Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Old Gringo is a terrific historical drama of the kind Hollywood had abandoned in
1989, when Batman was the movie to beat. This period movie set in the Mexican
revolution is at heart a faithful adaptation of a modern Latin American novel, and as
such isn't boxoffice material. Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits are cast to type, but Gregory Peck
gives the best performance of his later career, as the enigmatic author with a death wish.
Fleeing a stifling mother, spinster Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda) takes a job as a
governess to the ruling Miranda family in rural Mexico, but lands in the middle of Pancho Villa's
revolution. Despairing of the evils of civilization and seeking oblivion, author Ambrose Bierce
(Gregory Peck) arrives at the same time, and together they take part in a huge battle. The rebel
General Tomas Arroyo (Jimmy Smits) is victorious, but suffers a seizure of will upon taking the
Miranda estate - it turns out that the domineering Miranda was his father, and he's obsessed
with finding some way to bring the man down, or to reclaim his rightful heritage. This leaves
Arroyo's army out of action while he seeks personal direction, a need sidetracked by philosophical
duels with Bierce, who goes only by the name of Gringo, and a romantic flirtation with Harriet.
But Pancho Villa can't be kept waiting forever, and Arroyo's inertia soon festers into obvious
Starting with a wonderfully spirited, exciting Mexican battle, Old Gringo has many scenes
of wry humor and insight that harken straight back to the Fuentes source novel. The spirit of the
revolucíon, with mariachi bands that perfrom during battle, and camp-following 'Adelitas'
who fight alongside the men, is contagious. We see it all through the shocked eyes of spinster Fonda,
who of course warms up to the emotions of the people even as she recoils from the offhand
killing and the savage attitudes. You can feel Harriet Winslow easing up on her Baltimore moral code
when confronted by the laughing camp whore, and her philosophy of life - keep screwing and make
the men happy.
Latin-American director Puenzo doesn't use the opportunity of a big-budget American release to make PC
statements about Mexican dignity. The peasant army soldiers are ignorant and earthy, but also pragmatic.
They're not idealized Earth-gods, nor the childlike killers seen in the more 'liberated' American
the poetically-charged Mexicans in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch are pawns in the writer-director's
personal view; not so here. The lusty lieutenant who goes AWOL and gets shot for his pains may act
buffonish and immature, but he knows the score - he only did what the General is doing, avoiding
his duty for personal reasons. There is a sort of mad chivalry at work when this man goes to his
death calling out praises for his General, or when the captured Federale officer jokes with his executioners
without bitterness or malice.
Ambrose Bierce is the enigmatic author of timeless tales like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
In real life, he did indeed disappear, to emerge in rumors that he went to Mexico to die. Fuentes was
obviously inspired by the opportunity to add a U.S. - Mexico dimension to the existing death-related
Mexican folklore. In the film, the Old Gringo relates his famous story as a campfire tale, while
Día de los Muertos skeleton people play. It fits right in - Bierce has indeed come to
the right place to die. 1
The movie is soaked in atmosphere and style. The rebel train comes on like a juggernaut, with very
interesting fast cuts to the galloping outriders who race alongside it. The Villistas fight and die
laughing in a joyous way that's not dismissed as simple savagery. The Miranda estate is a small city
surrounded by 'minefields' of cacti; the land baron has his own lavish railroad car. The palatial
mansion is invaded with grenades and clattering horses, and when half in ruins becomes the setting
for a dance that seems to be happening at the end of the earth. When Harriet
peers through a train window to see General Arroyo making love to a woman, it's the antithesis of
exploitation - victory night is the summer of love for the new Mexico.
Is the acting in Old Gringo good? I think Gregory Peck is perfectly cast, deftly handling the
ironies and humor of his character, as well as the little outrages and humiliations. He's particularly
good in a dusty sit-down talk with Harriet, where he admits that he's old and useless but smitten
with her anyway. Fonda's character has its surprises but she seems a little less able to make it more
than what's written - she plays the role as if she understands it well, as opposed to living it.
Perhaps it's just the trouble of picturing Jane as being repressed or in need of political adventure,
or the fact that her Harriet character changes the least of the three. Jimmy Smits, the Latin
heartthrob, is the center of the tale and captures well the seething emotions and confusions of the
soulsick General. But what we see is mostly intransigent macho ... when he has his most loyal aide
shot, and then continues to destroy things he loves, like his horse, either Smits or the direction can't
quite make us feel the spirit of the piece. We instead follow the contours of a well-designed novel
(something that only seems to exist in the Spanish language anymore) to the logical triple-twist
ending. It's a macabre corker in which Bierce, Fuentes and Edgar Allan Poe are all mixed together.
If Old Gringo commits any movie sin, it's in making its story the star, and daring to be
faithful to a literary source rather than spinning off in some commercial direction. I was shocked when
it didn't do well, as the paying audience I saw it with loved it. Maybe they were all first-weekend
Fuentes fans like myself.
Columbia's DVD of Old Gringo is terrific-looking, no complaints at all. The slight grain in some
scenes was there originally. The lingering images, like Harriet's arrival in Durango, are glorious riots
of color and movement. Savant has the earlier flat laserdisc, which was pretty horrible, quality-wise;
in full widescreen and sharp color, this is an enormous improvement.
The disc is very plainwrap, with just the (very welcome) dual versions to recommend it, and
no extras to help explain the picture to those unfamiliar with the author, or who
know nothing of history. Bierce isn't even identified by name once he gets to Mexico, so a world of
meaning in the film will go over the heads of those who require all explanations out in the open. The
cover art is attractive but doesn't evoke much. I wish I could see the image of Peck as
the Old Gringo waving from the railway switch, or eating a tamale while shaving himself at a makeshift
mirror, among his fellow Villistas.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Old Gringo rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 22, 2002
1. A French sort subject Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge became an
award-winning episode of the Twilight Zone television show; Bierce's shaggy-dog tale with
the ultimate twist ending has been replicated a thousand times, most recently in ghost stories like
The Others. Perhaps Bierce influenced celebrated author Luis Borges, one of
whose tales, about a Polish playwright who stops time at his execution to finish a play in his mind,
always reminds me of Occurrence .
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson