Juarez (1939)



Director:     William Dieterle.

Starring:     Paul Muni (Benito Juarez),  Bete Davis (Empress Carlotta von Habsburg),  Brian Aherne (Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg),  Claude Rains (Napoleon III),  John Garfield (Gen. Porfirio Diaz),  Gale Sondergaard (French Empress Eugenie),  Donald Crisp (Gen. Marechal Achille Bazaine),  Gilbert Roland (Col. Miguel Lopez),  Joseph Calleia (Alejandro Uradi),  Louis Calhern (LeMarc),  Henry O'Neill (Gen. Miguel Miramon),  Montagu Love (Jose de Montares).

The life of the leader of Mexico.  Political turmoil in Mexico would eventually lead to American troops under General Pershing being led into that country. 



Spoiler Warning:  the whole story is told below:

Very good film.  The movie starts with Napoleon III of France being handed a note saying that the Confederate army was beaten by the Northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War.  The message frightens the emperor because his forces had conquered Mexico on the understanding that the Confederate States of America would become a separate, recognized nation.  Now he fears that the United States might intervene in the situation in Mexico. 

Napoleon III decides to carry out a fraud.  He will give Mexico a non-French monarch chosen through a national plebiscite (fraudulent of course) that will chose an emperor other than Benito Juarez, that "Indian bandit" as the emperor calls him.  He chooses Maximilian von Habsburg of Austria to be the new emperor.

Meanwhile, Juarez receives a letter from President Lincoln holding out the hope that after the Civil War, he will provide aide to the Mexicans.

May 1, 1864.  Juarez issues a letter to the people of Mexico calling on them to resist the designs of Napoleon III.

Gen. Marechal Achille Bazaine, the leader of French troops in Mexico, is the man responsible for making the plebiscite come out in favor of the monarch.  Not surprisingly, 99% of the vote goes to Maximilian. 

King Maximilian and Queen Carlotta arrive in Mexico to take command.  While heading for Mexico City, he uncovers a letter from Benito Juarez to him saying that he assumes the throne on the basis of a fraud (but does not spell out what he means by fraud). 

Alejandro Uradi, second in position to Juarez in the government, tells Juarez that since he is an Indian he will not be well received as the president of Mexico and that he should resign for a European person (preferably himself, of course).  

Maximilian is surprised to learn that the political situation is not at all calm in Mexico, as he was led to believe, but that Juarez has a 25,000 man army in the north and a 12,000 man army in the south. So the emperor decides to launch an immediate offensive.

In the campaign that follows, the Juarez forces are trapped.  Uradi counsels surrender, but Gen. Porfirio Diaz volunteers to attack the enemy and thereby give the Juarez forces time to escape.  Diaz is captured during the battle.  Juarez decides "no more pitched battles" and opts for guerilla warfare. 

Members of Maximilian's "cabinet," want him to restore the lands confiscated by Benito Juarez and return them to their original owners.  The emperor learns, however, that 80% of the land was owned by a mere 85 estates.  Maximilian is shocked and denies the request. 

Juarez's forces strike at more than 50 targets in Mexico.  The emperor's generals want Maximilian to respond by executing all captured republicans and any Mexican found with a weapon.  Maximilian refuses to sign. 

At this time, Maximilian learns about the election fraud via coercion that brought him to power.  He says to Carlotta "Napoleon has made us his dupes."  He desperately tries to figure a way out of this trap of illegality.  He comes up with the idea of making Juarez the prime minister who will be responsible to the emperor.  But these are days before the appearance of democratic constitutional monarchies and Juarez rejects the offer.  Maximilian responds by signing the execution order he refused to sign earlier. 

The American Civil War is now over and US ambassador to France John Bigelow warns Napoleon III that the Americans might consider the use of  force against any foreign troops in Mexico and that they will also send arms to the forces backing Juarez. 

Back in Mexico, Urardi revolts and takes most of the Juarez army with him.   This is happy news to Maximilian who now feels that he can win in the battle with Juarez.  But shortly after this, news arrives that France is pulling out all its troops from Mexico.  Maximilian returns to an anxious state.  Carlotta is very angry at the news and she sets sail for France to tell off Napoleon III.  She will tell the Frenchman that she will tell all in Europe about his fraud if he does not let the French troops remain in Mexico.  But Napoleon III refuses saying "We are through in Mexico."  Carlotta goes mad and has to stay in Europe. 

