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.