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VIVA ZAPATA! – Alex North


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Elia Kazan and author John Steinbeck had long been friends and shared an interest in Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata, a champion of the peons who did what few men in history have done – achieved power and walked away from it, wary of its corrupting influence. In 1949 they decided to collaborate and bring the tale of this Mexican legend to the big screen. Steinbeck was tasked with writing the screenplay and he referenced Edgcomb Pinchon’s Zapata The Unconquerable (1941) as a guide. Kazan used his clout to obtain backing from Darryl F. Zanuck who agreed to produce the film for 20th Century Fox, providing a budget of $1.8 million. A fine cast was hired which included Marlon Brando in the titular role, Jean Peters as Josefa Zapata, Anthony Quinn as Eufemio Zapata, Alan Reed as Pancho Villa, and Fay Roope as Porfirio Diaz.

The story takes place in Mexico in 1910 during the tumultuous times of the Mexican revolution and subsequent civil war. Zapata heads a delegation to Mexico City to offer grievance to Dictator Porfirio Diaz concerning the exploitation of the peons by the landowner hacendados class. Diaz rebuffs him, resulting in Zapata and his brother leading an uprising in the south, joined by Pancho Villa in the north, under the banner of Francisco Madero. Diaz is toppled in 1911, Madero assumes power, but institutes no reform or compensation to the campesinos who fought against Diaz. In time Madero is murdered by his General Victoriano Huerta and Zapata’s brother Eufemio betrays him, becoming a local dictator. Zapata again leads a rebellion, defeats Huerta, but refuses to take over the mantle of leadership of the country fearing the corrupting influence of wielding such power. He departs unsoiled, yet is still considered a threat by powerful hacendados interests, who lure into an ambush where he is brutally murdered. Yet he passes unto legend with the people believing that he lives on and continues to fight for the compesinos in the hills. The film was not a commercial success, failing to cover its production costs, however it was applauded by critics and secured five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Score, winning one for Best Supporting Actor.

Elia Kazan bonded with Alex North in New York where he scored his Broadway play “Death of a Salesman”. He brought North with him to Hollywood and stipulated in each film contract that North must be hired as his composer. North had an affinity for Mexican music having been exposed to its Mariachi bands and folk songs when he studied in Mexico under the tutelage of Silvestre Revueltas in the late 1930s. What resulted in writing the score was an amazing confluence of his trademark dynamic orchestral modernist dissonance with the lyricism and warm melodies inherent in Mexican folk songs. North understood that to achieve the sounds requisite for Mexican cultural sensibilities and auras that he would have to augment the traditional orchestra with additional instruments, which provided the indigenous Mariachi sound, including guitar, guitarron, trumpets, violins, with accents provided by xylophone and pan pipes.

To support his soundscape, North would utilize five primary themes. The Revolution Theme emotes in song-like form and serves as the score’s primary theme. It arises from a revolutionary folk song, which ultimately becomes an anthem for the revolution. Zapata’s Theme four-note theme supports his identity as the indomitable, indefatigable leader of the peon revolution. It is primarily trumpet declared, although statements by warm French horns, and inspired trombones as in the finale also find voice. The Love Theme supports the love between Josepha and Emiliano, emoting from her perspective. A chorale for oboe, eventually joined by tender woodwinds and bells offers a stirring exposition, which becomes sublime when transferred to sumptuous strings. The Children’s Theme supports the sight of children in the film. It offers a woodwind rich construct, which bubbles with happiness and wonderful joie de vie. The War Theme is simple in construct, emoted with martial snare drums and horns militare. It is primarily employed during battle to propel the fighting. Lastly, we have Adelita, a famous Mexican corridos, or folk song for those fighting against oppression and for justice. It is used but once in the finale, but what a statement it makes! The theme offers an impassioned paean of the revolution and is expressed with patriotic fervor.

