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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Old Gringo

My very long Gregory Peck retrospective ends with one of his last films, Old Gringo, from 1989, directed by Luis Puenza and based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes. It also stars Jimmy Smits and Jane Fonda, and they are all in a love triangle. Try and wrap your mind around that one.

Ostensibly, this film is about the author Ambrose Bierce (Peck), an iconoclast of the first order, who has gone to Mexico to fight with the rebels under Pancho Villa. He finds himself riding with a general (Smits) who has returned to the hacienda where he was born to wreak vengeance on the rich and mighty. But Smits gets caught up in his past, living in luxury in the abandoned estate, and refuses orders to join Villa elsewhere.

That's basically the story, but the film chooses to revolve around the character of Harriet Winslow, played by Jane Fonda, who is woefully miscast. She is a spinster, longing for adventure, and takes a job as a governess with a rich Mexican family. It just so happens that that is where Smit's army is attacking. She sort of becomes a camp follower, unable to return home, and both Peck and Smits become smitten with her. Despite initially disliking each man, she grows to admire both of them.

The pieces are all there for a good film, but it doesn't hold together. Most of them is due to awful character of Winslow. Fonda was in her early 50s when she played the part, but I sense it was meant to be a younger woman (haven't read the book). It all seems like a vanity production to make her feel like she's still attractive (indeed, it is from Fonda Films). She earned a Razzie nomination for worst actress, but lost to Heather Locklear.

When the film focuses on Peck and Smits, it's much better. They have a great scene by the graves of Smits' family, who were servants at the Hacienda. His father raped his mother, and his father was the first man he killed. Peck is an absolute delight as Bierce, a man is his 70s who has a unique perspective on the world. He is only interested in truth, telling a dying man that he is indeed dying. He is also still a bit of rake. He takes the opportunity to visit the local whore, who asks him he likes women. "I do like women, and I will after I die," he says.

In real life, Bierce disappeared and no one knows what happened to him. There's a question if he even went into Mexico. The film has its own solution to the mystery, which is fairly satisfying if a stretch of the truth. I imagine Bierce would have approved.

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