Uradi declares himself President of Mexico.  But Juarez courageously and foolishly takes a gamble and has a coach drive him to Uradi's headquarters.  As he proceeds many peasants decide to accompany him.  In the showdown between Juarez and Uradi, someone in the assembled crowd shoots Uradi and Juarez is now unchallenged in his position.

News reaches Maximilian that four Juarez armies are descending on him and that he must leave.  The emperor starts to go, but decides to stay when he realizes that his close supporters will be probably be killed in his stead.  From Queretero his armies fight the four different Juarez armies.  He expects help from forces under Gen. Miguel Miramon in the south, but when the general arrives he can only tell the emperor that his forces have been heavily defeated at San Lorenzo by Gen. Diaz.

The Juarez forces capture the emperor and then sentence him to death.  Despite calls for clemency, Maximilian and two of his closest generals are executed. 


This movie would have been better titled "Maximilian and Carlotta."  Most of the story deals with the King and Queen with Juarez used as the couple's source of frustrations and worries.  Maximilian probably was a relatively decent fellow, but Brian Aherne as the emperor appears a little too angelic to be believed.  What kind of man would accept the emperorship of a nation that has been recently conquered and is currently controlled by a foreign power?  How could a person believe that the national plebiscite could possibly be on the up-and-up?  There is evidence that Maximilian really did feel that Mexico had become his country and wanted to do his best for the nation.  But, as they say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." 

Paul Muni as Benito Juarez really did look like the Indian president.  I was shocked to see the close resemblance.  But man, is the Juarez character ever non-emotional.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

1806 --  born in the the village of San Pablo Guelato, Oaxaca of Zapotec Indian parents.

1809  -  by his third birthday both his mother and father had died; goes to live with his grandparents, who also shortly die; lives with his uncle in the village of Ixtlan; and at age 12 lives with his sister in Oaxaca.

1818 --  he heads for the city of Oaxaca where he stays with Don Antonio Maza. He then lives with Don Antonio Salanueva where he learns to become a bookbinder in exchange for servant duties. He was dissatisfied with the level of education in primary school and so dropped out to teach himself.

1821  -- Benito enrolls in a local seminary college. He eventually switches to the study of philosophy.

1827  --  finishes his study of philosophy.

1828 --  he starts to study law.

1831 --  works in a local law of office. Since there was little work available, he begins a second career as a liberal politician.

1835 --  gets elected a liberal deputy to the federal legislature. He also legally represents impoverished Indians in their land struggles.

1941 --  becomes the federal court judge. 

He marries Margarita Mazza, daughter of one of the wealthiest Creole families.

1846 --  during Mexico's war against the United States, Juarez is governor of Oaxaca; serves to 1852.

1852  --  becomes director of the Institute of Arts and Science.

1853 --  the government of Santa Anna exiles him.  He lives in Havana, Cuba and then in New Orleans, Louisiana (where he starts a revolutionary junta).

Mexico goes bankrupt setting off the Revolution of Ayutla. Santa Ana forced into exile. The liberal Alvarez becomes president.

1855  --  Benito becomes minister of justice.

1856  --  becomes the governor of Oaxaca again.

1857  -- pushes for the new liberal constitution.

1857  --  Juan Alvarez retires. Beginning of the Three Year War. Benito becomes the undisputed leader of the liberal party. He also serves as president of the Supreme Court.

1860  --  liberals win the war and Benito is elected president.

1861  --  Juarez suspends payments of foreign debt.  In response, France, Great Britain and Spain unite to obtain the debt payments from Mexico. The Spanish fleet and troops arrive at Veracruz.

1862  --  the United States tells Mexico that it cannot help because of its Civil War.  British and French fleets arrive at Veracruz.

1863  --  President Juarez forced to leave Mexico City by the French (British and Spain had already bowed out).

1864-67 -- Napoleon III of France establishes Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Hapsburg monarchy rule of Mexico.

1867 -- Archduke Maximilian of Austria deposed by Juarez and executed in 1867.  Juarez was also reelected this year.

1871  --  Juarez controversially re-elected President because he used the office of the presidency to ensure his victory.  He was able to suppress revolts by opponents like Porfirio Diaz.  

1872  --  Juarez died of a Heart attack while working at his desk. 

He was succeeded by his foreign minister, Sebastin Lerdo de Tejada.



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