The film opens with the iconic Alfred Newman fanfare, which supports the 20th Century Fox Studio logo. “Main Title” offers an astounding score highlight, which abounds in complex orchestrations, Mexican auras and rhythms, driving forth in a stormy sea of horn propelled dissonance. It supports the roll of the opening credits, which display as black graffiti-like script on a pueblo wall. We open with a flight of xylophone with a fleeting reference of Zapata’s Theme on trumpets. We begin to hear Zapata’s Theme coalescing beginning at 0:16 empowered by festive dance-like melody. The theme finally asserts itself developing at 0:30 with a complex, ethnically rich exposition challenged by six-note phrases by contrapuntal trumpets. At 0:56 we enter the film proper propelled by trumpets bravura and festive Mariachi rhythms of the Revolutionary Theme as on-screen script informs us of a delegation of Indians from Morelos have come to seek an audience with President Porfirio Diaz. A diminuendo at 1:10 sustains the trumpet line, which supports a pastorale, as we see the men searched and their weapons confiscated. I discern a subtle portentous drum cadence playing as a dirge underneath as they walk to meet El Presidente.

“What is Your Name?” reveals the patronizing President offering false sympathy, unrealistic advice, and deferring the matter to the courts. Zapata speaks up and informs him that they cannot do as he asks and verify the border stones of their stolen lands as they would be shot crossing into them by the very men who stole their lands. He then adds, have you ever heard of a court ruling for the people against a landowner? As he departs the now seething Diaz demands to know his name, and when given it at 0:21, the music surges with anger as President Diaz circles the name Zapata on the list of those attending the meeting. North supports this final action with repeating statements of Zapata’s Theme by stings and woodwinds cloaked with a veiled anger borne by muted contrapuntal trumpets. “Zapata” reveals Zapata leading the aggrieved peons to their stolen lands. They cut the barbed wire and go in and begin to identify the white boundary stones of their stolen lands. Music enters with explosive aggression, a dissonant torrential storm driven by horns bellicoso, pounding drums feroce, trilling woodwinds, a churning string ostinato, and volatile chattering by high register clarinets and flutes as we see armed horsemen striking down some of those fleeing. They have also brought a machinegun, which mows down many men and women. At 0:40 Zapata’s Theme resounds on trumpets bravura as he takes out the machinegun and kills the commander. We end sharply as Zapata rides away to safety as the pistoleros pursue. “Fernando Aguirre” reveals a sympathetic journalist seeking out Zapata, undeterred by warning shots fired from their encampment in the hills. He brings news of Francisco Madero leading the revolution against Diaz. Zapata sends a man to meet Madero and then departs, leaving Aguirre alone. This scene was not scored.

“Zapata’s Love” reveals him coming into town to propose to Josepa, who rebuffs him, saying she will not marry a fugitive from the law. He tries to reason with her to no avail and then grabs her wrist to coerce her. She says she would go if forced, but later kill him in his sleep. When he releases his hand and sees that he hurt her wrist, we see that he is sorry as he rubs it gently. North supports the moment with his tender Love Theme emoted warmly by a chorale for oboe, soon joined by kindred woodwinds and bells. As he departs at 0:34, we see that she does love him as the melody transfers to sumptuous strings. At 0:39 we segue into “Children’s Episode”, a delightful cue, which supports the sight of children as we see Zapata’s horse being washed at the stable. North introduces his playful woodwind rich Children’s Theme, which bubbles with happiness and wonderful joie de vie. Yet at 1:21 the melody darkens and begins to swell on a crescendo of anger as the owner of the stable thrashes a starving boy for stealing food, with an enraged Zapata coming to the boy’s aid. “Innocente’s Death” reveals Zapata’s friend hand tied with a noose around his neck being pulled in a walk of death by two policemen. When Zapata intercedes, the rope is yanked and Innocente begins being dragged by the neck. Zapata strikes one of the men down when they refuse to let him go, but the other rides off dragging Innocente along. Zapata follows and music enters on a horn propelled surge of impressionist anger as he slices the rope and Innocente rolls down into a ditch. At 0:10 a solo flute triste joined by strummed guitar, bells and harp adornment offers an aching lament. At 0:46 vitality and renewed purpose returns joined at 1:07 by Zapata’s Theme as the thankful peons offer him sanctuary in their homes from the authorities. We close on a diminuendo of uncertainty as Zapata again finds himself at odds with the law.

