Following is a special, guest post by Wendy Merckel. You can follow Wendy on Facebook here.
Whew! Just look at this guy! Those full sensitive lips, the clear gaze and long eyelashes….. who wouldn’t line up at the movie theater to watch him, even if he only stood there and looked pretty?
Pedro Armendariz was a dark-haired, rugged, virile, great looking MAN. He was an icon of Mexican film, the indisputable star of El Epoca de Oro – the golden age of Mexican cinema – from approximately 1938- 1954. His stature in Mexico was equal to Clark Gable’s in the U.S. He sported a manly mustache, which may be where the comparison to Gable got its start, though virtually all of the famous Mexican leading men wore mustaches of various sizes and shapes at this time. His arresting and incredibly expressive green-brown eyes and deep, resonant voice must have melted many a heart, not just in the movie theaters. But there is something more to Pedro Armendariz than just a leading man’s good looks. His handsomeness belies a depth and refinement that few actors ever achieve.
His background is as far as can be from the outlaws, peasants and soldiers he played. He was born near Mexico City, but grew up partly in the United States (which he didn’t like to admit). His mother was American and after his parents died, his uncle sent him to college in California where he seems to have studied everything from business to engineering, journalism and at some point, lived the life of a bohemian art student. A jack of all trades after college, legend has it that a job as a tour guide led to his discovery by a leading Mexican director, who witnessed Armendariz reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy to a group of tourists and hired him on the spot. One can easily picture this gorgeous young man mesmerizing his captive audience. He was blessed with looks and a low, sonorous voice, but Armendariz also had the reflective turn of mind and internal focus required to play the melancholy Dane.
Some actors are born greater. Not just great, but greater. They surpass their acting brethren. Their calling is “to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nations.” as Hamlet himself says. Pedro Armendariz is one of the very few actors who makes me feel the heart and soul of all humanity in his characters. He helps me see the larger picture. In the films of John Ford and Emilio Fernandez especially, Armendariz achieves something few others can – a sort of grandeur – a realization of the longing, the melancholy soulfulness, or saudade that connects us as humans – and this sets him apart from most leading men. The grand illusion that we are somehow different melts away when I watch Pedro Armendariz act. His expressiveness and emotionality is universal.
Armendariz represented Mexico to those inside and outside his country. Because of his stardom, he keenly felt the importance of respectful and honest portrayals. One senses this nobility of purpose in his work, and one also feels the enormous drive he had to bring about understanding and equality for Mexican actors. Roles that might have been stereotypes become something more worldly and complex in his hands.
I believe that this extra quality, the multi-layered, deep understanding of mankind that Armendariz possessed had its roots in Mexican cinema during the golden age. The Mexican studios, its directors and artists, created archetypal characters that reflected national pride. The actors WERE aspects of their nation – their characters represented heroism, innocence, conviction, vitality. Armendariz and his co-stars expressed all the characteristics Mexicans saw in themselves or wanted to see in themselves. They created a modern Mexican identity. It is what makes those hopeful golden age films, even the silly ones, so watchable, according to Alma Guillermoprieto, in her article Golden-Epoch Cinema in Mexico:
…..the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema coincided with a rare moment, perhaps akin to the first decade of the Cuban or Chinese Revolution, in which a poor and often victimized country believed in itself and thus created itself in the image it was in the act of conjuring. The energy released by this sort of magical thinking can fuel the unlikeliest representations of story.
While the stories might have been unlikely, Armendariz’ performances were full of fire and truth. In his U.S. roles, especially in the three films he made with John Ford, one senses terrific pride in his heritage. His enormous self respect and essential dignity shine down from the screen. Harry Carey Jr. said he was the most magnetic, colorful actor he ever worked with. Armendariz was never subservient, even when playing the lowest born peasant or a foolish ignorant outlaw. There is an innate grace about him. But for all that grace and dignity, he is also one of only a handful of actors who reflect truly what it is to be human. He didn’t shy away from our most unpleasant, disagreeable failings. Were I to compare him to another actor it would not be Gable, but Edward G. Robinson or perhaps Toshiro Mifune, men who encompassed both the good and the bad, men who could play the pure of heart and the nasty vindictive gangster or warlord.
Like Robinson, Armendariz was a cultured man who played characters far less refined than himself. It excites me when that refinement shows through in Pedro’s more raw American film characters. He gives them a nobility that might not come through if another actor were in the role. In FORT APACHE (1948), John Ford’s retelling of Custer’s last stand, Armendariz plays a rough and tumble soldier of mixed heritage named Sgt. Beaufort. This is an ensemble film, with lots of cast members, but Armendariz gets some memorable moments to show off his elan.
