Old Gringo

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School teacher Harriet (Fonda) goes to Mexico to ply her trade but is kidnapped by a revolutionary gang (led by Jimmy Smits). Completing the odd trio is Bierce (Peck), a dying author who wants to observe the world before he leaves it and, through the provovcation of Smits' revolutionary, go out with a heroic bang.


In 1913, author and journalist Ambrose Bierce — still best knownfor his short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, unforgettably filmed by Robert Enrico—got fed up of old age and went down to Mexico to cover the then-raging revolution led by Pancho Villa. He was never heard from again, and there have been many theories about what happened to him, ranging from summary execution to kidnap by space aliens. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo Viejo is an imaginative account of Bierce’s last days in Mexico, and finds the crusty, cynical-but-romantic writer caught between an American spinster governess and a brooding revolutionary general. A personal project from Jane Fonda, the movie version was filmed during David Puttnam’s tenure at Columbia and has unfortunately been racking up a pre-release reputation as a studio-shaking turkey.

Actually, although there’s a lot wrong with the film, it’s a generally effective entry in the Mexican Revolution genre of post-Western melodramas, following such greates as Viva Villa!, VivaZapata!, Vera Cruz, The Wild Bunch and A Bullet For The General. All the best action scenes come early, but director Puenzo stages a marvellous battle for a hacienda, with Bierce (Gregory Peck) diverting a train through a wall and Harriet the governess (Fonda) wandering bewildered through the bloodshed. We see brutality on both sides as the rebels set about avenging themselves on the federates when the tables are turned. However, you can tell the good guys because they like to sing and dance a lot, and once General Arroyo (Smits) has taken the hacienda, we get some extensive fiesta footage as the peons cut loose.

Because this is A Fonda Film, her character unfortunately tends to get the most time, which is a shame since she’s the least interesting of the three leads. However, Smits does well as the tormented revolutionary who becomes a tyrant and finds the pressures of freedom worse than those of slavery. And Gregory Peck, who replaced an ailing Burt Lancaster, gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Bitter Bierce, charming his way towards a heroic death and imparting the collected wisdom of years of misanthropy to Harriet. Like the character, you get the impression that the actor is doing many things — heroically riding a horse, striding through, battles, playing a love scene being a movie star—for the last time. Always a rather underrated actor, it’s a pleasure to see Peck, like Bierce, taking one last shot and hitting dead centre.

An astounding performance by Peck, who is manfully (there's very little of the fairer sex on show) assisted by Fonda and Smits.