author of The New Latin American Cinema: A Continental Project.


This book is an investigation of the ways in which the cinema participated in the visual constructions of the Mexican Revolution and the processes that shaped and contributed to the dissemination of these constructions on film since the 1930s in Mexico and internationally. It highlights the convergence between film and other visual media, including photography, painting, and graphic arts, to explain the significance of visual technologies in the twentieth century and their mediating role in the forging of the collective memories of a nation.


The basic framework of the narrative is the widespread uprising against the regime of President Porfirio Díaz that began in 1910 and the protracted struggle for power that involved the various political and military forces that initially rallied around Francisco I. Madero. While the Mexican people are the protagonists, the narrative singles out such legendary figures as Madero, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata rather than the countless anonymous men and women—peasants, workers, and Indians—who participated in the revolution. Its subject matter involves popular insurrections and mass mobilizations; anti-insurgency and pacification operations led by government and revolutionary troops under the command of such disparate leaders as Pascual Orozco, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón; and peace treaties signed between warring factions but never enforced. The battles that produced one million dead in a total population of fifteen million, the insecurity in rural areas, and the loss of property that displaced entire populations within Mexico and across the border into the United States give a social dimension to the revolutionary scenario. The implementation of revolutionary principles, hampered by the opposing agendas of a peasantry fighting for land, a middle class bent on participating in the political process, and a bourgeoisie determined to preserve past privileges, and the ultimate victory of the last two sectors, furnish this narrative with a political, mostly mystifying but sometimes critical perspective.


As the Mexican historian Enrique Florescano has written, the revolution exceeds events and personalities. In his words, "It is not just a series of historical acts that took place between 1910 and 1917, or between 1910 and 1920, or between 1910 and 1940; it is also the collection of projections, symbols, evocations, images and myths that its participants, interpreters, and heirs forged and continue to construct around this event" (quoted in Mraz, 1997a, 93). Florescano's statement provides the critical framework for this book. It suggests the need to include visual production in the study of historical representations and cultural stereotypes and to examine the mass-mediated features and multiple uses of the imagery of the revolution. The story of the Mexican Revolution that emerged is particularly complex because it transpired on an international, as well as national, field of mass production of modernity. This overdetermined set of conditions means that I am looking at the issues of cultural exchange, translation, appropriation, and commodification, which enables me to negotiate the tensions between the cross-cultural and transnational dimensions of the imagery and its nationalist projections within the modernist and contemporary historiography of Mexico.


My objective is to map the ways in which the meanings surrounding the revolution have been historicized by films that themselves participated in a wider visual field. I draw attention to the formative and ongoing impact of the imagery produced during the revolution. The modes of representation and spectatorship generated by this imagery were invested with a wide range of meanings regarding how the revolution was experienced by those who participated and recorded it. This imagery constitutes the visual vernacular of Mexican modernity. It articulates a modernist awareness of the role of images in documenting the dynamics of social and cultural change, constructing a collective imaginary out of multiple identities and experiences. How this awareness was preserved and reconstructed is best exemplified in Memories of a Mexican (Carmen Toscano de Moreno Sánchez, 1950) and Epics of the Mexican Revolution (Gustavo Carrera, 1963), compilation documentaries consisting primarily of footage shot and collected by Mexico's prominent film pioneers, Salvador Toscano and Jesús H. Abitía, respectively. Media awareness extended across the border into the United States by means of the photographs and weekly newsreels that supplemented journalistic dispatches from the war front, as well as the nascent picture postcard business. As the Mexican film historian Aurelio de los Reyes notes, "Between 1911 and 1920 over 80 American cameramen working either freelance or for various film companies covered the Mexican revolution from the viewpoints of different groups" (2001a, 36). Concurrently public interest and profit drove the production of fiction films in which narratives of bravery and betrayal predominate and democratic values inevitably triumph over brutality. Incidents of violence set in picturesque "Mexico"—California as a stand-in for actual locations—pit American characters against Mexican insurrectos who look and behave like the "greaser" bandits of the pulp fiction that emerged in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847. The above-mentioned films, as well as And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself and The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa, corroborate to what extent the allure of this history has not subsided.


