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El Prisionero 13 (1933) centers on the drunk Colonel Carrasco, whose wife Marta leaves him, taking his young son. Years later, Carrasco is promoted to a higher rank of power amidst the Mexican Revolution and accepts a bribe to free a revolutionary, Felipe Martinez, from execution. Carrasco asks to have the revolutionary replaced by absolutely anyone and in a twist of fate, that person turns out to be his own long-lost son, Juan.
Earlier in my blog series on Mexico, I analyzed the Fernando de Fuentes classic, Vamonos con Pancho Villa. This classic film captures the disappointments of the revolution and the pitfalls of toxic masculinity and thankfully, it is not the only film of its kind. This was the last part of a Mexican Revolution trilogy by De Fuentes, which I will watch and discuss this week and next. This first part of the trilogy focuses on Victoriano Huerta’s men and ideals. Though many leaders of the Mexican Revolution get equal amounts of love and hatred, most Mexicans dislike Victoriano Huerta.
Victoriano Huerta (1854-1916) was a Mexican general and political leader who, in 1913, overthrew the first government to emerge from the Mexican Revolution and became the executive of a counterrevolutionary regime. Though Huerta was born to Huichol Indian parents, he was in command of the military campaign which crushed the resistance of the Maya Indians in 1901. When Díaz’s regime collapsed in 1911 and the aging dictator was forced into exile, Gen. Huerta commanded the escort which accompanied Díaz safely to Veracruz. Huerta crushed the peasant followers of Emiliano Zapata. He also assumed the provisional presidency on the night of Feb. 22, 1913, while former president Madero was murdered.
Although there is no evidence of Huerta’s direct responsibility in the tragic events, many believe he was behind it. Because of this, the US refused to recognize the regime. The alcoholic Huerta became much more oppressive. After mounting unpopularity and military opposition, Huerta was forced to resign in 1914 and died 2 years later, in US custody.
Those who watched El Prisionero 13, would have recognized this cowardly, drunken ruler immediately in the actions of the protagonist, Colonel Carrasco. As John Mraz has noted, “In the film’s visual narrative, the ubiquitous presence of a bottle (Huerta was famously alcoholic) and an artillery shell on Carrasco’s desk is a constant reference to alcohol and militarism as the defining structures of Huerta’s presidency.” The film seeks to ask the question: What kind of men were Huerta and his followers? Looking at Huerta’s long career of betraying the important causes of his country, he seems to fit the bill as someone who did not need to be corrupted by power. He was already selfish.
Colonel Carrasco is the exact same way. He was born a scoundrel and will die one. De Fuentes sets up his arc as someone who is doomed to carry out an immoral and fatal task. The first flashback in the film shows a young Carrasco at the dinner table with his young son and his overwhelmed wife. She declares that his abuse has reached its limit and she will leave with their son. Trying to stop her, he pulls out his gun and is held back… but how long can he hold out? During the divorce proceedings, a colleague of his tells him to let his wife take their son. He says Carrasco can’t provide him the love and support that a mother does, but not to worry, he’ll get him back when the time is right. Although this colleague means his son will be his to mentor again, it could also mean Carrasco will meet him again just as he left him… with a gun in hand. Carrasco is doomed to continue his already started, destructive path in life.
Just as the bad men are doomed to stay bad but successful, De Fuentes also posits that the good men of Mexico are doomed to a tragic fate of their own. One of the first scenes in which we find Carrasco’s grown-up son shows him standing outside his girlfriend’s window, pitching woo. It’s an innocent enough scene but the visuals are striking in their foreshadowing. His girlfriend’s windows are barred and the image of this young man looking up at her wantonly with the shadows of these bars covering his face is unsettling upon knowing how the film ends. His journey will end with him behind bars. Though he is a good-natured young man, he will be doomed to be forever on the outside looking in.
The entire film not only comments on the fate of the heroes and the villains of Victoriano Huerta’s Mexico but what it means to be a good man and a bad man. In De Fuentes’ eyes, the bad men are clearly the leaders and the good are the prisoners. Each group displays very different ideas on what it means to be a man. For Carrasco and his men, a major part of this persona relies on “play-acted masculinity”. Carrasco likes to surround himself with items that give him the appearance of a tough man without any action to back that up. Carrasco keeps an extremely phallic humidor on his desk and when he talks to the family of a prisoner, he makes sure to keep his whip in hand. On the outside, he looks like a man but his actions prove he is not. Unlike the prisoners, he cannot admit who he is.
The prisoners show remorse for their actions. They know they will be executed and face death bravely. When confronted with who he is (a man who takes advantage of desperate women), Carrasco can’t admit it. The prisoners face death and themselves much easier than Carrasco. Their bravery is also not limited to Carrasco’s caricature ideal of masculinity. They find strength in their ability to accept Carrasco’s own son whom they originally believed to be a subversive. Then, in the execution scene, we see a heart-to-heart between a father and son prisoner who declare their gratitude at being able to die together. These men are capable of more tenderness than Carrasco will ever know.
But what does all this mean for us? This film was made almost twenty years after Huerta’s death so the danger and drama of his time was a relic. The ending visuals of the group execution suggest otherwise. Once the men are lined up, a long tracking shot shows the military officers pointing their rifles not at the prisoners but at us. This violence unleashed in Huerta’s era is like Pandora’s box. Not even Carrasco can contain it. In a nail-biting scene showing Carrasco rushing to save his son quickly cutting to and from the scene of the execution, we find that not even he can stop these wheels from turning. We must all be alert.
If not for the copout of an ending, this film would be an unsettling work of art. Unfortunately, the last scene, which seems to say that all the events of the film were just an alcohol-induced dream from Carranza who subsequently swears off drinking, is very weak. I have to guess that this ending was due to government censorship since it does not go with the vision of the rest of the film. Minus this forgettable scene, the film stands out as a necessary critique against the kind of man that betrays the cause of his people but is not brave enough to admit it.