Zapata Westerns is a nickname given to a subgenre of "Spaghetti Westerns", dating largely from the mid-1960s to early 1970s, which were set in and around Mexico and dealt with overtly political themes. They were named after Emiliano Zapata, the famous Mexican revolutionary from the Mexican Revolution of 1913, during which most of these films are set. The term is also sometimes used for American films set during this conflict.
Overview and origins
Most of the early Spaghetti Westerns, such as the early works of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, dealt with some subtle political themes, particularly a criticism of Western capitalism and the "dollars" culture of America; however, as a general rule they were secondary to the main plot of the films in question during the early stage of the genre's development in the mid-'60s. However, in the late '60s a number of directors began to shoot Spaghetti Westerns as political allegories, often using the Western setting to mask (to an extent) the intended political outlook, in order to make them more acceptable (to some extent).
One of the first popular political Westerns, still highly regarded as one of the genre's best, was Sergio Sollima's 1966 film The Big Gundown, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian. The original screenplay had originally involved an Italian police detective, ordered to chase down a Communist revolutionary accused of raping and killing an industrialist's wife, only to find that the revolutionary had been framed by the industrialist - but he kills the revolutionary anyway. Sollima took the story line, transplanted it to 1880's Colorado, and changed the film's ending to a considerably happier one.
In the same year, Damiano Damiani released A Bullet for the General (also known as Quien Sabe?), with Gian Maria Volonté, Lou Castel, and Klaus Kinski, which dealt with an American agent of the Mexican government (Castel), during the Mexican Revolution of 1913, being hired to manipulate a bandit leader (Volonte) into helping him assassinate a revolutionary general. The movie made overt references to the ongoing Vietnam War, and Castel's character was meant to represent the CIA's interventions in Latin America. The movie was extremely popular in Europe, though butchered both for political and content reasons in overseas markets, and set the precedent for the development of the subgenre.
Regular plot devices
A general outline of a standard Zapata Western plot went as follows:
- The two main characters would be an ignorant Mexican bandit peon who knows nothing about the politics of revolution, and an outsider — American or European — who is in some way involved in the revolution. The bandit would usually, though not always, have a large gang of followers who would be used as expendable fodder for the movie's action scenes, and to represent his ties to his friends and families, rather than to any abstract idea of revolution.
- The setting would most often be the Mexican Revolution of 1913, particularly during the reign of General Victoriano Huerta.
- In most films, the outsider manipulates the peon and his gang into joining the revolution, for his own personal gain, for the benefit of an outside influence, or often for the outsider's own amusement.
- The villain is usually an American or German mercenary (sometimes even a Frenchman, given France's involvement in Mexico during the 1860s), a fascist-like Mexican general, or a foreign trust or corporation (North American or European) out to control some resource (oil, silver, etc.)
Virtually all political Westerns, Zapata or not, were made from a Marxist point of view, and extensively referenced the fascist regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy (under whom most of the film makers had lived) and Adolf Hitler in Germany. They also frequently criticized contemporary US foreign policy, particularly the Vietnam War and the role of the US military and intelligence in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. The films are parables of the relationship between the capitalist First World, as represented by the outsider character, and the Third World represented by Mexico.
Some of the most popular examples of this subgenre include Sergio Corbucci's films with Tomas Milian and/or Franco Nero, particularly A Professional Gun (1968) and Compañeros (1970), though these films were often criticized for using the political issues being portrayed as plot devices, rather than a serious attempt to make a point. A similar story structure was used in Gillo Pontecorvo's non-Western Burn!, with Marlon Brando playing William Walker (filibuster), which takes place on a fictional Portuguese island colony in the Caribbean in the 19th century. Many of the foundational Zapata Westerns, including A Professional Gun, A Bullet For the General, The Big Gundown and Tepepa were written by Franco Solinas, who also wrote the aforementioned non-western Burn!, and the controversial war film The Battle of Algiers.
Sergio Leone's contribution to the Zapata Western was Duck, You Sucker! (1971), with Rod Steiger and James Coburn, which played almost paradoxically as both an endorsement and criticism of the revolutionary politics of some of its peers, as it portrayed the revolution in a less romanticized manner than a lot of other films in the genre.
Other political Westerns
Not all political Spaghetti Westerns came from the Zapata mould, however. Three of the most popular - Sollima's Face to Face (1967), Tonino Valerii's The Price of Power (1969), and Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma (1975) - are different types of films, though all of them follow the general outline of the storyline. Face To Face concerns an American history professor (Gian Maria Volonte), dying of tuberculosis, who moves west and becomes fascinated in the outlaw way of life, eventually joining and taking over an outlaw gang led by Tomas Milan, and driving it to destruction. The movie made overt fascist parallels, but took place in the Arizona desert in the 1860s and contained no definite references to contemporary events such as Vietnam. The Price of Power, starring Giuliano Gemma, Van Johnson, Fernando Rey and José Suárez, was an interesting Western take on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, replacing JFK with James Garfield in 1881 Dallas (the fact that Garfield was assassinated in Washington makes little difference to the allegorical storyline). Keoma, with Franco Nero and Woody Strode, dealt largely with issues of civil rights and discrimination, and played as a sort of commentary on the American Civil Rights Movement of the early-to-mid '60s.
Other Spaghetti westerns, namely, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), contained more subtle political elements which were not the driving part of the main story. Though most Spaghettis had at least some degree of politics to be found in them, the majority of them were not, by nature, political Westerns.
American Zapata Westerns
The term is also occasionally applied to the American Westerns with the same setting which were produced in rising number in the late 1950s and 1960s. These included Jack Conway and Howard Hawks's Viva Villa! (1934), with Wallace Beery, Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954), with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955), Robert Mitchum in Bandido (1956) and The Wonderful Country (1959), The Professionals (1966), with Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode. Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in director Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), and Mitchum again in Villa Rides (1968) though these films rarely dealt with significant political themes, as did their later Italian counterparts.
By contrast to political ideas, the films featured American soldiers of fortune going South to Mexico hiring themselves out to factions in Mexican Revolutions. As the Wild West of America became more settled, action seeking filmgoers could see the Americano's use of technologically advanced automatic weapons and explosives taking such a high body count of Mexicans that the genre was nicknamed "chili con carnage" by critic Jenni Calder. The popularity of the genre may have been a factor in the Frito-Lay corporation adopting the cartoon Frito Bandito as a television advertising spokesman. Complaints from the Mexican American community led to the replacement of the Frito Bandito with the Muncha-Bunch and W.C. Fritos cartoon spokesmen.
International Zapata Westerns
In Egypt, the only Zapata Western movie ever produced was Viva Zalata (1976) starring Fouad el-Mohandes, Shwikar and a cast of notable actors including Hussein Fahmy who played the role of Billy the Kid.
- Ostern, also known as "Red Western"
- Revisionist Western
- Partisan film, also known as "Gibanica Western"
- Red Dead Redemption, an American "Zapata Western" video game
- Frayling, Christopher (2006). Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1-84511-207-5. OCLC 475867999.
- Smith, Paul (1993). Clint Eastwood. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1960-3. OCLC 492722964.