By Stephanie Fuller (PhD student, University of East Anglia) http://eastanglia.academia.edu/StephanieFuller
I’m in the process of writing my thesis on representations of the US-Mexico border in 1950s Hollywood film. Several of the movies I am writing about are set during periods of revolutionary upheaval in Mexico, either the uprising against French Emperor Maximilian or the Revolution of 1910 (which needless to say can often become conflated in films to become a kind of hazy ahistorical revolutionary Mexican past). I was struck by the role of Mexican women in two of the films in particular, Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954) and Border River (George Sherman, 1954).
Compared to their American counterparts in other westerns from this period, these Mexican women are afforded a striking level of political knowledge, action and significance within the narratives. Take The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) in which all of the American women are murdered or kidnapped. And less dramatically, in movies such as Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950), The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955) and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), American women only play passive roles, waiting for men to take care of business and unable to act themselves.
For the Mexican women the situation is very different. In Vera Cruz, Nina (Sara Montiel) works undercover as a Juarista agent, gathering information and funds for the rebellion. She plays an instrumental role in the Juarista victory over the French oppressors, persuading American soldier Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) to side with the Mexicans in battle. After spending the entire movie conspiring to steal gold from the French, when he eventually does get his hands on the bullion, Nina persuades Trane to donate it all to the Juarista cause.
Similarly, for Border River, Carmelita Carias (Yvonne de Carlo) plays a key narrative role. Occupying an active position within the community as bar owner, she saves the male lead General Mattson (Joel McCrea) from certain death on several occasions, and even leaves her frilly dresses at home to ride to his rescue in breeches at one point. Her political awakening comes part way through the movie, as the painful memory of her father and brother, who died fighting for Mexican independence prompts her to act to secure the return of Mexican land stolen by a maniac General Calleja (Pedro Armendaríz) to the Juarista cause.
I think the reason that these female characters become so strong and politicized in these two films in ways that American characters are not, is precisely because of their Mexicanness (although the fact that Yvonne de Carlo was a Canadian national does of course complicate this). Throughout 1950s Hollywood movies, Mexico is persistently imagined as an intrinsically political place. From Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan, 1952) through The Treasure of Pancho Villa (George Sherman, 1955), They Came to Cordura (Robert Rossen, 1959) and Salt of the Earth (Herbert Biberman, 1954), Mexican terrain becomes radical and revolutionary, and Mexican characters are also imbued with these qualities (and it’s also no coincidence that most of the directors of these films were outspoken leftists). For the Mexican women in these films, their Mexicanidad overrides the traditional female roles associated with movies of these genres.
Vera Cruz and Border River are both relatively minor movies, and examples of the types of film that rarely receive critical attention. But they reveal interesting details about the way in which Mexican women were understood in the United States in the 1950s. Not just passive objects of desire for the films’ American heroes, through their Mexican heritage, these women become politically conscious and take leading roles in revolutionary activity.