A Villain Who Looks Like a Fascist and Talks Like a Communist: The Strange Politics of John Ford's The Fugitive

06/13/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

By Heidi Singer

How did the Cold War play out in Mexico, with its fascinating mix of politics, religion, and Hollywood? For a Columbia University historian who is giving a free lecture at The New York Public Library tomorrow evening, much of the story can be understood in the production of a 1947 John Ford movie.

The Fugitive, starring Henry Fonda, Dolores del Río, and Pedro Armendáriz, was conceived before World War II as a polemic against anticlericalism, based on events in the Mexican state of Tabasco. But by the time filming began, the anti-fascism of World War II was combining with the anti-communism of the coming Cold War in US-Mexican relations.

Ford, a committed Catholic, expressed this ideological shift in his adaptation of The Power and the Glory, the Graham Greene novel that the film was based on.

The result was frankly odd -- and a thoroughly unique North-South take on an East-West battle, says Seth Fein, a historian of film and US-Latin American relations who is writing a book examining the relationship of the U.S. to the golden age of Mexican cinema.

"The film uses the imagery of fascism and the rhetoric of communism," he says. "A bad guy looks like a Nazi and talks like a communist. The good guys are the peasants, standing up to the communists, who are also fascists."

The film suggested that "communism was no longer the fight of the people against injustice, but was the new fascism," he says.

Another strange compromise: the film, starring a hero priest, was set in a mythical Latin American country, rather than Mexico, says Fein, in an attempt to appease the Mexican ruling party. Having moved away from its reformist roots, the government had no interest in being portrayed as anti-Catholic -- but at the same time approved of the film's anti-communism.

Fein will elaborate on the film's strange position in the borderland between Washington's waning Good Neighbor Policy and its developing Cold War, which he argues had a major influence on the flourishing of Mexican cinema in that era. And he will discuss political and ideological battles among the filmmakers and actors -- some of whom never worked together again.

Fein, a visiting fellow at Columbia, is a writer in residence at the Library's Frederick Lewis Allen Room, and his book, Transnational Projections: The United States in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, will be published by Duke University Press.