Monday, February 23, 2009

The Americano

The Americano posterThe 1916 version of The Americano is a silent film put to Vaudeville background music and set before the "Great War" (World War I), “when little wars were still important”, on the unfamiliar island of the Republic of Paragonia in the Caribbean Sea. The island is described as one of sunshine, music, adventure, and romance, but another perspective is soon revealed. The Paragonia Cabinet is set to discuss if the contract for the American Mining Company to continue operation on the island should be re-newed. It appears as though all parties are in favor of the partnership as it would boost Paragonia’s economy; all except for the vindictive Minister of War, Salsa Espada (Carl Stockdale), who refers to the company as those “American pigs”. But Espada stands alone and so the renewal goes through. President de Castalar (Spottiswoode Aitken) chooses the Premier of the Republic, Alberto Castille (Tote Du Crow), to travel with the Premier’s wife and the President’s daughter, Juana (Alma Rubens), the “Rose of Paragonia”, to the mining company’s home office in New York in order to finalize the contract. The School of Mining has sent the reference of engineer and “regular American” Blaze Derringer (Douglas Fairbanks) for the tough job of assisting Paragonia in the mining contract, but when Blaze sees that Paragonia doesn’t even fit on the same map as NewYork, he quickly declines the offer. Castille enters just after the refusal, and Blaze leaves the office only to be confronted with the beautiful face of Juana which quickly changes his decision and he accepts the position in Paragonia.

That very day, Castille receives bad news from home and must catch the next boat back. Juana manages to write a note to Blaze telling him not to go to an unhappy country. This warning piques Blaze’s curiousity and he makes sure to be on the next boat to the island. Upon arriving, he is treated as an outsider when no one offers him directions to the President’s house, until a strange, bearded, old man reveals the location and asks Blaze to tell the señorita that there’s hope. Slightly confused, Blaze continues on, unbeknownst to him that the President has been overthrown by Espada and his sidekick Colonel Gargaras, one of Juana’s many eager suitors. When Blaze isn’t let into the mansion through the front door, he boldly climbs a side wall into the garden where Juana throws down a message telling him to return at midnight, only adding to the ominous mystery. Blaze then heads to the company office which appears to have been ransacked and only Harold Armitage White, a black man in the position of attaché in the mining company, is there to greet him. Blaze declares to a hesitant Harold that the Americans must stick together and they both leave the looted building.

Later, when Blaze is eating dinner at a posh restaurant, the same bearded, old man approaches and hands him a note which asks Blaze to follow him. It turns out that the old man is actually Castille in disguise from Espada and he informs Blaze that Gargaras is forcing Juana into marriage or he will murder her father. Castille and Blaze plot to break the President out of prison when it appears that Espada has been siphoning money out of the soldiers’ pay because he is unable to operate the mines without a good engineer. Meanwhile, the President has discovered that his cell in San Mateo prison attaches to an old, escape tunnel, but the entrance has been filled-in with concrete. He decides to write “23 noviembre 1899” on tiny pieces of paper which float down to the rocky coast below his cell when the maid deposits them out the window with the rest of the rubbish. Blaze and Castille discover the notes while scouting the prison and Juana deciphers the code with the help of her father’s diary which notes the prison cell’s unique structure on that specific entry date. They prepare to break the President out that night, but the plans are delayed when Espada has Blaze arrested so as to coerce him with a bribe of ‘soldier money’ to run the mines. Blaze agrees in order to avoid confrontation and then races to the prison and digs through the tunnel’s wall to free the President. Blaze, Castille, Harold, and the President race back into town when they realize that they don’t have much time until Juana is forced to marry Gargaras. They arrive with seconds to spare, and Blaze throws some weight around as he fights several soldiers at once. He then appears on the balcony to the delight of the crowd of people below all chanting “Americano” in admiration of this man who is going to start up the mine for them once again. Without losing any time, he denounces Espada in front of the crowd for stealing money from the army and reveals that the president has been freed. The film ends by stating in shock that after all this, Juana still marries the Head of the Army. A happy ending blooms when it is learned that the brave Blaze has been appointed Head of the Army in place of Gargaras.

The title of The Americano commences a linguistic hybridity which continues the entire way through this silent film, with even the on-screen translations lacking in a basic knowledge of Spanish. The indistinct island of Paragonia adds to this vagueness of culture, but also complements the dependence that this small Republic invests in the mighty and familiar country of America. With a name as equally ambiguous as Paragonia, the American Mining Company, represented by the adventurous and charming persona of Blaze, swoops in to not only save the economic crisis of the populace, but to rescue the beloved President from his usurper. In light of such events as the US securing Cuba as a territory in 1903 and the possession of a completed Panama Canal in 1914, it seems only natural that America is portrayed in the film as a giant power capable of single-handedly liberating a floundering Caribbean country, while leaving no trace of the traditional American desire for foreign resources. It’s baffling that such a pretext remains even after a situation which occurred during the preliminary filming of The Americano in Tijuana, Mexico, where Fairbanks and the film crew were arrested by corrupt Mexican soldiers, who turned out to be militia short on cash; thus causing those involved with the film to retreat north shortly after, with their tails between their legs, to resume filming in San Diego. After such an incident, perhaps it could be argued that the adventurous and triumphant American spirit displayed so openly in The Americano only exists in the context of narratives.

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