This biopic about the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was the story of a turn-of-the-century struggle in a foreign country, but American filmmakers couldn’t help but worry that, with a 1952 release, it would be as a reflection of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) trials. Zapata fought against a dictator who supported wealthy property owners, but they didn’t want to portray him as a radical. So even though Zapata (played by Marlon Brando) was a real-life figure, screenwriter John Steinbeck and director Elia Kazan created a fictional character who would prove that he wasn’t so controversial. Under pressure from the studio, they added Fernando Aguirre (played by Joseph Wiseman), a villain who first sides with Zapata and then turns on him; Aguirre’s radical views and anti-Zapata stance would show that American audiences could root for the film’s hero. When Kazan was called before HUAC the year Viva Zapata! was released, for the hearing during which he famously named names, he was able to defend the film: “This is an anti-Communist picture,” he told the Committee.
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