We actually hear him before we see him – he lets out a loud whoop of joy as he walks into the camera frame for the first time. It’s a skillful and pleasing stratagem that I think was Ford’s idea. Ford gives Armendariz a great entrance, and yet also shows him to be a regular guy. Natural and loose-limbed, Armendariz speaks with almost no accent. He’s at home with this group of ne’er-do-well soldiers, one of them, the common men who serve as the basis for the film.
In this film of contradictions in character, we begin to realize that the rag-tag bunch of men is a highly skilled unit. They actually know quite a bit about military rules and regulations but choose to ignore the ones that weaken their ability to work at the outpost. They adapt to their situation. Thursday (played by Henry Fonda), their new, by-the-book commanding officer, is intent on self promotion. He sees outward appearances and ethnicity only. Thursday makes up his mind that the men have become lazy and ineffectual because they dress loosely and blow off steam in pranks – and because of their ethnic backgrounds which he sees as inferior. Thursday is unable to adapt to this new part of his country, or the ways in which the men cope. His snap judgments, strict adherence to the rule book, and an inability to trust his men will lead to his destruction.
Each man brings something individual and valuable to the unit. Beaufort is multi-lingual, the only man able to communicate with Cochise, the Native American leader (played wonderfully by fellow Mexican actor Miguel Inclan). John Wayne‘s character respects this uncommon skill and requests Beaufort accompany him to the tribe’s encampment.
It’s kind of majestic, seeing Wayne and Armendariz ride through Ford country together to meet the Apache chief…. two icons of film from two different countries striding along side by side. And then something really wonderful happens! While scouting out the location of the tribe, Wayne offers Armendariz his canteen. Armendariz takes a drink and hands it back. Wayne then takes a drink. It’s over in an instant. They trust one another with their lives, they drink out of the same canteen. It is not particularly important to the story, but for me, it’s just about the best part of the movie. It’s so unusual to see Mexicans treated with such respect in American films…an example of brotherly love at a time when most films were casting Mexicans only as servants or bumbling idiots.
Beaufort interprets Cochise’s words to Thursday. The Apaches are willing to make peace if Thursday will get rid of the corrupt Indian Bureau agent who has been starving his tribe. Thursday, who acts more like a supreme ruler than a member of a two-nation parley, is offended, seeing the request as an ultimatum. His bigotry is in full swing. What we don’t know is that he’s already decided to attack the tribe as a way to make a name for himself, and Cochise’s so-called ultimatum gives him the excuse he was looking for.
Armendariz, a strong personality, gives over this translation scene to Inclan. It’s a great example of how good Armendariz at ensemble playing. The two dignified actors play off one another well. Together, one in Spanish and the other in English, they make it clear that Cochise is not to be trifled with or bullied. He is a leader, and should be respected as such. I enjoy how Armendariz and Inclan build up the tension in the scene, creating a mood of impending doom through Inclan’s gestures, and Armendariz’ vocals. It’s powerful.
At the end of the film, the regiment is trapped by the larger Native American force thanks to Thursday’s stubbornness and grandiose quest for fame. But Thursday is a brave man, and realizing his mistakes too late, resolves to die with his men. On facing death, he finally rises to the occasion. We know already from our history books that no one survives. The battlefield is eerily silent before the last charge. We see Thursday and his men encircled by a little gully, waiting for the final attack. The brave Beaufort is right in the center of the shot.
In 3 GODFATHERS (1948), a retelling of the Nativity, Armendariz plays Pedro, a cattle rustler turned bank robber. He and his unrepentant companions, played by John Wayne and Harry Carey Jr., have robbed a small town bank. The robbery goes wrong and what follows is a redemption story that contains equal elements of the Sisyphus myth and the Christmas story. Carey Jr. is shot straight off, and they are forced to make their getaway through the desert. It is merciless, draining away their water and their lives in what is basically a trial by fire. The saving grace is a baby, an orphan that they must birth as it’s mother lies dying. Director John Ford captures Pedro’s faltering doubts in closeup – the camera stays on him in this terrifying moment of indecision, but after much struggle, he resolves to perform the childbirth himself. Armendariz manages this noble, lovely scene with the utmost delicacy and brings us into the heart of the story.
Pedro’s emotional reactions lead the way spiritually through the desert. You understand his mistakes, his blaming God when he fails to tie their horses properly during a sandstorm. Pedro has great humor, and sometimes bad intentions. But he has an uncanny vision of the future – of spirituality’s triumph over adversity. Armendariz’ ability to see the big picture and his intense focus allow his character a moment or two of second sight. They must get the baby back to civilization. He has enormous drive. He refuses the water that might go to the baby, and this Armendariz acts out without pointing the gestures. It’s subtle. Pedro seems touched by God, as if the heavens had opened to him and allowed him to see a far off future which must be reached. He’s able to cope with the difficult birth when no one else was willing. His resolve reinforces the good in Wayne and sets up Carey’s religious redemption. Pedro, the simple bandit, ends up taking one for the team, without ever letting on that he will sacrifice.
