And as a film concerning the turmoil in Mexico during the teen and twenty years of the last century Viva Zapata! is far better than MGM's Viva Villa that starred Wallace Beery. Then again Marlon Brando is a much better actor.
One critical thing that was left out of the story is how much land the Roman Catholic Church held in Mexico. It was not just the rich Estancias that kept the masses in Mexico in peonage, the Church had a really big share of the real estate there. If the story were written today the Church's involvement would be shown. My guess is in the years of the Cold War and the height of Joe McCarthy, no one in Hollywood wanted to make a film that criticized the church in any way. But even a few years earlier the overreaction against the church was done in the John Ford film, The Fugitive which takes place within 10 to 20 years after Zapata died.
Zapata as played by Brando may be illiterate, but he is possessed of a simple eloquence and a charisma that made him a revolutionary figure, in the same manner Che Guevara became forty years later. He tries hard to hold to the ideals of the revolution, but finds as most do that tearing down a government is relatively easy, building one from scratch is a task that has defeated many.
Anthony Quinn plays Emiliano's swaggering brother Eufemio who's not quite as idealistic as Brando. Quinn received first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the part. Quinn fills the screen with his bluster when he's on, it provides a perfect counterpoint to Brando's more idealistic role.
The guy who never gets praise for his performance is Joseph Wiseman. Wiseman, a product of the Actor's Studio in New York like Marlon Brando. This is a man whose type I've come across in numerous endeavors in my life, a professional stirrer of resentments. He's not happy unless there's some kind of battle going on. A type mind you that is ultimately dangerous for any movement. He intrigues for the sake of intrigue, but never accomplishes anything. It's a very good job by Wiseman, not often talked about for some reason.
Besides Quinn's Oscar and Brando's nomination, Viva Zapata! got Oscar nominations for Best Art&Set Direction for black and white film, Best music, and Best Screenplay. The last would have been a great honor for John Steinbeck, I'm not sure how many if any writers won a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize and an Oscar. That's three horse parlay that can't be beat.
For some reason Elia Kazan was overlooked for Best Director, possibly because he had won the year before for A Streetcar Named Desire.
Still Viva Zapata! is a work that stands up very well even with the historical inaccuracies.