When I first chose director, writer, and actor Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez as my topic for this blogathon, I had no idea he had a life as dramatic as one of his own films.
The reason I chose him was based solely on the movies he directed during The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (Epoca de Oro) which began in the 1930s with the first Mexican talkie, Santa (1931) and lasted until about the mid-1950s.
When I was in my teens and early 20s I watched a lot of Spanish-language television, in hopes of improving my fluency in the language. I watched mostly telenovelas (soap operas) but movies as well. I was not that impressed by the Mexican movies made during the 1970s and 1980s. (My brother-in-law, who was Venezuelan, liked to joke you could always tell you were watching a Mexican movie because, no matter the genre, everyone dies at the end.) Certainly, I saw nothing that compared to the quality of foreign films at the time from France, Germany, and other areas of the world.
Until I happened to catch a broadcast of Fernandez’s film Enamorada (1946). I was bowled over by it, by the assured direction, the stunning cinematography, the compelling story, the memorable characters, and the performances of the actors.
I was very surprised to find out the director was “El Indio” Fernandez, who at the time was acting in a telenovela called La Traicion. He was quite elderly by then and passed away about a year later. I also remembered him as an actor from American movies such as The Wild Bunch and The Appaloosa (big Western fan here).
I started looking out for more of his films. I was soon hooked, though it was difficult to find his films to rent (this was the Blockbuster era). It wasn’t until many years later when TCM had a festival of Mexican films that I was able to see them with new prints (and subtitles–my Spanish is still not that good).
As I said, Fernandez’s life was a very eventful one, right up to his final years. He was born in 1904 to a father of Spanish descent and a Kikapoo Indian mother (hence his nickname). His father was a revolutionary general. He took part in the Adolfo de la Huerta uprising during the early 1920s. Captured and sentenced to 20 years in prison, he managed to escape and joined other Mexican exiles in Los Angeles.
See? I told you his life was dramatic.
In Los Angeles he fell into movie work, first in construction, then as an extra and body double. He eventually became friends with actress Dolores del Rio. (Here comes another really interesting story.) At the time, she was engaged to MGM’s art director, Cedric Gibbons, who was in charge of designing the Oscar statuette. Supposedly, Del Rio convinced Fernandez to model nude for the statuette.
There’s no evidence that can prove this story one way or the other, so take it with a grain of salt. But many believe it to be true, and because of his connection to Del Rio, it seems to be in the realm of possibility.
In 1930, he had the opportunity to meet Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein and view his work. He became captivated by what he considered very different aesthetics compared to those of Hollywood films. This had a lasting impact on his future work as a director.
Three years later he returned to Mexico under a general amnesty. He was advised by De la Huerta to pursue filmmaking as way to express himself politically. He worked as an actor for a while in Mexico, landing starring roles in a few films. In 1941 he directed his first film, La Isla de Passion.
The turning point in his career came when Dolores del Rio returned to Mexico. Now close to 40 years old and considered box-office poison in Hollywood, she knew she had to reboot her career in some way. Their first film together was Flor Silvestre, about a woman who recounts her husband’s role in the revolution to their son. This was also the first film where he collaborated with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and actor Pedro Armendariz.
Born to upper-class parents, Del Rio had been very careful to avoid stereotypical roles during her Hollywood career. Fernandez wrote down the story of Maria Candelaria on several paper napkins and presented it to her on her birthday. She objected to the idea of playing an Indian woman. He eventually convinced her and the movie went on to great success, becoming the first Latin American film to win the Grand Prix (the equivalent of the Palm d’Or today) at the Cannes Film Festival.
His next film was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Peal (La Perla). Steinbeck himself collaborated on the screenplay. Armendariz, who played leading roles in several of his films, once again took the lead here. The story of a simple fisherman who finds a valuable pearl that eventually ruins his life, it won prizes at the Venice Film Festival and the Silver Ariel (the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award).
Following La Perla, he made Enamorada, Rio Escondido, Maclovia, Pueblerina, Victimos de Pecado, among others. He also served as an associate producer on John Ford’s film The Fugitive (once again, starring Armendariz).
In 1950 he remade Enamorada in English under the title Torch, with Paulette Goddard in the lead female role. Its failure probably killed any hope of a directorial career in Hollywood.
By the mid-1950s his collaboration with Figueroa ended. He continued directing movies until 1979, but the Epoca de Oro was over. Tastes had changed. The Mexican film industry had also significantly changed. There was criticism of the way he portrayed Mexicans, particularly the indigenous people and mestizos (those of mixed-race, as he was).
