Volume 7, Number 3

March 2010

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

‘Who are the Good Guys?:
The Irish Revolutionary-turned-Mercenary Figure
and the South-of-the-Border Western
Genre in Louis Malle’s ¡Viva Maria! (1965)

By Paula Gilligan (1)



The romantic and troublesome Irish soldier as a stock character has a long history in literature and the theatre, something Paula Gilligan notes has now been extended into the genre of film. The Irish mercenary figure has many uses, some negative like being the embodiment of international conspiracies or unreliable immigrants, but some which are positive, such as that of a heroic freedom fighter devoted to family and liberty. In this article, Gilligan explores the ways in which Louis Malle’s 1965 film ¡Viva Maria! deploys these stereotypes in a genre known as the south-of-the-border western.

The term ‘border crossing’ was originally used to describe the experience of undocumented and bracero Mexican farm-workers who crossed into the United States for seasonal work. Film scholar Hamid Naficy notes that it has expanded to become a metaphor for borders and border crossings of all kinds. (Naficy 2001:249). In his view, in dominant white cultures ‘borders and border spaces tend to represent and allegorise wanderlust, flight and freedom.’ He further argues that the metaphorisation, multiplication and shifting of borders are often made productive in postcolonial and multi-cultural discourses, both by safely abstracting the borders and also by ignoring the unequal power relations; in this way, the real risk and high anxiety experienced by the dispossessed when crossing borders is diminished and downplayed (Naficy 2001:243). As Matt Coleman states in his article ‘Geo-political Place-making after September 11,’ borders are the site of state territorialisation, a process which ‘involves communication or the performance of conceived boundaries through gesture, statement, symbol, and marker: and enforcement of control over access through the threat of sanction’ or a ‘substantive articulation of identity and allegiance’(Coleman 2004:90)

The attractions of metaphorical border-crossing for contemporary publics are evidenced by the popularity of the border text in cinema. The topic of the two thousand-mile United States-Mexico border generated, according to Norma Iglesias, 147 Mexican films during the decade between 1979 and 1989, and well over three hundred border films between 1936 and 1996 (2). One of the most popular of the border genres is the south-of-the-border western. Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954) is the most famous of the 1950s-era films, but Sam Peckinpah’s films consolidated the genre in the 1960s and have gone on to achieve canonical status in American film culture (French 1993:51). An even more specialised variant, the Irish south-of-the-border western genre, emerged as early as the 1930s with the release of God’s Country and the Man (Dir: J. P. McCarthy, 1931) and The Irish Gringo (Dir: Lloyd Bacon, 1935). Irish rebels and revolutionary characters were a prominent feature of the 1950s and 1960s south-of-the-border western, including films such as: Rio Grande (Dir: John Ford, 1950), The Wonderful Country (Dir: Robert Parrish, 1959), Alvarez Kelly (Dir: Edmund Dmytryk, 1966), and Major Dundee (Dir: Sam Peckinpah, 1967).

There are good historical and cultural reasons for this strong cinematic interest in the border, and in the Irish presence in turbulent events in Latin America in general. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and the tremendous loss of Mexican national territory to the United States, French Emperor Napoleon III saw an opportunity to expand his colonial ambitions. He connived with Mexican conservatives and established a satellite Mexican monarchy under Austrian Archduke Maximilian, prompting a patriotic response from republican patriot Benito Juárez and his liberal compatriots. This period of the so-called French Intervention (1864-1867) forms the backdrop to numerous south-of-the-border westerns. It is most often inter-cut with the theme of the American adventurer crossing the border for active engagement with the armed forces of another culture. This is the basic plot of Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954), which was a wide-screen film featuring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as rival mercenaries at the time of the French occupation of Mexico. (3) Another important feature of the later south-of-the-border westerns is the figure of the Irish revolutionary. Sergio Leone's Giù La Testa (1971) [English version titled Duck, You Sucker / A Fistful of Dynamite], for example, features an IRA explosives expert in Mexico who gets caught up in the revolution and whose expertise is called upon by the local rebels. Peckinpah's Major Dundee also features Irish rebels who have turned mercenary and who are hired by the American major of the title in order to pursue Indian tribesmen south of the border. Major Dundee, like Vera Cruz, takes place at the time of the French Empire. In this film, too, the Irish fighters come to the aid of a local rebellion.

