The Caballero Revisited: Postmodernity in The Cisco Kid, The Mask of Zorro, and Shrek II
Although by the 1990s the Robin Hood heroes embodied by the Cisco Kid and Zorro had been absent from cinema screens in North America for a number of years, they had not disappeared from the popular imagination. Luis Valdez, who was to direct The Cisco Kid in 1994, had long been fascinated by the figure of the rebel bandit. His darkly comic 1986 play I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! features Hollywood extra Buddy Villa, who has made a career of portraying stereotypical Mexicans in Hollywood films. The highlight of this less than illustrious but lucrative career was his role as a defiant bandit opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This play continued an exploration of stereotypes of the Mexican bandit that also informs Valdez's 1982 drama Bandido! The American Melodrama of Tiburcio Vásquez, Notorious California Bandit. In the foreword to the earlier work, Valdez expressed his desire to recover the figure of Vásquez from the stereotypes propagated by Western conquest fiction. He also notes that his decision to concentrate on Vásquez was largely due to the fact that his story was far less well known than that of Joaquín Murrieta, whom he describes as a "legendary icon, even among Anglo-Americans."1 Murrieta was instead to become the inspiration for a new Zorro in Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro (1998). Prior to this film, the character of Zorro had appeared on the small screen in the comedy series Zorro and Son in the early 1980s and in the 1981 parody Zorro, The Gay Blade, which starred George Hamilton as both Don Diego Vega and his outrageously campy gay brother.
The release of the 1990s Cisco and Zorro films was preceded by Robert Rodríguez's El Mariachi, a film that has much in common with them despite its more contemporary setting. Rodríguez's debut feature centers on a nameless mariachi who is mistaken for a hit man known as Azul, known for carrying his weapons in a guitar case. Azul has recently broken out of prison in order to kill his former partner, Moco, a North American drug lord who double-crossed Azul and cheated him out of his share of a deal. The mariachi becomes embroiled in a web of violence and deception and relies on his wits and skill in battle to defeat his corrupt adversaries. He evolves from being a journeyman musician to a lone warrior who is the sole embodiment of honor and decency in a border community on the verge of implosion because of corruption and drug trafficking. He is further distinguished by being the only character in the film with a sense of identity and a reverence for Mexican traditions, as his interior monologue at the opening of the film makes clear: "Desde que era pequeño siempre quise ser un mariachi, como mi padre, mi abuelo y mi bisabuelo . . . Mi idea era seguir sus pasos hasta el final y morir con mi guitarra en la mano."
Like El Mariachi, The Cisco Kid and The Mask of Zorro also focus on protagonists who deal with difficult circumstances, particularly corrupt regimes, and engage in violence, but whose actions are not motivated by self-interest but by a desire to defeat the evil potentates whose actions are destroying their environs. Eric Hobsbawm's groundbreaking theories on the social bandit, a figure motivated by a desire to avenge the oppression and racism endured by his community, find a parallel both in the 1990s caballero films and in El Mariachi. Furthermore, his ideas are useful in elucidating the motivation behind Valdez's (and other filmmakers') enduring fascination with the bandit character. As Hobsbawm points out, there was a glaring discrepancy between attitudes toward the bandit north and south of the border. Commenting on the emergence of the popular myth of the bandit during the reign of Porfirio Díaz in nineteenth-century Mexico, he notes that "Thanks chiefly to Pancho Villa, the most eminent of all brigands turned revolutionaries, this has brought banditry a unique degree of national legitimacy in Mexico, though not in the USA, where in those very years, violent, cruel and greedy Mexican bandits became the standard villains of Hollywood, at least until 1922, when the Mexican government threatened to ban all films made by offending movie companies from the country."2
Another crucial aspect shared by Valdez and Campbell's films was the long cinematic tradition that they continued and the way in which references to it enhanced them. By both acknowledging the past films that inspired them and incorporating intertextual references to them, The Cisco Kid and The Mask of Zorro manage to be both part of a rich cultural legacy and utterly contemporary.
This tendency toward referentiality is a key aspect of Valdez's The Cisco Kid, which continues and renews the Cisco filmic tradition. Valdez, a former farm worker, was the founder of the Teatro Campesino and a key figure in the creation of Chicano cinema. Valdez has had his greatest success to date with La Bamba, a musical biopic based on the life of Ritchie Valens. No other Chicano film has had the box office success of this film while simultaneously bringing serious issues, such as the exploitation of farm workers, the difficulties associated with assimilating into North American culture or rejecting it, and generational gaps between Mexican American parents and their children, to a mainstream audience. Such was the success of La Bamba that critics suggested that it was a watershed that would lead to the development of a Hispanic Hollywood. This did not come to pass, but its overwhelming appeal has been something of a mixed blessing for Valdez in that Chicano audiences continue to expect a great deal from his subsequent films, which have not achieved anything near the level of commercial and critical acclaim enjoyed by La Bamba. The response of many Chicano commentators to The Cisco Kid has been less than overwhelming. David R. Maciel and Susan Racho, in their article "Yo soy chicano: The Turbulent and Heroic Life of Chicanas/os in Cinema and Television," while expressing reservations about La Bamba's suggestion that the American Dream can only be achieved through "accommodation or near assimilation," praise it as a creative and commercial success.3 The Cisco Kid does not fare nearly as well in their estimation. Its success is limited, they argue, to "the purely entertainment level of a movie made for television."4 Moreover, it is considered to have "a flawed script, uneven performances, and a not-so-successful Chicano interpretation of Mexican traditions, history, and folklore."5
The mainstream press was somewhat more encouraging in its response to the film. Todd Everett suggests that it is Valdez's "most accessible project yet, with even wider potential appeal than La Bamba."6 More significantly, he locates the appeal of the film in the tradition of the Cisco Kid series, noting that "it's a welcome return for the characters and should bring knowing smiles to fans of the Duncan Renaldo-Leo Carrillo interps in the '50s."7 This is, in fact, the key to the appeal of the film, despite the fact that, as a brief summary will demonstrate, it is hampered by its overreaching plot.
