Juarez (1939)

JuarezJuarez Poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Written by John Huston, Aeneas MacKenzie, and Wolfgang Reinhardt
Warner Bros

First Viewing/Warner Archive Collection DVD


Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg: [as he is being led to his execution by firing squad] “Distribute this money among your men and tell them to aim for my heart.”

Ponderous is the adjective that first comes to mind when describing this movie.

This is a fictionalized account of the events that gave us Mexico’s National Day, Cinco de Mayo.  Benito Juarez (Paul Muni), a 100% Zopotec Indian and former shepherd, is President of Mexico and leads resistence to French occupation of the country.  Meanwhile, it looks certain that the Union will win the American Civil War and Emperor Napoleon III (Claude Rains) fears that the U.S. will soon be in a position to enforce the Monroe Doctrine to throw the French forces out.  Since the doctrine only applies to foreign incursion in the Western Hemisphere, Napoleon decides to rig a plebicite and have the Mexican people call for their own monarch.  He dupes the Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg (Brian Aherne) of Austria into assuming the crown, with the encouragement of his beloved wife Carlota (Bette Davis).

Maximilian tries to be a benevolent ruler and decries the plans of the Mexican elite to reclaim lands previously distributed to the peons by Juarez.  He appeals to Juarez for cooperation but Juarez resolutely resists and eventually Maximilian adopts brutal means to quell the rebellion against him.  Meanwhile, Carlota, who has been unable to bear a longed-for child, slowly descends into madness.  With Donald Crisp as Marechal Bazine, Gilbert Roland as Porfirio Diaz, Gale Sondergaard as the Empress Eugenie and many other great character actors of the period including Joseph Calleia, Louis Calhern and Harry Davenport.

In terms of screen time, this could better have been called “Maximilian” and Brian Aherne’s performance is the highlight of the film.  Paul Muni’s direction seems to have been to look expressionless yet noble, and while he complied beautifully this does not make for an engrossing experience.  Bette Davis’s mad scene did not convince this viewer.  I apparently differ from the average IMDb user (7.3/10) so your mileage may vary.

Brian Aherne was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work on this picture and Tony Gaudio was nominated for his black and white cinematography.


6 thoughts on “Juarez (1939)

  1. Here is a review that I wrote for this film several years ago and I still stand by it. It pretty much agrees with your opinion, Bea.

    “Brian Aherne, as the Emperor Maximillian, is the strongest thing going for this historical film depicting the failed attempt by Louis Napoleon to create a puppet government in Mexico. The rest of the casting is uneven at best. John Garfield is badly miscast as Diaz, as is that great character actor Donald Crisp. Paul Muni playing the Zapotac Indian, Benito Juarez, manages to just look stoic and sullen and is not called upon to do much acting. Maybe it’s the makeup! Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard are outstanding as Napoleon III and his queen Eugenie and they play at the devious political game with just the right amount of intrigue.

    The film is historically correct and that is part of the problem. The filmmakers put every incident that led to the fall of Maximillian into the story and the film drags on and on. It’s more information that we need to know.

    There are mixed opinions on the Bette Davis portrayal of Empress Carlotta, the unstable wife of Maximillian. Hers is an interesting story but Davis may not have put enough incipient madness into her characterization.

    On the whole,this is a pretty good history lesson with no Hollywood happy ending tacked on, that tells of a well meaning, gentle man who was badly used by the French emperor, sent to rule a people of whom he knew nothing, in a land where he was not wanted. And Aherne absolutely is perfect for the part…..he is the star of this film.”

    • Your review expresses my feelings perfectly, or would if I knew more about Mexican history. Two great minds … I really liked Aherne. I don’t think I’ve seen enough of him.

  2. I seem to have liked this movie more than pretty much anybody else who has seen it since it’s original release.
    Here’s a link to my comments on the Classic Movies thread at the Classic Comics Forum.

    • Nice comment. Juarez held the gun on Maximilian??!! The things we learn every day… You are surely not the only one who liked it. It’s holding at 7.3/10 at IMDb which is quite a strong rating.

      • No, Juarez didn’t hold a gun on Maximilian! I was describing it as if history was written by comic book writers and the events were exaggerated on the cover. Sorry about the confusion.
        I found Juarez to be fairly hilarious.

        • One’s mood is so important in these things. On another day, I might have found it hilarious too … So glad for the correction. It would have changed my vision of Juarez.

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