“Gathering Forces” offers a supreme score highlight and one of the finest compositions in North’s canon. Zapata’s request for Josepha’s hand in marriage is sternly rebuffed by her father who declares him unworthy. He storms out enraged and is arrested by the police and bound. Eufemio, who watches nearby, begins hitting two stones together as the Innocente’s corpse is brought back to town. Soon one by one the people of the town begin slamming stones together, which creates a chorus of discontent that supports the brigade of twenty police pulling the noosed Zapata to jail. Music enters on a martial bongo drum ostinato as Zapata struggles to keep up. Slowly, an inexorable musical expansion and intensification commences at 0:09 when folksy woodwinds and guitar introduce Zapata’s Theme, which joins as peons begin accompanying the police. At 0:49 strings nobile join to add a melodic core as the Revolution Theme at last takes form as peons tip their hats in respect to Zapata. At 1:24 horns join to further fortify and empower the swelling musical force as we see a rising anxiety in the police captain as the number of peons surrounding his brigade swells. At 1:51 proud trumpets add their voices, transforming the Revolution Theme into an inspired anthem. A tension diminuendo at 2:58 supports Eufemio and armed men barring the road. The Captain sees he is vastly outnumbered and wisely sets Zapata free. In frustration the Captain yells this is revolution, and we swell at 3:05 on a celebratory crescendo as Zapata orders the telegraph wires chopped and they ride off as free men.

“Revolution” reveals Zapata blowing up a Federal train, killing the supporting troops, and seizing a large amount of dynamite and gunpowder. In a following scene several women lay a trail of gun powder to a Federal fort, and place baskets full of dynamite. They are all killed, but one manages to light the gunpowder, which detonates the dynamite, blowing open the fort’s gate. Zapata’s leads a charge, and gains another victory when he overwhelms the garrison. Afterwards the town holds a feast honoring Zapata for their liberation, and a courier from Francisco Madero delivers a letter awarding him the title of General. This scene was unscored. In “Diaz Flees” Zapata again solicits Josepha’s hand in marriage from her family, news arrives that Diaz has left the country. A celebratory march supports the people’s joy. The next day the festive Mexican music is sustained as we see Emiliano and Josepha leaving the church as newlyweds. Mexican folk music supports their wedding night. He dreads tomorrow’s meeting with Madero as he is illiterate, and so he asks Josepha to teach him. The music for this scene is not on the album.

Music for the next two scenes is not found on the album. “Madero” reveals President Madero offering Zapata a huge ranch as his reward, but he angrily refuses it, saying he did not fight for personal gain, but instead for the peons to regain their land. He demands that their lands be returned immediately, and Madero says he must be patient as laws first need to be passed to ensure legality. Zapata departs with a veiled threat that he and his men remain armed with limited patience. After Zapata’s departure, General Huerta enters and demands that Madero kill Zapata as he threatens the regime. Madero refuses and we see in Huerta’s eyes an intent to seize power. The next day in “Madero Visits Zapata” Madero out of genuine admiration and appreciation goes to Zapata’s home town to praise him and assure the people that he will work to get their lands returned. But scouts alert Madero and Zapata with news that General Huerta approaches with three regimens and artillery, which sets off the alarm and causes Zapata to suspect duplicity from Madero. Madero has been blind sighted and vows to ride out and stop the attack. As Zapata mobilizes his men, they ride out carried by the Zapata Anthem. As a distraught Madero watches, dissonant strings affanato speak of his feelings of betrayal.

“Huerta” offers a fine action piece. A low register menacing woodwind chorale supports two scouts searching for a river crossing. At 0:14 the martial drums of the War Theme raise tension as Eufemio kills a scout, dons his uniform. At 0:25 a warm Mexican folk song supports Eufemio signaling the other scout the false location of Zapata’s men. At 0:33 a confident new martial cadence propels the Federal troops ride across the river. Zapata’s Theme enters at 0:44 on trumpets as his troops prepare to ambush. A string borne interlude at 1:05 reveals Zapata watching the approach through binoculars. The War Theme’s martial tension returns at 1:25 and escalates as the main body of the Federal column will soon be fully exposed in the river crossing. At 2:42 all Hell breaks loose as the rebel’s attack, ambushing the Federal troops in a withering crossfire empowered by the Zapata Fanfare, which contests with a strident opposing Federal Fanfare. “Madero’s Demise” reveals Madero being released from house arrest and taken to General Huerta, who has him gunned down in a brutal grab of the Presidency. This scene is unscored.