In the postrevolutionary period the vernacular constructed during the protracted military and political struggle was reintegrated with historical forms of visualizing Mexican culture and identity to consolidate an official state discourse and project a renewed nationalist and modernist image of Mexico at home and abroad. Initially the revolution vanished from the screens. Embargoes of films considered denigrating to Mexico's image and fears of losing a profitable market south of the border forced Hollywood to abandon the theme. At home, war fatigue and official concerns that films dealing with the conflict would reinforce negative views of the country led national producers in the 1920s to opt for a folkloric and sanitized representation. "Although actuality films that focused on the conflict disappeared prematurely," the British visual culture scholar Andrea Noble writes, "this did not, and indeed within the terms of reference that governed the post-revolutionary state's legitimacy, could not spell the disappearance of the revolution from the nation's (audio) visual imaginary altogether" (2005, 53; original emphasis). The theme returned in the early years of the sound period, first implicitly in the Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein's unfinished project, Que Viva Mexico! (1930-1931, 1979), and later in three features directed by the Mexican Fernando de Fuentes, El prisionero trece (The Prisoner 13) and El compadre Mendoza (Compadre Mendoza), both from 1933, and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Let's Go with Pancho Villa!), released in 1935. Whereas the distinctive trait of this trilogy was its critical approach, the majority of national and foreign films represented the revolution as a "spectacular 'folk-show'" (De la Mora, 2006, 143). El tesoro de Pancho Villa (The Treasure of Pancho Villa) (Arcady Boytler, Mexico, 1935), La Adelita (Guillermo Hernández Gómez, Mexico, 1937), and Viva Villa! (Jack Conway, U.S., 1933) are examples.


The genre was briefly revitalized during what is commonly known as the golden age of Mexican cinema. Melodrama, star power, and patriotic sentiment coalesced in the films of Emilio "El Indio" Fernández. Starting with Flor silvestre (Wildflower) (1943)—and thanks to the artful cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa—the revolutionary scenario was the catalyst for a modernist reconfiguration of the visual archive. Since didacticism, rather than history, was the impulse behind the director's work and mediocre imitations undermined the aesthetic inventiveness of the cinematographer's style, the genre reverted to picturesque stereotypes. Films such as Pancho Villa vuelve (Pancho Villa Returns) (Miguel Contrera Torres, 1949) and Vino el remolino y nos alevantó (The Whirlwind Came and Swept Us Away) (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1949) cashed in on the popularity of the legendary leader and the corridos (ballads) recounting the heroic deeds and tragic deaths of chieftains and common soldiers. Yet a few other films made during this decade managed, in imperfect and sometimes surprising ways, to reflect on the revolution as a disruptive and contradictory event. Notable are the literary adaptations Los de abajo (The Underdogs) (Chano Urueta, 1939), Rosenda (Julio Bracho, 1948), and La negra Angustias (Matilde Landeta, 1949).


Regardless of their literary and generic affiliations, commercial and political agendas, and countries of origin, these films exemplify the enduring allure of the revolution as a scenario and its diverse actors as catalysts for heroic tales of conflict, betrayal, justice, and redemption. More significantly, these films are symptomatic of the multiple ways in which the visual archive of the revolution has been appropriated, translated, and reconfigured internationally, as well as nationally, since the 1930s. Seen from this perspective, the cinematic uses of Mexico by foreign directors in the 1950s and 1960s are the result of a series of conversations across cultures that were initiated by Eisenstein's unfinished project and expanded in the next decade across a range of production practices, genres, and nationalities. The primary agent of these conversations is Figueroa, a cinematographer who managed to negotiate the avant-garde inclinations of modernism and the industrial imperatives of mainstream filmmaking. Formed in the international context of cinema, yet ideally positioned as a Mexican, he was best suited as an interlocutor for that dialogue. At the conclusion of this study, I return to the ramifications of the genealogy of that dialogue as it reinforces certain aspects of the transnational dynamics of the archive.


