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Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! (1931-32) remains among the best-known “unfinished” films. In fact, so much has been written about this visually impressive yet disaster-ridden production that it has become a cinematic legend.

The influential Russian filmmaker never was allowed to edit or complete his passionate study of Mexico’s cultural history, yet the footage survived in the form of several abridged versions. In 1979, Eisenstein’s one-time colleague, Grigori Alexandrov, produced a 90-minute re-edit based on his first-hand recollections and the director’s notes.

Released on DVD by Kino Video, Alexandrov’s reconstruction of Que Viva Mexico! exists as a compromise — evocative and dazzling at times, yet an enigmatic blueprint for a more ambitious project. It is one of cinema’s tragedies that, for political as well as financial reasons, Eisenstein was prevented from fully realizing his Mexican odyssey.

Que Viva Mexico! evolved from Eisenstein’s stay in Hollywood during 1930, where his plans to work for Paramount collapsed due to creative differences with the studio bosses. Instead, the director of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) sought non-studio financing for his Mexican epic. Eisenstein hoped to receive monetary assistance from Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, since they encouraged him to work in Hollywood. Despite their considerable wealth and public admiration for Eisenstein’s revolutionary films, Fairbanks and Chaplin refused to bankroll the independent production of a fellow artist.

Rather than contribute money, Chaplin suggested that his friend Upton Sinclair, the noted socialist author, might help Eisenstein in his cinematic quest. Sinclair was receptive to Que Viva Mexico! and provided the $25,000 budget. In the signed contract, Eisenstein promised Sinclair he would finish the project in four months. Sinclair maintained ownership of the negative and stipulated that his brother-in-law, Hunter Kimbrough, serve as the film’s production manager. These factors inevitably resulted in the dissolution of Eisenstein’s work, with added pressure from the Soviets, who demanded that their famed director return home.

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The 32-year-old Eisenstein departed for Mexico in December 1930. Accompanied by Alexandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse, he shot 250,000 feet of footage, mostly near Tetlapayac — a Spanish plantation located southeast of Mexico City. Eisenstein likened the structure of Que Viva Mexico! to “a sequence of short novellas.” The film encompassed ritualistic bullfighting, the Day of the Dead, the Mexican Revolution and the spiritual paradise of Tetlapayac.

Eisenstein’s work on Que Viva Mexico! took considerably longer than four months. With little knowledge of film production, Sinclair believed that Eisenstein was spending too much time and money as the final shooting budget more than doubled the original amount.

On the moralistic front, Sinclair was displeased to hear from Kimbrough about Eisenstein’s alleged homosexual indiscretions. Eisenstein, in turn, accused Kimbrough of squandering the film’s budget on liquor, gambling and prostitutes. The allegations of both men never were substantiated. To further complicate matters, Sinclair received word from the Soviet government that Eisenstein had deserted his country and no longer was in favor with the Stalin regime.

Despite these troubles, Eisenstein had completed most of Que Viva Mexico! by January 1932 — all he needed was an additional $8,000 for the Mexican Revolution sequence. Sinclair, claiming “near bankruptcy,” pulled the plug on Eisenstein’s epic, but promised to ship the negative and work print to Russia for the crucial editing.

His visa expired, Eisenstein was forced to return to the Soviet Union where he suffered the consequences of his insubordination. As a result, he would not complete another project until Alexander Nevsky in 1938. Before leaving the United States permanently in April 1932, the filmmaker viewed the Que Viva Mexico! rushes in a New York screening room. Sadly, he never would see the original footage again.

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Sinclair did not keep his promise to Eisenstein. Hoping to recoup his losses, the controversial writer handed over the director’s material to Hollywood producer Sol Lesser, who had the film edited by other hands and released as Thunder Over Mexico in March 1933. Ironically, Fairbanks and Chaplin would endorse this mutilation of Eisenstein’s work. Lesser cannibalized more of the director’s footage by creating two short films in 1934, Eisenstein in Mexico and Death Day.

Back in Moscow, Eisenstein could do nothing but decry the butchering of Que Viva Mexico!  by “someone’s grubby hands.” However, the pain ran deeper. “This whole affair has broken my heart to the point where I have become disgusted with cinema and have not made a film since,” Eisenstein wrote in 1934. The director completed only three more films before his death in 1948.

Though much has been lost, the surviving images from Que Viva Mexico! linger in the memory — notably the disturbing parade of skulls and death masks in the Day of the Dead sequence. Legendary filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados), John Huston (The Night of the Iguana) and Orson Welles (the unfinished It’s All True) would benefit from Eisenstein’s exotic, surreal vision. Regardless of the controversies surrounding its making and unmaking, there is much to admire for historians and cinephiles alike.

And the odyssey is far from over.

Since 2003, the Mexican Picture Partnership Ltd. has been working on a reconstruction and restoration of Que Viva Mexico! (utilizing previously unseen footage from the Upton Sinclair estate). When completed, the contemporary project will be 30 minutes longer than the Alexandrov version.  One eagerly awaits this ambitious re-examination of Sergei Eisenstein’s love affair with Mexico.

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