Valdez's film introduces viewers to the Cisco legend against the backdrop of the struggle between France and Mexico in 1867. The supporters of President Benito Juárez are battling the occupying French armies of Napoleon II, who has appointed the Austrian Emperor Maximilian as the puppet ruler of Mexico. Cisco first appears as a prisoner in a French jail, where he meets a priest named Pancho while both are on their way to be executed by a firing squad. Cisco recounts that his troubles began when he tried to rescue a prostitute named Libertad from a French army brothel. Although Pancho is less forthcoming about his past, we soon learn that he is a Juarista. The pair escapes as a group of Mexican gunmen disrupts the executions, and they ride on a burro to a nearby village. Here they encounter a French tax collector whose henchmen terrify the local people into paying them a tithe of 100 pesos. Cisco and Pancho overpower the tax collector and demand his loot. He takes them to a bedroom, where they meet Dominique, the beautiful niece of the commander of the French army, General Dupré. The duo argues over the fate of the money, which Pancho wants to return to the people through the Juaristas, while Cisco wants to keep it. Pancho prevails. Fearing that their dispute will escalate, the cowardly tax collector offers Dominique to Cisco on the condition that he himself escape unharmed, but Cisco refuses to take advantage of the situation. It is at this point in the story that Cisco finds his signature flamboyant suit, which he takes from the tax collector's wardrobe.
The men then ride to the Juarista camp, where Pancho learns that a poster has been issued offering a reward for his arrest. Cisco speaks with the Juarista leaders and makes a deal to sell them guns that he can obtain from Texan confederate renegades. In the following scene, two of the Texans, Washington and Longquist, have an interview with Dupré, who is holding them on suspicion of gun running to the Mexicans. He agrees to free their men and give them each a hacienda if they complete a mission for him. The villagers of San Miguel, an important strategic location that blocks the access of the French to the sea and is ruled by the Juaristas, worship an image of the child Jesus called El Niño, which was fashioned from gold taken by the conqueror Cortez from the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The Texans are to steal the statue, robbing the Indians of the will and strength they believe it gives them, thus ensuring a French victory. The camera cuts to a procession in the village of San Miguel leading to the church, where El Niño is exhibited only once a year, on Christmas Day. Cisco and Pancho arrive at the village, where Cisco learns that Pancho is not a father in a religious sense but the head of a substantial family. They all go to church, but the ceremonies are interrupted by the Texans, who steal the statue and leave the church in flames, having killed the priest and a number of worshippers. Cisco saves Pancho's daughter from the fire, then they set out to recover the statue.
It is at this point that Cisco, who has previously refused to get involved in the political struggle, decides to fight with the Juaristas. In the town of Cueros, he and Pancho encounter the confederates in a cantina and a fight breaks out; as Cisco and Pancho are about to overcome the Texans, Pancho is captured by a bounty hunter but is rescued by Cisco. After leaving the bar, they learn that there is a competition in the local bullring for the best caballero and that the winner will attend a ball in the governor's palace, where Pancho is sure El Niño has been taken. Following an impressive display of horsemanship, Cisco wins the contest and he and Pancho attend the ball. While Pancho rescues El Niño, Cisco romances an increasingly compliant Dominique. The pair's perfect mission is thwarted, however, when the tax collector recognizes Cisco and they are forced to flee. The Texan renegades capture them and take them to a French brothel, where the prostitute Cisco had previously defended, Libertad, aids their escape. Meanwhile, Dominique is kidnapped by another of the renegades, who leaves a ransom note to make it appear that Cisco is the kidnapper. Cisco and Pancho, unaware of this development, return to the Juarista camp with both El Niño and the much-needed guns. Cisco asks one of the Juarista leaders, Doña Josefa, for money and a receipt from Benito Juárez to confirm that he has received the guns, much to the disgust of both Doña Josefa and Pancho. Cisco's apparent greed, which he explains as a need to clear his name of being a bandit north of the border, leads to a fight between the men. At this point, a Juarista horseman comes to warn the camp that Dupré and the entire French army are coming.
The Mexicans prepare for battle as Cisco learns of Dominique's kidnapping and rushes to find her. Pancho, meanwhile, rides through the countryside displaying El Niño in a successful bid to inspire men to join the battle. Cisco finds the Texans in the same bar in which Pancho was captured by the bounty hunter and rescues Dominique, taking her to the safety of the Juarista camp. Cisco and Dominique make love. The following day, Cisco is instrumental in helping the Mexicans defeat the French, killing Dupré and defeating his right-hand man and Dominique's fiancé, Lieutenant Colonel Delacroix. Soon after this decisive battle, Juárez arrives at the camp and personally thanks Cisco. Doña Josefa gives Cisco the money and the letter and, with a notably softened attitude, asks him to join their struggle. Cisco takes his leave of Pancho outside the latter's house, as he had promised his wife Rosa that he would give up his life as a freedom fighter and settle down. Cisco departs and bids farewell to Dominique, who is returning to France. As Cisco rides forth, Pancho catches up with him and the pair joins forces once more.