Archive | October 11, 2009

Hugo Mexicano

Ayn Rand always preferred stories in which the main conflict is between noble and heroic figures (though one or both may be tragically misguided) rather than between heroes and villains; this is one of many things she liked about Victor Hugo, whose works evince the same preference. I was reminded of this last night on TCM when I caught the 1939 film Juarez, which I greatly enjoyed. (Amazon seems to have it only in vhs; another outfit offers it in dvd, but I suspect the recording may be of inferior quality.)

Juarez and Lincoln (top); Carlota and Maximilian (bottom)

Juarez and Lincoln (top); Carlota and Maximilian (bottom)

The film officially stars Paul Muni as Mexican president Benito Juárez (so I guess Tom Russell was wrong) and Bette Davis as Empress Carlota, but despite both billing and title, the actual lead is Brian Aherne, doing a terrific and subtle job as the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian. (We also see Claude Rains as a somewhat too forceful Napoléon III, and John Garfield as a much too likable Porfirio Díaz.)

In Rand’s introduction (reprinted in The Romantic Manfesto) to Hugo’s novel Ninety-Three, she praises Hugo for portraying the two chief anatagonists – the monarchist leader Lantenac and the republican leader Cimourdain – as equals in “spiritual grandeur, intransigent integrity, unflinching courage and ruthless dedication,” even while deploring the weakness and vacuity of the political arguments Hugo has his characters make on behalf of their respective ideologies. In both these respects Juarez is remarkably Hugoesque.

The two chief antagonists, Maximilian the fey otherworldly idealist and Juárez the canny Yoda-like enigma, couldn’t be more different (Misesian alert: one is a Habsburg who regards monarchy as the best guarantor of individual liberty, while the other is a democrat who worshipfully carries around an icon of, and dresses to imitate, Abraham Lincoln), but both command our sympathy and respect for their “spiritual grandeur, intransigent integrity, unflinching courage and ruthless dedication” (though, unlike in Ninety-Three, we, rather frustratingly, never get to see a personal confrontation between the two). Likewise, Maximilian’s case for the independence of kings from faction is both an historical and a theoretical absurdity, while Juárez’s brief for popular rule confuses individual with collective self-government. But don’t watch the movie for political philosophy, watch it for a clash between two really cool characters.

P.S. – Oh, and here’s a truly awful trailer for the movie (proving, inter alia, that back in 1939 they didn’t know the difference between “flaunt” and “flout” either). The movie really is much better than one would guess from this trailer.

P.P.S. – Some connections: The film’s director, William Dieterle, also directed Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rand’s Love Letters, while its top-billed star, Paul Muni, hailed from Mises’s hometown of Lemberg/Lvov/Lviv.

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