Monday, November 10, 2008

Juarez (1939)



The 1939 film Juarez depicts the debacle of the French attempt to establish hegemony in Mexico under the auspices of Maximilian von Habsburg. The unlikely combination of characters involved in the fiasco shows that once again truth is stranger than fiction. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, styling himself as Emperor of the French, was the master manipulator of the affair which sent the Austrian Archduke Maximilian to his doom. Maximilian's consort was the intelligent and mercurial Charlotte (Carlota) of Belgium, a granddaughter of Louis-Philippe, the Citizen-King. Although Juarez is a simplification of an extremely complicated series of events, it brings to life the historical reality of such fascinating personalities coming together.

I personally think that the film was misnamed; it should have been called Carlota, since Bette Davis turned her supporting role as the Empress of Mexico into the heart and soul of the drama. In typical Bette fashion, she upstages everyone else, including the great Paul Muni as Benito Juarez. Brian Aherne is perfection as the noble, charming and romantic Maximilian, the most hapless of Habsburgs, and one of the most liberal, too. The film does not show his marital infidelities, but it does play up the irony that Maximilian's reforms were similar to those proposed by Juarez. This did not endear the Emperor to the wealthy landowners and he lost their support. The real struggles of Maximilian and Carlota with their childlessness is poignantly portrayed, as is their genuine horror when they realize that they have been duped by Napoleon III. Maximilian perceives that the imperial Mexico of his dreams is nothing but a cruel charade, and that the original plebiscite that brought him there had been rigged. Nevertheless, he and Carlota have fallen in love with their new country and have come to identify so deeply with Mexico's agonies that there is no turning back.

The gradual disintegration of Carlota's sanity is perhaps one of Bette's greatest achievements as an actress. Carlota's breakdown at the Tuileries is a heartrending scene, with Bette authentically capturing the mannerisms of a person descending into mental illness. In actuality, Carlota's complete psychological collapse occurred not at the Tuileries but in Rome, where Pope Pius IX sighed:
Nothing is spared me in this life, now a woman has to go mad in the Vatican." The Empress never saw her husband again; he was shot by order of Juarez, while Carlota spent the next sixty years secluded in a Belgian castle. As for Mexico, in years to come the Church would be persecuted there; many of the faithful would be martyred.

The scene of the most stunning beauty is one earlier in Juarez where Carlota in black is praying at the foot of the statue of Our Lady. The prostrate Empress begs to have a child, and for the success of the Mexican enterprise, surrounded by the votive candles, with darkness hovering beyond the small sphere of light. Her faith in the face of insurmountable difficulties is all the more radiant if the viewer knows that her prayers will not be answered according to her heart's desires. Her posture of supplication communicates a total oblation of self to the will of God. Once again it is demonstrated that sometimes God chooses not to save a people or a nation through political means. Rather, He intends to sanctify in the crucible of sacrifice.
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18 comments:

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always wanted to see this film because I've always been intrigued by the story of Maximilian and Carlota. Thanks for this. I hope its available on DVD.

elena maria vidal said...

I hope so. I would just like to have a still of the scene of Carlota praying, and frame it.

hummingbird said...

I read in a biography of Carlota's great-niece Marie-José of Belgium that M.J. remembered visiting the former Empress as a child, and doubted whether she were really mad. Marie-José said in fact that Carlota had confided to her: "I'll tell you a secret. When you want to escape your past, pretend to be mad. This way, you will avoid indiscreet questions." Have you ever heard about this?

elena maria vidal said...

No, but nothing would surprise me. I think that she did initially have a breakdown. Whether she ever came out of it or not is hard to know for certain, since she disappeared from the public view.

BTW, I would recommend Joan Haslip's The Crown of Mexico as an informative biography of Maximilian and Carlota.

Catherine Delors said...

I too want to see this!
What a disaster this Mexican adventure was for all involved. Anyone wishing to "rehabilitate" Napoleon III's legacy should be well-advised to review it. Thanks, Elena!

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome. Claude Rains makes a superb Napoleon III, unctuous and conniving, who abandons the Maximilian and Carlota when they are no longer of use. What a contrast he is with the idealistic Maximilian!

cyurkanin said...

Holy smokes, I come to your site and find myself ordering books about your posts, now I have to get a movie too? Thanks for posting this, it's a great story. By the way, there's a few VHS copies available on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Juarez-Paul-Muni/dp/6302010985

Margaret said...

"Once again it is demonstrated that sometimes God chooses not to save a people or a nation through political means. Rather, He intends to sanctify in the crucible of sacrifice."

Hmmmmm......this sounds timely.

Hans Lundahl said...

thank you for reminding me

the regicide (by judicial homicide) nations are:

Jews - English - French - Mexicans and Russians

Did you know that Karl May wrote a romance in which Max figures as a poor misguided/foolish traitor more or less, and Juarez one of the heroes? He died in 1911 or 12, so the German public accepting his novels (with a heavily anticlerical slant about Mexico, though generally he was more or less Christian) came before certain talked-about horrors.

Hans Lundahl said...

In Karl May, Der sterbende Kaiser, the troops are withdrawn because Napoleon III is himslef in difficulties.

elena maria vidal said...

Napoleon III was in difficulties. But then he should not have promised Max his support in the first place.

Hans Lundahl said...

What if the difficulties occurred later than the promise?

elena maria vidal said...

They did occur later than the promise. The point is, Maximilian was tricked into accepting the throne, and then Napoleon abandoned him and Carlota in their hour of need. A great many lives were lost.

kmerian said...

Prince Michael of Greece wrote an excellent biography of Carlotta. It's called "The Empress of Farewells" This woman led a tragic life, the loss of her country and her husband must have been too much.

Although she had moments of lucidity, she was clearly mad and not faking.

elena maria vidal said...

I have heard of Prince Michael's biography. Thanks for the recommendation!

MadMonarchist said...

Better late than never I guess. This is one of my favorite movies and it was originally a play called "Juarez and Maximilian" and once they started making the movie the story of Maximilian and Carlota was so captivating that it came to dominate. Paul Muni objected to this and had more scenes with his character added but it was still essentially filmed as two different movies and it just happens that the one about Maximilian and Carlota is far more interesting. As for Max's infidelities, I am as glad they left the subject alone as I'm not convinced all the stories are true (in fact it would not be physically possible for all of them to be true). I agree about the prayer scene in the cave -that was spectacular (I have a small still of it, but nothing fancy). The one person I felt was most unjustly treated was Empress Eugenie though Gale Sondergaard did a great job with the part. She was originally asked to play the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz but having been such a famous beauty in the past she didn't want to risk her last on-screen success to be as an ugly old witch! Of course the movie also leaves out the multitude of occasions in which Juarez violated his own constitution and broke laws he himself put in place, but it's meant to be a tribute to a deified man after all. It says something that he was the man Benito Mussolini was named after. I also had to appreciate the irony of Juarez' republican pep-talk to Porfirio considering that the one man held power until he died in office and the other became Mexico's most famous recent dictator. Had audiences known that at the time more than a few might have at least pondered if Maximilian had not been right all along. I also don't think that Colonel Lopez had such pure intentions as they show him to have but, on the whole, it fits in with a movie that seems out to make everyone sympathetic (with the exception of the French) and it is rather refreshing for a film to err on the side of making people look better rather than worse.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree with you on every point, Mad Monarchist.

Matterhorn said...

Here is an account of Carlota's childhood, followed by a discussion of her French royal roots:

http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2010/05/carlotas-youth.html