A European take on the genre, Louis Malle's ¡Viva Maria! (1965), stars Brigitte Bardot as the title character. ¡Viva Maria! was a huge box-office hit upon its release and took the Grand Prix du Cinema Français in 1965. The film continues to appear regularly on television listings in Ireland, Great Britain and France. Indeed, one clip from the film has more than 60,666 viewings on the popular website YouTube. Its popular success can be attributed in no small part to the appeal of its two stars, both iconic female actors of the 1960s. Bardot plays Maria, the daughter of a French woman and an Irish revolutionary, and Jeanne Moreau plays a Parisian actress and singer who is travelling with a circus in South America. At the beginning of the film, we see Bardot’s character, Maria, as a small girl, travelling with her Irish father as he conducts a bombing campaign throughout the British Empire, including various sites in Ireland, the Rock of Gibraltar and London. He is eventually killed during an action in South America. Following the death of her father, Irish Maria finds herself in British Honduras and joins a troupe of wandering players, where she meets Parisian Maria. (4) Aided by Irish Maria's military expertise, the local rebels and the circus troupe take on a local dictator and have great success. As they gain ground in the war, the pair attract the attention of Catholic monks, who are supporting the dictatorship. The two Marias are captured and an attempt is made to torture them for blasphemy, but the women are liberated by their circus troupe friends and become national heroes.

¡Viva Maria! represents a combination of genres. First, it is a burlesque comedy which makes more than a passing reference to surrealism. Second, it is a filmic example of the adventure genre made popular in nineteenth-century French literature, and, third, it is a parody of a Hollywood genre, the south-of-the-border film. Spatially, the majority of ¡Viva Maria!'s narrative unfolds in an unnamed country in South America. In spite of the location’s ambiguity in the film’s enunciation, most viewers read it as being set in Mexico. Some critics do mention that the makers have not given the film a specific location but then go on to refer to 'Mexico' and 'Mexican' throughout their commentary. (5) Mexico is, therefore, an important subject of the film and informs much of the viewer's response to its content. (6). Malle's venture into the Western genre followed a French tradition dating back to the beginning of cinema. The western was never an exclusively American genre. French production companies had been making westerns and exporting them successfully to the United States, at least until the First World War, most famously the Arizona Bill series starring Joe Hammond (1912-14)(Abel 1998 :47). When ¡Viva Maria! appeared in 1965, European westerns were enjoying a resurgence in popularity, most famously spearheaded by the Italians, thus earning the title 'spaghetti' western. ¡Viva Maria! is, in fact, an Italian/French co-production. Work in this genre, particularly the films of the Italian director Sergio Leone, have attained classic status (Weisser 1992 :459).

‘Spaghetti’ westerns demonstrate a tendency to ignore or downplay the violent colonial history of European and United States’ relations with South America, a characteristic that remains true of ¡Viva Maria!. Louis Malle stated that the initial idea for ¡Viva Maria! came from Vera Cruz, and, indeed numerous references to Aldrich's work, including a gun that can shoot around corners, are made throughout Malle's film (French 1993 :51). A key feature of south-of-the-border westerns is their tendency to portray local rebellions merely as part of an adventure for the central character. This adventure ceases as soon as the protagonist returns over the border to his or her normal life in the ‘West.’ The countries south of the border are represented as in a state of flux, of upheaval and rebellion, a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland world where anything might happen.

The brevity of the French intervention in Mexico suggests that it was effectively one of these sorts of adventures: an unexpected episode. Accounts of its history imply that the whole Mexican experience was, for Archduke Maximilian, a means to escape his powerlessness and boredom in Europe. According to Edward Said this sort of privileged escape was a function that overseas colonies, and previously the medieval Crusades to the Holy Land, often performed for Europeans; he writes 'The facts of empire are associated with sustained possession, with far-flung and sometimes unknown spaces, with eccentric or unacceptable human beings, with fortune enhancing or fantasised activities like emigration, money-making and sexual adventure. Disgraced younger sons are sent off to the colonies, shabby older relatives go there to try to recoup lost fortunes (as in Honoré de Balzac's novel La Cousine Bette) enterprising young travellers go there to sow wild oats and to collect exotica. The colonial territories are realms of possibility.’(Saïd, 1993 :75). The prevalence of this view of non-western nations can be seen in the comments of Jean-Claude Carrière, co-writer of !Viva Maria!. He described Mexico as ‘a country without faith or law where everything seemed possible, at once both burlesque and tragic, without logic, without sense, without rhyme or reason.’ (7) ¡Viva Maria! represents the activities of its French protagonist Maria in Mexico as the 'adventures' of a less than successful actor in another country and confirms the film's location within this sub-genre of the American Westerns. Furthermore, the film narrates an imaginary Irish campaign against colonial England conducted in exotic locations throughout the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. The figure of the Irish revolutionary in the context of ‘New World’ struggles had an earlier nineteenth-century model in Jules Verne’s novel Les Frères Kip. (8) Both Malle and Carrière commented that they had been influenced by these earlier tales of adventure when writing their script for ¡Viva Maria!. It was to be not only a comedy but ‘an evocation of childhood fantasies combined with traditional adventure.’ (9) Discourses of adventurism remain persistent in the global western genre as a whole.

