Monday, February 09, 2009

100 Rifles

100 Rifles posterAlong with the typical Western elements of train hijacks and shoot-outs, 100 Rifles (1969) features almost all of the central characters provocatively wet and/or half-naked. However, when the protagonists are not dropping their clothes, they are delivering a story about personal responsibility, set against a very specific politico-economic backdrop.

The opening scene establishes that the Mexican military ruthlessly executes the Yaqui, the indigenous people of Sonora, upon the slightest provocation. Right in front of freedom-fighter Sarita (played by Raquel Welch), they hang her father for attempting to steal a rifle. In town, the brutality continues when nine Yaqui are presented before General Verdugo and gringo businessman Steven Grimes. As Grimes winces, Verdugo has them lined up so that he can slay three with a single bullet, minimizing his costs. One of our heroes, Yaqui Joe (played by Burt Reynolds), makes a ruckus so they can escape. His ad hoc plan fails and he is dragged before the sneering General, but an African-American police officer named Lyedecker (played by Jim Brown) halts the General from killing Joe, for he intends to bring Joe to justice in the United States for a bank robbery of $6000.

Lyedecker assumes that he can reason with the General, but finds out that his credentials are moot in Mexico, and he is just as much a prisoner as Joe. Joe escapes and Lyedecker pursues, and after outrunning the Mexican military they level with each other: Joe feels that in spending the $6000 on rifles to arm the Yaqui, target of an ethnic cleansing plan by Verdugo and his German advisors, he is finally doing something virtuous. Lyedecker aspires to be a full-time police officer, and catching this thief is another feather in his cap. They have little time to convince each other of their respective causes; the military arrives, handcuffs them together and brings them to where the rifles have been uncovered. The General wants to have them killed, alongside the Yaqui who are being executed for petty crimes, but as they face the firing squad Sarita appears and snipes the squad leader. She and other Yaqui pour over the walls, fight with the military, and retreat with the rifles and our heroes.

Joe and Lyedecker are constantly bickering, and Lyedecker resolutely wants no part in the Yaqui struggle; as soon as the military is off their backs he is going to haul Joe back north. The tides turn, however, when the military seize Yaqui children from a pillaged settlement to exchange for rifles, and Lyedecker feels compelled to assist in their rescue. The team successfully overtakes military forces, has a wild party, and leaves the ranch a blazing inferno. Lyedecker and Sarita have sex and his tenderness for her further aligns him with the Yaqui cause. Lyedecker and Joe find out from Grimes, who they took hostage at the ranch, where the stops are for the train to Nogales, where the General awaits. They hatch a plan to stall the train at a water tower, by means of diverting its military passengers with a half-naked Sarita showering beneath it, then hijack it and descend upon Verdugo. The plan works and a shoot-out ensues in Nogales. Lyedecker fires the last shot, killing Verdugo’s horse, which leaves the General to the Yaqui’s vengeance. With Sarita killed in battle, Lyedecker sees that the Yaqui need a leader and entrusts Joe to this task, returning back north empty-handed but a nobler man.

100 Rifles does not employ any conventions to inform the viewer that its context is based on historical fact, such as spoken/textual introduction, provision of dates, or use of real names, which is why elements of the story seem extreme or incongruous. However, there was indeed a epoch in Mexican history, the second reign of Porfirio Diaz (1884-1911), in which the Yaqui were systematically persecuted by the state, and if not killed were forced into labour. Also during this time, Germany adopted a policy of overhauling and equipping the Mexican military, in an effort to curb American influence. In 100 Rifles, this epoch provides a good vehicle for a range of social criticisms. To begin with, Steven Grimes is representative of American business interests in Mexico; he owns a railroad monopoly in Sonora that wrongly traverses Yaqui territory. He is duplicitous, self-interested and spineless; he has no qualms about the Yaqui executions but he does not have the stomach to watch it. His constant fretting about how “Washington” will react to events in Mexico implies that his activities are not legitimate, yet tacitly approved.

Furthermore, the power invested in the state and its representatives is also questioned, most notably when Joe and Lyedecker are moments away from death. Their desperate dialogue starts with incredulity that they are awaiting execution and ends with Joe condemning Lyedecker for wanting to be a part of the police establishment, claiming that the American justice system is just as brutal and arbitrary as the Mexican one. From amoral capitalism to skewed law enforcement, the Mexico of 100 Rifles is a place where ills seen in the United States are played out to greater extremes. These issues, with the added component of race, were particularly important in Civil Rights Movement era 1969 when the film was made. Race is also explored in the movie; it is centered on the racially-motivated slayings of Yaqui by the Mexican government, its leading characters are African-American and Yaqui-American, and it has an interracial sex scene. However, though Lyedecker found that in Mexico justice must be served outside the system, in that a criminal bank robber can become a heroic freedom fighter, he ultimately returns to the United States with faith in the system, determined to stay the course in becoming a cop.

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