Armendariz has such a huge presence, such great energy, that it’s a shock when he is no longer there to act as spiritual guide. The movie seems quiet and empty without him. There is a kind of Greek tragedy fore-knowledge that makes Armendariz’ performance resonate long after the movie is over. The idea of a poor Mexican outlaw being the bringer of life chokes me up every time. Pedro’s nobility under the worst circumstances is amazing, especially given the usual portrayals of Mexicans in the U.S. at this time.
Even more astonishing to me is Ford’s use of Pedro’s name – the baby is named after all three men, not just the Americans. The repetition of “Robert…..William…. PEDRO” (emphasis is the film’s), over and over again during the course of the movie points up Pedro’s equal status. Pedro’s equality, his right to be honored, is a given.
In Ford’s religious noir, THE FUGITIVE (1947), Armendariz doesn’t have to deal with other men’s prejudice against him. Quite the contrary. He plays a man of power and pride, a cruel state police lieutenant on the hunt for the last priest in his country (Henry Fonda), whom he hates.
His revolutionary regime despises religion – performing religious ceremonies has become a crime. The lieutenant has had innocent hostages shot in order to bring the priests out of hiding and dispose of them. Armendariz’ lover (Delores Del Rio), the mother of his illegitimate child, is hiding this last frightened holy man to prevent his execution. Armendariz the actor walks a very fine line between harshness and sympathy…just as Robinson and Mifune had done so many times. Is he really the villain? Is his character really bad? Is he completely wrong? Which side is correct, the religious or the secular? Are both perhaps right and wrong?
The Lieutenant’s hatred of religion – the opiate of the masses that he thinks has kept his people down for centuries – rings so true as to almost skew the film in Armendariz’ direction. His sincerity when talking about his people rising up from nothing makes you think twice about hating him. His feelings for Del Rio are revealed in his eyes, even while his actions are cold, brutal, angry, hateful, violent.
Like Inspector Javert, his search for the priest is an all-consuming obsession that has taken something out of him. His mission has put an obstacle between him and the woman. He cannot give up the job that has given him self respect, but it makes him a villain even as he is trying to pull his country out of the dark ages. The film becomes far greater thanks to the complexity, the truthfulness and vulnerability of Armendariz’ performance. His elegance here, and his obvious love for his people help delineate the character’s kinder aspects and lead to a schism in his personality. I find Armendariz more moving than the asthenic, enervated Fonda, who sometimes seems a bit muddled.
Armendariz’ soldier faces as profound a crisis of faith as the priest’s – he finds himself trapped by the party line that he has believed and we see him start to fall apart. His frustration and anger are so very much more human and alive than Fonda’s uncertainty. The two men are the same, face the exact same crisis. There is something tragic in this supposedly secondary character – if he can’t believe in party rhetoric anymore, what is there for him? One finds evil and innocence within him, many times in the same scene, fleeting glimpses of each, just moments apart. It’s brilliant. For Armendariz the actor, there is no good, no bad, only truth and humanity.
In the end, his character cannot witness the execution of the priest, and turns away in shame. Where Fonda has found his faith, Armendariz has lost his. THE FUGITIVE is not an easy watch. It can be viewed in different ways with different meanings. It fits firmly into the noir genre, thanks mainly to Armendariz. Without his character’s complexity, one would have only a beautifully made religious film.
I believe that Armendariz’ pride in himself and his heritage on-screen was refreshing, and important, but it is his essential humanity that was the great force for erasing racism in audiences who saw him. When you are on a man’s side, when he can take you deep into his heart and reveal everything to you, especially his faults, you like him. You want to understand him. When you understand him, you see yourself in him. The gravitas Pedro Armendariz brings to his roles, that deep understanding and sensitivity, continues to help fight prejudice even today. That is more than most leading men can boast in a lifetime.
More must-see films with Pedro Armendariz:
LA PERLA (1947) – if you can only see one other film with Armendariz, this is the one. Based on John Steinbeck’s story, directed by Emilio Fernandez, with cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa, THE PEARL is a beautifully made film with outstanding performances. Armendariz gives an incredibly interesting, Brando-like performance as a starving peasant who finds a perfect pearl… which ruins his life. Armendariz goes from innocent to disturbed as corruption starts to taint him and everything around him. Watch it on youtube here.
EL BRUTO (1953)
WE WERE STRANGERS (1949)
MARIA CANDELARIA (1943)
THE TORCH (1950)
FLOR SYLVESTRE (1942)
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
This post is Wendy’s entry to the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Movie Star Makeover. Be sure to visit both host sites on October 11 and 12 to read about many of the great Hispanic-themed films and other Hispanic stars who’ve shined in Hollywood.