News, features, and commentary from the biggest city in the Americas, Mexico City.
By Darren M. Popik —
As a general rule, I enjoy movies based on actual historical events. And Mexican history is of particular interest to me.
For that reason, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this weekend’s release of a film that focuses on an important episode in Mexican history — the Battle of Puebla.
Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla (now playing across Mexico and at select theaters in the U.S.) is set around this pivotal battle from 1862 and the events that lead up to it.
Aside from entertaining the movie-going public (as is the primary point behind a film), I hope this picture also serves to inform those outside of Mexico about what the “Cinco de Mayo” really is.
The 5th of May is not a Mexican “independence day”, nor is it a national holiday, despite the popular misconception outside Mexico. It is, nonetheless, an important date in Mexican history, marking the Battle of Puebla, an important victory by Mexico over the French army, which would have consequences stretching beyond Mexico’s borders.
In any event, this picture, from director Rafa Lara, gives us a look at the time in Mexico’s history, when, following a number of years of conflicts and war (internal battles, plus the Mexican-American War), the French attempted to take over Mexico.
In the film, we begin with the fallout from the decision of then President Benito Juárez (Noé Hernández) not to pay Mexico’s foreign debts, after the government found itself broke.
We see representatives from three big powers — England, Spain, and France — uniting to send an armada to Mexico’s shores to attempt to get the money that is owed to them.
But while the English and Spanish are content simply to negotiate payment, French Emperor Napoleon III has other ideas — notably, establishing a new French empire in Mexico.
Like movie sequels which tend not to be as good as the original, I’d suggest that Napoleon III was a pale imitation of the original Napoleon. It’s doubtful the first Napoleon would have made such a bad decision as invading Mexico. But #3 apparently had larger aspirations, and saw the U.S. Civil War as an opening to bring a French empire back to North America.
The French army may have still been powerful in this era, but as we see in this film, it couldn’t match the proud and determined Mexican forces, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza (Kuno Becker). The Mexicans were outnumbered and without the resources of the French army, but they helped to unify and rally a nation in the face of the French threat.
In Cinco de Mayo, we only see Napoleon III at the beginning of the film, but his arrogance continues throughout the film, thanks to the Conde De Lorencéz (William Miller), who he put in charge of his army. His attitude of French superiority is abundantly clear through his words, including one scene where he refers to French “racial superiority” over the Mexicans.
And there’s a telling moment when the English general angrily confronts Miller’s character, asking why would Mexico accept another European monarchy, when it fought some 40 years previously to get rid of that? Even the Spanish General Prim (Ginés García Millán) appears to concur with his English counterpart. Neither one of them has any intention of going to war — unlike the French plan.
The film runs two hours in length, and the actual battle itself occupies the latter half of the film. For my sensitivities — I don’t like blood and violence — it was a bit much. (Still, compared to what Hollywood produces, what we see on screen in this film is tame by comparison.)
I do think, however, that the battlefield scenes do justice to convey the sense of chaos and confusion surrounding the battle, particularly on the part of the French side.
The invading French forces included a unit of Mexican soldiers, under the charge of Juan Almonte (Mario Zaragoza), who were opposed to the Juárez government. And the Mexican general Porfirio Diaz (later to be President) brought an element of surprise with his troops, chasing down fleeing French soldiers.
The other thing I couldn’t help but notice is how silly the French army looked, with their baggy red pants, and silly red headgear, which for lowest ranking soldiers, appeared to be simple do-rags. Personally, I can’t imagine how such uniforms could have commanded the respect of the enemy — more like ridicule.
The Battle of Puebla was only one battle, but an important one. The Mexicans would have to battle the French for a few more years, but the French imposition finally concluded in 1867 with the death in Querétaro (by firing squad) of Emperor Maximilian, who was imposed by Napoleon III.
All in all, for anyone who enjoys historical films as I do — and Mexican history in particular — Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla is well worth your time.
Producer Rafa Lara, his crew, and actors have done a fine job of bringing this part of Mexican history to life in this day and age. Well done.