Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Old Gringo

Old Gringo posterThe "old gringo" in the film Old Gringo (1989) is Ambrose Bierce (Gregory Peck) a famous American writer and journalist who has denounced his American life and goes south to fight in the Mexican Revolution in 1913. His fate is intertwined with that of a gringa, sexually repressed schoolteacher Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda), who has also left her boring American life to be the governess for a wealthy landowning Mexican family, the Mirandas. Both Americans arrive in Chihuahua looking to make something of their lives. What they find is General Tomas Arroyo, a handsome revolutionary leader who will change their destinies, and the destiny of Mexico. Amidst the revolutionary fervour and celebration in Chihuahua, the three characters find each other. Bierce approaches Arroyo and asks to fight in his revolution; a skeptical but curious Arroyo accepts. Without crossing paths with Bierce, Harriet Winslow asks Arroyo to help her get to the hacienda of the Mirandas in the Sierra mountains; Arroyo accepts because he can use her to get into the Miranda house and expropriate the family with his revolutionary forces. And so ensues the adventure: Arroyo and his men escort Ms. Winslow into the mountains, where Arroyo's army awaits, and Mr. Bierce follows far behind on horseback.

Upon arrival at the Miranda hacienda, it becomes clear that the Mirandas have fled in the face of the encroaching revolutionary army. Their hacienda, however, is being defended by los Federales, the federal anti-revolutionary troops. A bloody and violent battle takes place, in which many men on both sides are killed. Bierce becomes the hero of the battle when he orchestrates the collision of a train into the Miranda house, the destruction of which leads to the defeat of the Federales by the revolucionarios. Ms. Winslow manages to emerge unscathed from the carnage, shocked and bewildered. That night, while Arroyo's army and their women and children celebrate the victory, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Bierce meet and a romantic spark is lit between the bitter old man and the lost spinster. In the following days, Ms. Winslow and Mr. Bierce become immersed in the life of the revolutionaries at the hacienda, Ms. Winslow doing chores and talking with the women and children while Mr. Bierce befriends General Arroyo assists him with logistics. The happy and determined Mexican people charm the two Americans and teach them a few lessons about the Revolution, making them feel that they are contributing to a positive cause for the first time in their lives. A romantic triangle is introduced when the young General Arroyo takes an interest in Ms. Winslow, who must choose between the powerful, lustful young general and the older gentleman who is besotted with her. Her sexual liberation comes when she succumbs to the seduction of Arroyo in a luxurious bed of the Miranda hacienda.

But the carefree existence in the hacienda is fleeting, for all characters. It is revealed that Tomas Arroyo is in fact a bastard child of the escaped Don Miranda, who raped Arroyo's mother and impregnated her. This fact haunts Arroyo, who suffered at the hands of the Mirandas his whole life and is now unable to let go of the hacienda he has taken from them. He is obsessed with the deeds to the land, which are to be redistributed among the people, but he cannot read them. When the leader of the Revolution, Pancho Villa, summons Arroyo and his army to fight at the front, Arroyo delays leaving the hacienda until even his colonels begin to question his fitness as a leader. Arroyo begins to execute any men who question him. When Mr. Bierce, in an attempt to free Arroyo from his obsession, burns the land deeds with a candle, Arroyo loses control and shoots Bierce to death. Bierce dies in the arms of Ms. Winslow, who has just found out Bierce's identity as her favourite writer. Ms. Winslow flees the hacienda, disillusioned and afraid of Arroyo's rage.
In Chihuahua, Ms. Winslow arranges to take Bierce's body back to America, so she can bury him properly; he was like a father to her and she would like to repay him for his kindness. The body is in possession of General Pancho Villa himself, the leader of the Revolution. When she is summoned to his military lair, she is surprised to find a chagrined Arroyo there. Villa asks her to sign a witness statement of the death of Mr. Bierce, and, to her bewilderment, the death of Tomas Arroyo. It becomes clear that Arroyo is to be killed by his own men for his lack of judgment as a revolutionary leader and his murder of Bierce. After saying a heartfelt goodbye to his friends and fellow soldiers, Arroyo submits himself to be executed by them. His last words are "Viva la Revolucion!". Following this, a heartbroken but renewed Harriet Winslow leaves Chihuahua for America.

This film is based on the novel "Gringo Viejo" , by Carlos Fuentes. It is a film pervaded by the revolutionary spirit of Mexico, the enthusiastic and heartfelt struggle for the common people and the violence that inevitably comes with it. It portrays the essential process of creative destruction; for a new Mexico to be born, the old Mexico must be destroyed. The revolutionaries are philosophical about this creative destruction. "You gringos are too complicated," a bullet-strapped sombrero-wearing moustached fighter tells Bierce, "Death is just death!". Ms. Winslow calls Mexico a land where "Death is not the end, but the beginning". Arroyo's acceptance of his own death shows his true commitment to the Revolution and his understanding that the Revolution must be pure and unstained by his betrayal. He is, in the end, a Miranda, which is everything the Revolution stands against, and so he must be destroyed. Patriotism has the ultimate value in Mexico, and its people will do anything for their country and their freedom.

For the gringos, Mexico also provides freedom from the chains with which America has imprisoned them. Bierce is in search of the truth, sick of the lies of the American newspapers and his own writing. In Mexico, he seeks a way to "die admirably", to fight a war the way it deserves to be fought. He denounces the dirty imperialist goals of America, especially in the "shameful" war in Cuba in 1898. "To be a gringo in Mexico...aaaah, that is euthanasia", he muses. Mexico is a place where he can die, where he can be free from the difficulties of life and age. In Mexico, death is indeed a beginning, one which Bierce seeks. A death in the Mexican Revolution is a noble one. It is his death which consequently frees Arroyo from his identity crisis and his tortured life; Bierce's death facilitates the death of Arroyo. In being set free from life, Bierce allows Arroyo to be set free as well. Ms. Winslow also finds freedom in Mexico. She is amazed and inspired by the sense of humour and zeal for life of the Mexicans, who are surrounded by violence and suffering. She finds her long-lost sexuality with the help of Bierce and Arroyo. She discovers her strength and her femininity through guidance from the Mexican women. To Arroyo she says, "You made me believe I could live a different kind of life. I'll never be the same". She adopts the Mexican attitude towards death and accepts Bierce and Arroyo's deaths with strength. The Mexican Revolution leads to Mexico's freedom, as well as the freedom of the protagonists.