American critics of the south-of-the-border films frequently discard the Mexican context in their analysis of the genre. They maintain that these films are not about Mexico but about Vietnam and American trauma. Michael Coyne, author of The Crowded Prairie, posits the theory that ‘the Western backdrop most suited to encode parallels of the Vietnam War was Mexico.’ (10) Coyne's critique is consistent with dominant American discourses of their country’s actions as innocent but misguided: ‘In its own oblique way, it [Major Dundee] attempts to offer some comment on American hubris on the imperial stage, on U.S. vulnerability in the face of myriad small enemies around the globe and on the tragic futility of trying to wage war against an invisible, indigenous foe.’ (Coyne 1997:132). This approach makes it difficult to see the relevance of the Irish characters to the genre.

‘Vietnam’ readings of south-of-the-border westerns also discount the persistent appeal of the discourse of interventionism as adventurism, a discourse that disguises other agendas such as the protection of capital for American business interests. For Mexican film historian Emilio García Riera, the 1950s was the period when the American imperial project in Mexico began to flex its muscle. (11) The American heroes of Vera Cruz, for example, are shown to reject their initial function of protecting United States’ capital to take on a more idealised vision of themselves as freedom fighters. Both the films themselves and the response of film critics such as Michael Coyne, reveal an ideological wish that goes further than either ‘adventurism’ or ‘the trauma of war’ agendas that have been previously noted. These films cater to American perceptions of the United States as a nation committed to freedom. (12) The adventurers cross borders in order to become part of another country's struggle for liberation. This discourse was also very important in Gaullist international relations during the 1960s and, as we shall see, the Ireland subtext had an important function in the construction of France's new image as liberator of small countries. This backdrop gives a distinct context to the burlesque antics of the two Marias in ¡Viva Maria!.

The combination of interventionist discourses and the idea of the Irish adventurer-cum-revolutionary can be found in both Major Dundee and ¡Viva Maria!. Although Major Dundee was set in the nineteenth century and ¡Viva Maria! in 1910 in an unspecified South American republic, both films refer to the Mexican revolution which began that year. Dundee, the hero of Major Dundee, is amused to discover the words '¡Viva Dundee!' scrawled on the walls outside his lodgings. The word 'Viva' openly associates both Major Dundee and ¡Viva Maria! with the classic texts of the Mexican revolution; as one scholar notes, ‘[a]t the start of the century, Mexico erupted with the revolts of [Emiliano] Zapata and of Pancho Villa, the inspiration for the films ¡Viva Villa! and ¡Viva Zapata!. This historico-filmic context evidently constitutes the basis for ¡Viva Maria!.’ (13) In Major Dundee, such indicatorsof revolution are linked to the American Major and confirm the American role as liberator. The two female leads of ¡Viva Maria! are given numbers: Maria I for Moreau's character and Maria II for Bardot's. The descriptions are important. The characters are not numbered in order of appearance on the screen but rather according to rank. It is clear that French Maria is considered to be of a superior rank to Irish Maria. In this way, French Republicanism, emanating from the ideals of the French Revolution, is mediated through Moreau’s Maria. She inspires the troops, a role consistent with other Joan-of-Arc-like cinematic representations of women in war. French Maria represents the old tradition of a France as liberal democracy and of the French Revolution as the origin of all revolutions (Pastor 1992:275). Indeed, its very symbol was a martial and patriotic French woman, Marianne, leading her nation into battle. French discourses concerning Ireland as colony also construct France in the role of inspirational leader and liberator, a useful alibi for a Gaullist France unwilling to recognise the true nature of its relationship with its colonies.

The Irish Terrorist:

Given that Ireland was one of the first countries to assert its right to self-rule outside the British Empire, the figure of the Irish revolutionary took on a new and more disturbing role against the context of post-World War II anti-colonial movements. (14) In !Viva Maria!, the figure of the Irish revolutionary has sinister overtones, at least at the start of the film. Maria Fitzgerald O'Malley's father conducts a bombing campaign against the English, striking at their colonial outposts in a manner intended to tap into a much more contemporary anxiety. O’Malley senior is thus constructed as a terrorist, not as a rebel. The opening song of the prologue criticises his efforts as the work of a fanatic and condemns O'Malley's use of the little girl to carry out dynamite attacks. Maria II relates the motivation behind her father's actions to French Maria. She tells her that his three brothers had been shot by the English in front of Cork Cathedral and that she herself was born in prison. Maria II remarks that fighting the British runs in her family; her great-grandfather had fought at Waterloo on the side of the French. She declares, however, that she herself was coerced into taking part in the bombing and had no choice but to obey. O'Malley, the father, emerges from her description as a puritanical fanatic.