In “Pablo” we have a cue of terrible pathos born of betrayal. Zapata confronts his dear friend Pablo who admits to collaborating with Madero. He says that he believed him to be a good man who was betrayed by General Huerta. North offers an aching lament, a molto tragico composition, which speaks to Zapata’s despair over Pablo’s actions, and what he must now do to punish him. A bleak passage for cello doloroso that commences at 0:19 intones the desolation felt by Zapata. At 1:52 grim horns duolo sound to intensify Zapata’s pain as Pablo asks that strangers not kill him, and that instead he should die by Zapata’s hand. We see Zapata struggling with his conscience as to whether to execute his boyhood friend and as the two men walk out together one last time. We close darkly with a drum beat of death and dissonant crescendo of pain as we hear a single gunshot. “Conscience” was intended to support Zapata returning home after his defeat of Huerta, but the music was dialed out of the film. Strummed guitar ushers in the Love Theme on horns, which entwines with his theme on strings as Josepha seeks to comfort her husband. We end darkly with dissonance as we see him tired and struggling with his conscience over what he must do tomorrow when he meets Pancho Villa.

“Zapata And Villa Meet” reveals Zapata arriving to meet General Pancho Villa to celebrate the defeat of Huerta. A marcia celebrativa supports the scene as we see Zapata refuse to sit in the center chair, deferring to Villa. Later as the two discuss the fate of Mexico, Villa announces his retirement and plans to end his days enjoying a quiet life on his ranch. He declares Zapata President, Zapata refuses, and Villa asks that he sleep on it as there is no one else. “Morelos” offers a powerful score highlight where Brando’s acting and North’s music achieve an inspired confluence. It reveals Zapata as acting President attending to matters of state. A delegation of his friends from his home town Morelos arrives and offer grievance that his brother Eufemio has seized their lands, which they had plowed and begun to sow. Zapata says that he will look into it, only to hear his own words come back to him, when one of them counters that this cannot wait. He demands to know the man’s name, to which he answers, Hernandez. Zapata then circles his name on the list, just as Diaz had circled his name years before. Music enters with aggrieved strings and grim horns as Zapata realizes, to his dismay, that he has become Diaz. A discordant statement of his theme sounds as he angrily tears up the paper at 0:28 and storms into his office. The Revolution Theme is reborn for an inspired exposition as Aguirre warns him not to abandon his office. Zapata will have none of it, grabs his rifle and sombrero and angrily departs, empowered by his theme borne by trombones trionfali.

“Eufemio” offers a painful confrontation between the brothers. Eufemio is bitter that he fought for the revolution, was made a general, and earned just dust as his reward. He asserts that he is entitled to theses lands as well as the owner’s wives. Music enters as he storms out carried by grieving strings, taking with him one a villager’s wife. Bass doloroso, guitar and shifting woodwind arpeggios create a soundscape of despair and usher in the Revolution Theme as a deeply saddened Zapata advises the men that this land is yours and you must defend it with your lives. At 2:10 horns of vengeance resound with fury on a crescendo of violence as an aggrieved husband guns down Eufemio. We close with aching strings affanato as Emiliano grieves over the Eufemio’s lifeless body. “Zapata Lowers His Hand” reveals the men saying he should have a general’s burial, only to be waved off by Zapata who says he will instead take him home to be buried. A sad guitar, full of regret supports Zapata’s grieving as he holds his brother and weeps. “Carranza’s Treachery” reveals the new president has consolidated his position by defeating Pancho Villa in the north, and now turns his attention to Zapata in the south who has instituted the Plan de Ayala, which returns lands seized by the hacendados to the peons. Carranza’s scorched earth and murder tactics fail, and so they at Aguirre’s suggestion, resolve to lure Zapata into an ambush and kill him. This scene is unscored.

