OLD GRINGO went down fighting in the gallant form of 72-year old Gregory Peck, in his last leading role, playing the title character in this 1989 rendering of Carlos Fuentes highly regarded 1985 novel. A handsome production, with many grace touches, it was directed by Luis Puenzo, whose The Official Story from Argentina had recently won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. $34,000,000 was expended. Reviews were politely dismissive, an unsupportive studio didn’t push it and earnings were disastrous, a mere $3,574,000, dying with a murmur at 120th place for the year.
1913, the Mexican Revolution. Fed up with the States, shoddy journalism and life’s b.s. in general, sporting a flamboyant disregard for safety, famed writer and cynic Ambrose Bierce (Peck) falls into company with one of Villa’s generals (Jimmy Smits) who leads an attack that captures the palatial hacienda he was born to. Fleeing her stifled spinster existence, a 31-year-old American schoolteacher (50-year-old Jane Fonda) had gone there to tutor to the rich owners children. When the gunfire from battle clears, she becomes involved to one degree or another with both men. Questions about who belongs where & what for pull the three to their respective fates. In Revolution, love blooms fast but life wilts quickly.
“When gentlemen start talking about principles, we poor people lose what we don’t even have!”
Fuentes’ novel was almost all interior dialogue, and the translation of its memory-colored frame and overlay of Mexican cultural mysticism into a linear plot line a large US audience would sit still for frustrated a number of writers—the novelist himself, playwright Luiz Valdez, Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne—before the producers, director and Fonda (she had lot’s of clout on this one) settled on Aida Bortnik to share the job with Puenzo. Studio mucky mucks were displeased, editing cut out much esoteric material, and Fonda’s role was built up to accommodate her star status. She’d been keen on the project for years. Interviewed during production, she said ”What I like to play is women who start kind of shaky and grow…Harriet comes to Mexico a girl and leaves a woman.” Fair enough, yet while I can buy Jane on occasion (her strong suits in either comedy or bitterness), it tasks credulity to buy her as… a 31-year-old virgin? I’m coughing up my Cuervo. Too much lemon, not enough salt.
Puenzo’s direction (including the battle scene) lacks some needed tension. His comment: “The film was made with levels of complexity that according to Columbia did not correspond to the taste of the American public.” Both he and Jane hoped to stir some overdue political awareness into the mix, tasking the then-current Reagan/Bush-era’s militant, ignorant attitudes toward other nations and cultures. If they’d only known…
Felix Monti mans the cinematographic chore in extensive location work done in the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Sonora and old standby Durango. The ‘Miranda’ is the remains of 18th-century hacienda Venta de Cruz, in Hidalgo. Smits wields charisma as the vengeful general and Peruvian-American actress Jenny Gago brings earthy warmth as a ‘La Garduna’, a prostitute sirviendo a la revolución. *
“Oh, once, once, the women sighed, swelled out their chests. How beautiful they were. I thought they’d always be there, sighing into my mustache, admiring my every glance, just waiting for a sigh from me. But they’re all gone. They didn’t wait. I suppose I didn’t inspire enough love. In any of them.”
Admirable in intent, flawed in delivery, certainly worthwhile in its parts, the movie in the main belongs to Mr. Peck, who is marvelous. With just a few weeks to prep, he replaced Burt Lancaster, whise health was deemed too great an insurance risk. Looser than he’d been since way back, rascally, railing, contemplative, poignant and droll, it’s easily his best work since To Kill A Mockingbird (I prefer him here). Peck would co-star in Other People’s Money and cameo-exit in the needless remake of Cape Fear, but his superb imagining of Bierce’s fearless Quixote was really the one to go out on.
With Patricio Contreras and Pedro Armendariz Jr. in a brief pass as Villa. 119 minutes.
* Jenny Gago, 35 in this role, is a favorite since charming as ‘Miss Panama’ in 1983’s Under Fire, another story about gringos getting mixed up in a revolution (Nicaragua). It’s much better; the unaffected Ms. Gago shines in both. For more Vida de la Gago, check her out in the excellent, unsung My Family (Mi Familia), from 1995, also starring Smits, with Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales. Si, Jenny es un amor total….