At the time of the films release, audience response to O'Malley was generally very negative. In reviews, he is never described as a revolutionary but rather as ‘an anarchist,’ an ‘Irish terrorist’ or even as a ‘terroriste irlandais profondément anglophobe’ [profoundly Anglo-phobic Irish terrorist]. (15) !Viva Maria!'s depiction of Irish Republicans is consistent with tropes of revolt as a pathological act. This notion is furthered by insinuation that Maria O'Malley, her family, and, by extension, the Irish people, are genetically disposed to violent action. We are given a picture of a young woman not naturally inclined to engage in anarchy but who is led into it by a sinister father figure. Her republican history establishes Maria II's expertise in armed struggle, an expertise which assumes greater significance as the film goes on. (16) There is considerable difference between the labelling of Irish Maria II's combative actions within the Irish narrative at the start of the film and her engagement with French Maria I's campaign. While the film does not condemn all revolutionary action and indeed even celebrates it through its support of the peasant rebellion, the martyred father’s Irish nationalism is condemned and, therefore, so is all anti-colonial nationalism that acts as a violent divisive force. Such contradictions are reflective of ambivalence in the function of Ireland as sign for imperialist cultures. To determine that function, it is necessary to examine the relationship between the Irish as colonised and new 'post-colonial' empires in the western genres of the 1950s and 1960s.

For twentieth-century Western cinema, the Ireland subtext generates disturbing paradigms of successful uprising that encompassed anti-colonialist behaviour and a triumphant anti-state campaign. Irish figures in south-of-the-border westerns are indicative of a crisis in identity. Their history as colonised is not always successfully masked in American pioneer myths, and their function as sign straddles borders of anxiety, transgression and deviance as a result. The consistency of this representation is striking. Like the Irish monks in eighteenth century France, unwanted exile is part of the ‘Irish Emigrant’ sign in America. This sense of loss is a theme in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), and has its counterpart in the rural idyll of his earlier film The Quiet Man (1952). It is particularly strong where the Ireland text crosses colonial stories in South America. Robert Parrish directed The Wonderful Country in 1959, five years before the appearance of !Viva Maria!. The unsettled protagonist, whose surname, Brady, indicates Irish origins, is forced to travel between two cultures, American and Mexican. The title is ironic because the gun-fighting hero, played by Robert Mitchum, oscillates between his desire to identify with Mexico and a vulnerability to succumb to the dominant American expansionist culture. Eventually he chooses America, ‘the wonderful country.’ Similarly, Irish Maria chooses France and not Ireland or Mexico when she becomes a ‘little woman of Paris’, but her allegiance is reserved and not always given unconditionally.

Military Discourses and the South-of-the-Border Western:

The myth of integrity in America's relationship with Mexico is used to quell, contain and re-channel the colonised's unrest in the south-of-the-border westerns. South-of-the-border narratives, unlike other westerns and the South American gangster or drug film genres, rarely encode their Mexican characters with the disruptive rebelliousness of the colonised because such a characterisation would jeopardise paternal notions of Mexicans as victims saved by the strong men of the United States. The role of the French may be different in !Viva Maria! than in either Vera Cruz or Major Dundee, but it is not significantly different from the role of the American heroes of Peckinpah and Aldrich's films. In !Viva Maria!, the French have replaced the Americans as saviours of the poor and oppressed. Mexican landlords with Western or European pretensions are the evil dictators. The American characters in the south-of-the-border westerns earn their right to lead the revolution primarily because they are constructed as the ‘strong’, while the Mexicans are represented as ‘weak.’ The strength of the Americans is not based on 'brute' force but on technology: their ability to deploy weaponry. Interestingly, while the Americans feel free to cast the French as villains in their films, Malle does not reverse the position.

