Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Paul Muni as Benito Juárez

Paul Muni as Benito Juárez

Produced by Hal B. Wallis; directed by William Dieterle; screenplay adapted by John Huston, Wolfgang Reinhardt, and Aeneas MacKenzie from Bertita Harding's novel,The Phantom Crown and a play by Franz Werfel; musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; cinematography by Tony Gaudio; edited by Warren Low; art direction by Anton Grot; costume design by Orry-Kelly; starring Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Brian Aherne, Claude Rains, and John Garfield. DVD, B&W, 120 min., 1939. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

In the 1930s, Warner Bros. produced many award-winning historical/biographical dramas like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and the Best Picture-winning The Life of Emile Zola (1937), both starring Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle. In 1939 Dieterle directed Juarez, also starring Muni, less a biographical and more a historical drama about the French attempt to colonize Mexico in the 1860s, under the leadership of the comically villainous Emperor Napoleon III as played by Claude Rains. Napoleon III, who believed, “democracy is the rule of the cattle by the cattle,” inserted the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as the puppet ruler of Mexico in 1864. It took place at a time when a distracted United States, which opposed French intervention in Mexico from the start, was consumed by the Civil War. All three historical dramas endorsed a pop version of the Great Man theory of history, substituting the heroism of individuals for the complex play of ideological, economic, and social forces. Hollywood history usually tended to personalize, so audiences could identify with the stars and the characters they played, and feel hostile towards their enemies, who were usually devoid of any ambiguity. The films also tended to play fast and loose with the facts, though Juarez demonstrated more fidelity to them than many other historical films.

With a starry cast, lavish sets, and hordes of extras, Juarez focuses more on Maximilian—Brian Aherne in a beautifully curled blond beard (he received an Oscar nomination)—and on his wild-eyed, edgy, barren wife and confidante Carlota (Bette Davis), than on the liberal, land-reforming, popularly elected President, Benito Juárez (Paul Muni), whose office they usurp. Juárez, a stoical Zapotecan Indian from peasant roots, loses power, but does not surrender, and organizes an opposition force, in the north of Mexico, to oppose Maximilian, the French, and their racist, wealthy Mexican landowner allies.

The naïve Maximilian belatedly discovers that Louis Napoleon has duped him, and that the plebiscite that brought him to power was not an expression of the people’s will, but rigged. As depicted in the film (and it has some basis in historical accounts), Maximilian is a decent, honorable man, who wants to rule peacefully, and believes in democracy as an ideal, but fears the power of the mob. Consequently, he believes in a hereditary monarchy that will paternalistically protect the rights of the people. He rejects the French army’s proposal to violently suppress republican supporters, and offers the position of prime minister to Juárez who refuses it. Juárez maintaining there is an ”unbridgeable gulf” between his democratic belief in the people ruling themselves, and Maximilian’s aristocratic notion of dispensing rights to his subjects.

Maximilian then allows the French troops to use the ”whip and the bullet” to crush the opposition, but when the American Civil Warcomes to an end, the United States sends troops in support of Juárez's army. Napoleon III under U.S. pressure removes all French troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilian without an army to fend for himself, leading to his execution in 1867 before a Mexican firing squad.

Dieterle portrays Maximilian in a sympathetic light, with Aherne successfully embodying him as a handsome man with a regal manner, who is courageous, tender, and deeply in love and dependent on his soulmate Carlota. As Carlota, a frantic Davis chews up some of the scenery, but has one striking scene, when she descends into madness. She attacks Napoleon III for his betrayal of her and Maximilian. She faints, and, waking up, sees him as the Devil, who is trying to poison her. She then flees into the darkness that seems infinite.

The film’s prime weakness does not lie in its depiction of Maximilian and Carlota, despite a tendency to sentimentalize Maxmilian. It’s Muni’s austere and mummified Juárez, with his layers of makeup and stolid manner, that is the film’s weak link. Juárez is treated as a courageous mythic figure and moral force, without flaws, whose personal hero is Abraham Lincoln. In a number of static scenes, Juárez speaks resoundingly about the struggle of the ”downtrodden” and democracy’s ability to liberate and uplift the people. In fact, the film has a penchant for speechifying—not only Juárez, but also Maximilian, and even Juárez’s General Porfirio Diaz (he later became a long-term conservative president of Mexico), played by a Bronx-accented John Garfield, all declaim. These oration-filled interludes stop the film in its tracks.

Obviously, the film that came out in 1939 was trying to make a parallel between Juarez vs. Napoleon III and Maximilian, and the United States vs. the Axis—the forces of democracy vs. the forces of totalitarianism. Even a mad Carlota prophetically views the autocratic Napoleon III as a stand-in for Hitler—seeing him as a man who hates mankind—robbing her and Maximilian of their humanity, and turning them into destroyers. These are worthy sentiments, but none of it sufficient to turn the film into more than a well-crafted costume drama with good politics. Juarez is thus more interesting as an artifact than as art.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition ofAmerican Film and Society Since 1945(Praeger).

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2