1910. In the midst of the Mexican Revolution, a heavily armed rebel train rushes along the track headlong towards the hacienda at Venta de Cruz, an old family mansion high up in the mountains ﬂanking Mexico City. Unexpectedly. the train refuses to grind to a halt but careers through the buffers at the end of the track and plunges straight on through the walls of the old building. creating a huge hole for the following revolutionaries to pour through. It is largely Jane Fonda‘s fault.
The scene is one of the most spectacular moments from an epic new film. Old Gringo, an adaptation ofthe novel by Carlos Fuentes which it has taken Fonda Films some eight years to bring to the screen. Directed by Argentinian Luis Puenzo. the narrative centres on a trio of disparate characters as their lives are moulded through political awakening and romantic experience in the midst ofone of the most turbulent periods of Mexican history.
Jane Fonda, who will be 52 in December. plays Harriet Winslow. an American spinster who has crossed the border to be governess to the children at the hacienda. For the first time in her career she is united on screen with another Hollywood legend, Gregory Peck (now 73). as the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who has turned his back on the literary and journalistic establishments to come to Mexico to die. Newcomer to feature films Jimmy Smits (the Hispanic attorney from television‘s LA Law) completes the triangle as Tomas Arroyo, a general in Pancho Villa‘s army, but one who cannot forget his lineage as the illegitimate son of the former hacienda owner. All three lives are soon to be changed forever.
Fonda‘s initial vision came from a trip to Mexico in 1980 to stay with the wife ofthen President Jose Lopez Portillo as part of her duties on the California Arts Council. After touring throughout the country. she returned home to find partner Tom Hayden playing host to distinguished Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. She explained to him how she‘d ‘like to do a movie that dealt with their two countries. ‘Our history is so unique. the fact that we share this border, the fact that we‘re the wealthiest country in the world and Mexico‘s one of the poorest, and what that means.‘ Coincidentally, it just so happened that Fuentes was at that moment writing a novel on those very themes. About a year later, while she was filming On Golden Pond with father Henry. Fonda received Fuentes‘ manuscript and the quest to transfer it to the screen had begun.
Old Gringo is a copybook example ofthe difficulties oftransforming literature into film. Fuentes‘ novel is a complex affair bringing to the characters‘ psychological depth a highly crafted symbolic resonance that plays out the progressive weight of history and at the same time achieves a formal quality that‘s both eliptical and densely textured. Luis (La Bamba) Valdez. and the noted team of novelists. John Gregory
Dunne and Joan Didion. struggled
Old Gringo has brought together Hollywood legends Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck, but can this story ofthe Mexican revolution really mix politics and commercial
appeal? Trevor Johnston reports.
with the screenplay adaptation before handing over the baton to director Puenzo and his collaborator Aida Bortnik. the director/writer partnership previously responsible for the Oscar-winning Aregentinian film The Official Version. Yet the final script by the very nature of these things can only be a sketch of the original‘s richness.
It‘s almost a truism these days that a great book means a lousy film. and though that‘s not altogether the case with Old Gringo. which has to go down as a worthwhile but flawed effort. the cinema is a medium better suited to superficial style and atmosphere than concentrated intellectual expression. You‘d rather watch the movie of The Big Sleep than the film version of The Brothers Karazntatzov. to be sure. and even impeccable Brit Lit jobs like Little Dorrit merely preserve their source‘s fictional qualities of narrative control and attention to detail rather than add anything that‘s intrinsically cinematic to the final celluloid product.
In the case of Old Gringo. the film gamely attempts a mosaic of the psychological. the sexual. the political and the historical. but within a too-compact 2-hour running time it can only offer a swift scan rather than a detailed examination of the issues.
To be fair to Fonda. she sees this as
a committed movie within the confines ofthe big-budget Hollywood system. ‘You could make a documentary and only a few people would see it.‘ she explained to the press gathered at this year‘s Cannes Film Festival where Old Gringo was premiered. ‘I have always tried to make films with a theme I felt was important and relevant, but to encase it in a yarn. a story with characters that were broad enough to carry the theme in a way that would make it accessible to many people.‘ In the past decade Fonda‘s production drive has brought us a series of such issue-based entertainments including 1978‘s (‘oming Home (disabled Vietnam vets). the following year‘s The China .S‘_\'ndr(mre (nuclear power). and 9 To 5 (office sexual politics) in 1980. Fonda talks of Old Gringo as a film about the links between the personal and the political. "Through their struggles. the Mexican People see themselves reﬂected for the first time in their lives. which is the metaphor for the revolution. This was in the original book by Carlos Fuentes. and Luis Puenzo has dramatised it in a way that‘s very profound. This image has tremendous reverberations for our own Hispanic population in the US. ()ne of the problems is that minorities don‘t always get a chance to see themselves. That‘s what this
movie is about. The revolution is nothing but an explosion of identity, something that the Mexican people, Hispanic Americans. and our three main characters are all going through.‘
However. with a budget running around $24 million, before it was even released Old Gringo needed to make around $5()m at the box office before it began to show a profit. Just how interested in ‘revolution‘ can you be when that kind of money is at stake? Hollywood learned the lesson from Warren Beatty‘s Reds that so-called political movies can prove as attractive as plague-pits to a prospective audience. Director Puenzo himselfremarks, ‘You know, I can‘t say too much. I have no intention ofending my career with one movie.‘
Thus Old Gringo, because of the financial stakes in play becomes, whatever Fonda‘s hopes and intentions. a creature of compromise. While Fonda and Puenzo invest their energies in attempting to give a flavour of Fuentes while approaching the issues the author raises with a contemporary relevance. commercial pressures force the final product to include the sort of spectacular Hollywood ingredients that convince the punters it‘s the kind ofbig old entertainment they‘re used to. Naturally. the result is a rather intriguing hybrid. which Fuentes himself has described as having ‘an epic intimacy". whatever that means.
Perhaps the studio isn‘t too sure about it either, for both Fonda and Gregory Peck have been dispatched to give their all on the star-powered chat show promo trail. Within the past couple ofweeks. it‘s barely been possible to turn on the box or open a newspaper without seeing their alarmingly well~preserved faces. ()f course. they‘re worth watching because we‘ve grown up with them. Rooted in nostalgia, Old Gringo is nevertheless continuing proofofthe potency of Hollywood‘s golden idols, those whom age can barely wither. For many cinemagoers. the most memorable moment comes when Fonda and Peck embrace to the backdrop of a setting sun, in a return to a less complex age of movie-making whose idealised emotiveness finally proves more easily appealing than the film‘s stodgy Mexican history lessons.
The megastar kiss-up nestles alongside all those other romantic scenes. all those other sunsets that make up our history. in a way that can often seem more palpable than so much global death, oppression and injustice put together. Who really cares about Carlos Fuentes and the Hispanic Americans‘ sense ofidentity when the strings are swelling to a crescendo and you‘ve just got the paper off your King Cone? Sometimes the real world doesn‘t get a look-in. For the past sixty years. tens of millions of American multinational dollars have paid for the primacy of the Hollywood legend.
Old Gringo opens at the Glasgow Odeon on Friday 27 Oct.
4 The List 27 October — 9 November 1989