The formative role that autochthonous and foreign elements have played in the construction and consolidation of the imagery of the Mexican Revolution is acknowledged in this book's emphasis on the cultural mediation and translation process characteristic of modernism and globalization. Since the visual construction of the revolution was taken up by both Mexican and international agents, this book takes a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and comparative approach to highlight the uses to which this vast visual archive has been put. My close analysis of selected films reads Mexican iconic images and visual themes with and against their international counterparts. Of necessity, it also takes into account structural conditions of production and reception. Yet if these films and their mass media counterparts of the period produced the image repertoire of a new event, their rhetoric was anything but altogether new. In fact, it often played on existing nationalist images or alternatively on folkloric motifs designed for export. I argue, then, that the transformation of traditional images into nationalist icons in the postrevolutionary period is evidence that Mexican modernism, rather than an absolute break, involves a cultural and discursive rearrangement of the already existing visual signifiers of nation, identity, and modernity.


What makes this book different is my critical and analytical approach. The detailed study of individual films aims to overcome the limitations of reductive treatments of historical cinema. As I argue, historicity is shaped by the interrelation of aesthetic and discursive elements rather than exclusively by textual narrative. By reexamining the cultural, political, and social factors that have enabled and mediated the circulation of iconic images and visual themes, I wish to encourage alternative readings. Moreover, I incorporate spectatorship into my inquiry into the historicity of film—spectatorship understood here as enabling complex, dynamic, and open-ended interactions between audiences and spectacle and cultural identity and the images and realities shown on the screen. The production of viewing positions (gender, class, and ethnicity) is as important to visual construction as mass-mediated technologies of vision to the making of the subject of modernity. In Mexico, spectatorship and image making are irrevocably tied to mexicanidad—a powerful trope designating at once a search for authenticity and a fashioning of an identity capable of accommodating the multiple, even conflicting features that make up the national imaginary. From this perspective, this book sheds light on the unstable and diverse meanings and responses elicited by iconic images and visual themes instead of reducing Mexican films to reified and totalizing reproductions of postrevolutionary discourse and foreign films to demeaning or at best patronizing representations of the other. Finally, I believe that the value of this book is its potential to intervene in current discussions on modernity, which have largely rested on European conditions and models. By reading a cataclysmic twentieth-century event against the growth of an unprecedented mass-mediated modernity, I hope to contribute to a more inclusive understanding of "other" modernities.


Questions arising from how the Mexican Revolution was visualized are examined in the early chapters, with particular emphasis on the documentary image as a record of public history and as an archival artifact to be reconstructed and appropriated. Chapter 1 deals with Mexican materials filmed in the period 1910-1917 and the challenges compilation films pose to the historicity of documentary images. It discusses Epics of the Mexican Revolution and Memories of a Mexican, whose intent, as the titles indicate, is commemorative. While these films present a photogenic version of national history and revolutionary mythology, they also offer a unique chronicle of the revolution. Their remarkable imagery is a testimony to the social violence and political chaos and their producers' and actors' awareness of being agents in the recording of actions at once newsworthy and explanatory of a historical process. Of the numerous Mexican cameramen who documented the revolution, Abitía was the only one who worked in both film and photography. Images referring to the same events integrate the observer in an organic manner, with the filmmaker-photographer determining the camera's point of view, the participant as actor or internal audience, and the viewing public as historical agent. The broad chronological scope of the footage in Memories of a Mexican reveals how events, places, and personalities were organized into a compelling story whose power derives from a compulsion to turn the newsworthy instant into a memorable visual archive of Mexico's modern history.