He returned to acting, appearing in several Hollywood films. Besides the aforementioned The Wild Bunch and The Appaloosa, he appeared in The Night of the Iguana, The Return of the Seven, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. He worked as a second unit director on films such as Chisum and The Magnificent Seven. He also appeared as a guest actor on American television shows, including Columbo and Kung Fu.
Even late in life, he was still a colorful–and, apparently, dangerous–man. He was convicted of killing a farmer and sentenced to four years in jail. He claimed self-defense and was released after six months. There’s even a story (which I could not confirm and suspect is apocryphal) that he once shot a film critic in the testicle. His daughter Adela portrayed him in interviews as a man who believed in the machismo double standard–men could do whatever they wanted and women had to stay pure. She even told a bizarre story about her father shooting a pregnant dog, calling her “puta” (prostitute).
Before I started researching this article, I was unaware of most of these stories. What’s most striking to me is the contrast between this man, who embodied some of the most negative aspects of machismo, and the women in his films. I wouldn’t exactly categorize his movies as feminist, but most of them feature female protagonists or co-protagonists. They are complex characters who do not exist solely as the love interest for the male lead. Many of these characters battle prejudice and sexism. In Maria Candelaria, the heroine is despised by her community for something completely out of her control (she is the daughter of a prostitute) and is persecuted by a man who desires her sexually. Believed to have posed nude for an artist, she’s attacked by a mob, even though she is innocent.
In Enamorada, the heroine Beatriz (Maria Felix) is an upper-class woman who insults the camp followers in the revolutionary army. The hero Jose Juan (Armendariz again), the leader of the army, passionately defends the women, calling them brave and honorable.
Fernandez also tackles machismo in some surprising ways. In Enamorada, an older man advises Jose Juan to put aside his machismo pride and ask the woman he loves for forgiveness. He takes the advice. In Flor Silvestre, when the hero is waiting to be executed by a firing squad, he falls to his knees as he watches his wife plead for his life. Told to stand up, he says he hasn’t the strength, and those who had wives and children would understand. They permit him to die while he’s kneeling.
Many of his movies can be categorized as melodramas. Like other directors who excelled in the genre, including Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he was a master of restraint, careful not to let his stories devolve into mush. (Sometimes when he did comedic scenes, they were broader than they needed to be–in my opinion. But not the emotional scenes.)
As Sirk and Fassbinder did in their movies, one way he kept his melodramas from becoming too treacly was to keep a certain distance during the most dramatic moments. There is quite a bit of violence in many of his movies, but most of it is suggested. Of course, this was a different time, and explicit violence was rare on film, but even so, he used the camera–and sound–as a way to keep the audience distanced from the carnage. In La Perla, the final tragedy is suggested by the sound of a gunshot, the sight of the pearl falling out of a hand, and a woman crying. In this scene it’s easy to see the influence of Eisenstein, as editing is an important part of telling the story.
Most of his movies are overtly political. Several take place during revolutions. The themes of class, economic, and racial division occur frequently. Many of his love stories feature one half of the couple from the upper class and the other from the peasant or indigenous class, possibly a reflection of his own background. (To this day, this is still a popular theme in Mexican films and telenovelas.)
His revolutionaries are highly idealized. Jose Juan in Enamorada is such a stand-up guy a woman forgives him for ordering her husband’s execution. (The fact that he returned her money and jewels probably helped.) Many of his heroes have complex relationships with the Church. Jose Juan’s best friend is the local priest (played by Fernandez’s brother, Fernando) who alternately admires and disagrees with his views. In one scene, he speaks to the priest about a painting of the adoration of the baby Jesus by The Three Kings and how many people forget those powerful men knelt before a child who was born into poverty. Again, the theme of class resonates here.
For a man who did some pretty heinous things in his life, through his films Fernandez comes across as quite the romantic. His love stories are deeply affecting. To me, one of the most romantic scenes in film is the ending of Enamorada. Believing he has lost Beatriz to another man, Jose Juan retreats his army from advancing Federales. As Beatriz is about to marry, she hears the cannons from the fighting. She runs out into the street and watches the army marching out of the town. Jose Juan sees her, but she runs back to her father to embrace him one last time. Jose Juan thinks she has gone back home, but instead she has joined the other camp followers right into the thick of the fighting. The other women find their men and grab on to their saddles, walking beside them as they march. Beatriz finds Jose Juan, and they march off together.
Without one kiss, or declaration of love, it’s one of the most eloquent and emotionally gratifying scenes in a movie I can think of.
It gets me. EVERY. TIME.