“Josefa’s Love” offers a beautiful score highlight. It reveals Zapata awakened by his men with news that a Colonel is defecting and wants to join Zapata, bringing with him machine guns and enough ammo to last a year. Zapata is cautious but plans to proceed as they desperately need the weapons and ammo. After the men depart Josepha confronts Emiliano, speaking of her weariness of the fighting, the unending violence, and constant fear of losing him. He rebuffs her and she walks off full of despair. North supports with the most moving passage in the score, an achingly beautiful soliloquy of the Love Theme offered by solo violin triste. Emiliano explains his reasoning, but she no longer wants to hear it. This discord manifests in the Love Theme with shifting chromatic auras. She fears a trap, declares bitterly that he wants to kill himself, and weeps in his arms. We close with the Revolution Theme entwining with the Love Theme, informing us of his internal conflict between duty and love. In “Josefa” the men come to him and say the Federal garrison is dead and all that remains is to procure the machine guns and ammo. Zapata decides to go ahead with the mission and as he mounts his horse the Love Theme enters on oboe tenero, attended by soft strings, two mandolins and kindred woodwinds. At 0:43 we surge with strings appassionato as Josepha runs to him and begs him not to go as it is a trap. We close with dissonant writhing pain as he rides off and she falls hard to the ground weeping.

“Zapata Falls/End Title” offers a magnificent score highlight where it achieves its emotional apogee. It reveals Zapata’s arrival at an enclosed plaza to claim the weapons cache. He is greeted warmly by the defecting Colonel with a hug, which surprises him, and what is essentially, a Judas hug. He then offers Zapata the return of his beloved white horse. He walks to him, lovingly caresses it, while the Colonel, who is behind his back, slowly raises his sword, causing the horse to spook. As Zapata turns, soldiers appear on all four walls surrounding the plaza and discharge a withering barrage, which strews his body with dozens of bullets. When the general comes out Aguirre says it is finally over, but unfortunately his horse escaped. The general counters that sometimes a dead man can be a formidable enemy. Aguirre orders that Zapata’s corpse be taken and left at the city plaza so all can see that he is dead. Music enters as they toss his body on the central platform atop writhing strings, harsh snare drums and grieving horns as the women of the town rush to him with flowers and begin cleansing his body. Yet as the men join, the orchestral tumult subsides and the folk song Adelita enters as a stirring homage for the fallen hero, emoted as a marcia d’onore. The men assert that the badly mangled body is not Zapata, that they will not be fooled, and that Zapata lives on to fight for them. They say that he is in the mountains and will return one day when they need him. North supports the moment with a stirring, slow building crescendo magnifico, which swells with patriotic fervor. At 2:00 as the men turn and look to the mountains, Zapata’s white horse is seen and the crescendo is crowned gloriously by Zapata’s Anthem, declared boldly with trombones maestoso as he passes unto legend. Bravo!

I would like to thank the late Nick Redman, Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this long sought reissue of Alex North’s masterpiece. The score remix and restoration by Mike Matessino and mastering by Daniel Hersch was well done, provide excellent audio quality, and a fine listening experience. North understood that to achieve the sounds requisite for Mexican cultural sensibilities and auras that he would have to augment the traditional orchestra with additional instruments, which provided the indigenous Mariachi sound, including guitar, guitarron, trumpets, violins, with accents provided by xylophone and pan pipes. He succeeded on all counts, blending his dynamic trademark orchestral modernist dissonance and chromaticism with the lyricism and warm consonant melodies inherent in Mexican folk songs. The synthesis of these two musical sensibilities is a brilliant accomplishment, which cannot be understated. In scene after scene the dynamism of this amazing alchemy enhanced Kazan’s storytelling, allowing him to fully realize his vision. Folks, this was North’s fourth scoring effort, which secured him a third Academy Award nomination, an outstanding accomplishment. I believe it to be one of the finest scores in his canon, a masterpiece of the Golden Age, and an absolutely essential purchase for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6MkjlY8F4w&list=OLAK5uy_kGb6Aix1URBQ8mlJ4ojBGKyeLf6zmnq4M&index=14

Buy the Viva Zapata! soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:42)
  • What’s Your Name? (0:36)
  • Zapata (0:59)
  • Zapata’s Love (1:36)
  • Innocente’s Death (1:23)
  • Gathering Forces (3:25)
  • Huerta (3:35)
  • Pablo (2:39)
  • Conscience (2:39)
  • Zapata and Villa Meet (0:49)
  • Morelos (1:45)
  • Eufemio (2:37)
  • Zapata Lowers His Hand (1:12)
  • Josefa’s Love (1:38)
  • Josefa (1:02)
  • Zapata Falls (End Title) (2:23)

Running Time: 28 minutes 51 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-0208-1074 (1952/2008)

Music composed by Alex North. Conducted by Lionel Newman. Orchestrations by Maurice de Packh. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Alex North and Alfred Newman. Album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson.

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