The archival value of U.S.-produced period images is discussed in Chapter 2. Massively reproduced and marketed as news items and novelties, film stills, press photographs, and postcards have since become an obligatory source for fiction films on the revolution. What the contract signed in January 1914 between Villa and the Mutual Film Company has come to mean is the subject of And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself and The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa, both of which engage with the visual themes generated by the contract by using the extant archive and current historiography to tell the story of the now-lost film, The Life of General Villa. The American film reconstructs anecdotes of the deal, replicates early silent film practices, and points to historical models of spectatorship linking vision and identity. Even if the meanings of the deal are relocated, at the end, into current concerns on media politics and war reporting, what emerges is a multilayered representation of Villa as a mass-mediated construct.


The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa is an experimental work about the Mexican film and video maker's quest for the missing film. It investigates mainly U.S. visual materials on Villa found in European and North American archives, including those that reconfigured him as the archetypal Mexican bandit after the Columbus raid in 1916. It explores the story of The Vengeance of Pancho Villa, a film using different footage assembled in the 1920s by the Mexican American itinerant exhibitors Félix and Edmundo Padilla from El Paso, Texas. Characters and events are represented as cultural and social projections, their agencies unstable and contingent on the material frailty of the archive. What is more, reassemblages of extant footage point to the film's strategies of reclamation aimed at reimagining Villa's subjectivity and cinematic identity as a Mexican hero.


Awareness of the power of visual media discussed in Chapters 1 and 2 extends to feature films produced in the 1930s. Yet the vast visual archive generated by the fascination with Villa reveals how the American public continued to view Mexico through the prism of a long-standing history of prejudice. By making light of the revolutionary leader's transformation into a subject of his own history, feature films during this period turned him into a commodity deprived of social agency and burdened by mythology. Whether constructed during his lifetime, with Villa as an active agent, or retrospectively by numerous others, legend is key to Villa's enduring mythology and his representations on film abroad and at home. The combined power of and inconsistencies within the legend are discussed in Chapter 3. Viva Villa! and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! were produced one decade after Villa's assassination in 1923.


In both, the aesthetic and discursive resources of cinema are used to mediate the visual themes that turned Villa into a cinematic hero. Depictions of brutality, heroism, and victimization point to the affective and perceptual disparities of the responses elicited by Villa in both countries. Shifts between epic spectacle, comedy, and melodrama in Viva Villa! reinforce these disparities and reveal Hollywood's inability to overcome historical attitudes. Conversely, affective and perceptual disparities shape the critical scrutiny of the themes of bravery and loyalty in the Villa legend in ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! This film draws attention to the mediated features of the revolutionary leader's cinematographic and historical persona. It capitalizes on the public familiarity with charrería culture and performance (the historical hacienda traditions and values that were integrated into the nationalist tableau of identity in the 1920s) to counter the reified representations of male bravery and sacrifice promoted by postrevolutionary discourse. Thus it took almost three decades for the demystifying and antiheroic perspective of the film to be fully appreciated.


Chapter 4 considers the complex and diverse ways in which images of Mexico and the revolution were constructed and negotiated in the postrevolutionary period, by Mexicans and foreigners alike. Desastre en Oaxaca (Disaster in Oaxaca), a short documentary filmed and edited by Eisenstein in January 1930, exemplifies his goal of turning his impressions as a traveler into an investigation of the country's contrasting realities and histories. The extant footage, production stills, photographs, and drawings relative to what is known as the "Maguey" episode of Que Viva Mexico! are indicative of Eisenstein's engagement with the political and artistic practices of the Mexican vanguard. Hence I consider the influence of Anita Brenner's book Idols behind Altars and indigenismo on the visual reconfiguration of the Indian in the nationalist narrative. Affinities with the visual practices and culture of the time—those that can be gleaned from the artist Isabel Villaseñor's participation and the representation of the hacienda and the charro—demonstrate the assimilation on the director's part of vernacular forms and his critical perspective on the national reconciliation rhetoric promoted by the state respectively.


Chapter 5 charts the convergences between the cinematic revival of the revolutionary theme and the nation-building agenda of the Mexican state. Though only a handful of the films produced during the golden age of Mexican cinema avoided the totalizing tendencies of official historiography, they played a fundamental role in integrating the visual archive of the revolution into popular culture. The aethetic and narrative protocols of fictional filmmaking were used to reconfigure character types, landscapes, and episodes. Far from being homogenous, these fictional representations reveal both the aesthetic wealth of iconic images and visual themes and the incongruities of their overdetermined meanings. Abandoned Women may be the most overlooked of the Fernández-Figueroa films produced in the 1940s. Yet it is a complex and idiosyncratic work that expands the historicity and iconography of revolutionary melodrama. With the city as a backdrop to visualize the precarious place of women in the modernist scenario, the film makes the most of star identification and melodrama to represent the tension between social reality and discourse. If famed actors Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz are turned into gendered models and icons of Mexico’s renewed nationalism, their identities are unstable and contingent on the dual protocols of degradation and redemption in melodrama. Moreover, the urban setting and the presence of the prostitute-mother in Abandoned Women anticipate the decline of the revolutionary genre.


Chapter 6 addresses the relationship between spectacle and overdetermined visual icons. As the golden age was coming to a close, films dealing with the revolution aligned the representation of this momentous event and the agents who participated in it with the state's promotion of history as patrimony and the marketing of culture and identity as commodity. Historicity in La escondida (The Hidden One) (Roberto Galvadón, Mexico, 1956) is anchored in the affective power of modes of visualizing Mexico as at once picturesque and modern. Authenticity is repackaged by means of visual citations and pictorial embellishments that transform the revolution into a canvas of desire and abjection. The performance of nationalism and glamour of María Félix sustains the fetishism of spectacle. The tendency is to think about the use of Mexico and the revolution in The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) as a mere backdrop for an allegory on war and violence. Yet the film's powerful effect comes from its historicizing investment in the dynamics of looking and seeing and its reinscription of the Mexican subject into the mythological world of the western. As I argue, the vision of the revolution is closer to the fatalistic and tragic imagery of Orozco's lithographs and murals than to the heroic and utopian monumentality of the murals of Rivera and Siqueiros.


Chapter 7 deals with historicity in experimental films. The minimalist aesthetic and innovative use of sound in Reed: Insurgent Mexico (Paul Leduc, Mexico, 1971) demystifies the revolution, blending documentary and fictional elements in a manner that is consistent with the aesthetic and political strategies of the Cuban and New Latin American cinemas. War and death are deglamorized; desolation and loss resignify actions and landscapes. The film validates the American radical journalist John Reed's participation as a witness and narrator of the revolution and reclaims the stories, subjectivities, and sentiments concealed behind official history. Not only is Reed "Mexicanized" through actor Claudio Obregón’s accent and performance; his subjectivity and agency are fused with the Mexican protagonists. Tina in Mexico (Brenda Longfellow, 2001) revisualizes the work and life of the Italian-born American photographer Tina Modotti. Archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and stylized citations are used to peel away the numerous layers of context inscribed in her photographs. The film reveals a subjectivity deeply affected by Mexico that responds to national myths and becomes its subject. To demonstrate how her identity merged with Mexico, the film reinscribes her into the history of Mexico City as an avant-garde center in the 1920s where the aesthetics of modernism converged with the politics of modernity.


In the conclusion I summarize the main themes and modes of representing Mexico and historicizing the revolution. I focus on the various ways in which the cinema has circulated the visual archive to document, celebrate, mythologize, and reinterpret anecdotes and characters. The deployment of period images of the revolution goes hand in hand with a reconversion of visual themes and motifs associated with picturesque modes of representing Mexico that originated in Mexico and abroad. This strategy is consistent at once with the nationalist agenda of the postrevolutionary state and the cultural politics of modernism and manifests itself through multiple mediations. As a result, the meanings that emerge from the use of the visual archive of the revolution in the films are unstable, always open to negotiation, reinterpretation, and revision.



“An outstanding contribution to our critical understanding of the representation of the Mexican Revolution in contexts that go far beyond purely national interest.”
Marvin D’Lugo, Professor of Spanish and Adjunct Professor of Screen Studies, Clark University


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