There is a pretty clear-cut association of professional characters in south-of-the-border westerns with the military. They either have military backgrounds or they exhibit military behaviour. In !Viva Maria! the sequences of Maria's training as a bomber present motifs associated with paratrooper fictions of preparation for 'military manhood', such as we find in American films such as Oliver Stone's Platoon (1987), and, thereby, construct O'Malley in this kind of role. We are shown Irish Maria swimming through water carrying dynamite, struggling through jungle terrain with bombs and setting up explosions under bridges. These scenes are, of course, very funny because Maria II conducts all these activities while wearing a long dress, but they do point to discourses prevalent in the genre. The professionals of the south-of-the-border western represent the American military operating outside their national boundaries. Noël Carroll hypotheses that these films are about what the Americans want to believe, namely, that American military operations abroad are undertaken solely in the defence of freedom (Carroll :78)

Freedom gained by revolution is rarely, if ever, represented as occurring independently of the armed forces or as an advantage gained against them. Underlying these films is the presupposition of a principle that the justification of professional prowess rests in its service for freedom and in its stand against tyranny. Talbot identifies a similar wish in the paratrooper myth for France. He remarks on the paratrooper's claimed lack of racism as it is presented in fictional representations of the troops in Algeria. In his argument, he quotes Jean Lartéguy’s best-selling 1960 novel, Les Centurions, ‘We are the defenders of a type of freedom and of a new order'. (17) This is the same role allocated to the French in !Viva Maria!. Of course, these are very complex discourses, but an examination of the role of the Irish in this genre, including !Viva Maria!, is useful in revealing the operation of paratrooper myths for the coloniser. The Irish figures function as a bridge between the colonised and the coloniser: this happens as a result of the historical association of the Irish emigrant with mercenary soldiering. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Irish emigrants saw less engagement with wars on the European continent and more and more engagement with the imperial projects of the super-powers, including the United States.

Films like Major Dundee implied that, if the Irish revolutionaries were ruled fairly, they could be harnessed to do 'good', not 'evil', where doing 'good' means supporting the new cultural imperialist project. (18) The progression to colonisation of other countries is mediated through Western films which involve other locations outside the United States borders, films like Peckinpah’s Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch. Romanticism about the role of the military in the reality of colonisation of indian territory, and the American taste for the exotic, combine in the south-of-the-border Westerns. They pave the way for the acceptance of conquest of other countries. Imperialist adventures were seen as a potent antidote to diminished manhood in America at a time when, as Frederick Jackson Turner announced in 1893, all ‘the frontier opportunities are gone’.(Kuenz 2001:101). White domination of America, with the subsequent imperial annexation of land and resource and the enforcement of neo-liberal economic policies, becomes a fait accompli to be justified by any reasoning other than that of rule by force. (19)

Underlying films like Vera Cruz is the presupposition of a principle that the justification of professional prowess, and mastery of weaponry, rests in its service for freedom and in its stand against tyranny. The ideology of technological modernism, a feature of Vera Cruz, offers the promise of happiness-read as victory in the Western, no longer through nature, but through advanced technology. (20) The optimism of the type of ‘military liberal humanism’ we find in these films is tinged with deep pessimism, a feature of the Westerns of this period. (21) In spite of the rhetoric, the United States neo-imperial model is like the older European one - indirect rule as association. Assimilation with the local population is not really ever the aim, in fact is guarded against (Gilligan 2009: 235-249). Some commentaries have read this anti-assimilation tendency in the south-of-the-border western as oblique criticism of United States involvement in Vietnam, but it is consistent with the neo-imperialist commitment to United States rule-by-proxy. (22) In neo-imperial military discourse, elite professional cavalry officers should ‘get in and get out’ as quickly as possible. This was very much the attitude of Irish-descended Union Army Generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, who were brought in to threaten attack on Maximilian in Mexico; they conducted their operations at a distance.

Grant and Sherman were typical of the Irish military professional class in the United States --they had been at West Point Academy together, left the army under a cloud, but rejoined at the outbreak of the Civil War. Yet, the men were also quite different politically. Unlike Grant, the red-haired whiskey-drinking Sherman was against abolition, opposed the use of black soldiers in the army, and resisted giving black people the right to vote (Ridley 2001: 216-7) In the context of Irish emigrant cultures in the US, the political activist history of the formerly colonised Irish is subsumed into the myth of the ‘Fighting Irish’ (23) The ‘revolting’ Irish are thus territorialised, and reconfigured as the ‘Fighting Irish’– army careerists who retain the aura of military expertise (gained in rebellions and in the service of the English), but who can be harnessed into the Nation. Thomas Francis Meagher exemplifies the ‘Fighting Irish’ type, and was nicknamed ‘Meagher of the Sword’. Described as ‘one of the best known generals in the Union Army’, he had, as a Young Irelander, ‘called on his countrymen to grasp the sword rather than adhere to Daniel O’Connell’s non--violent politics’. (24) For historian William Griffin, the Meagher narrative constructs an Irish archetype, displaying ‘his rash, flamboyant temperament both on and off the battlefield’, which represents the ‘embodiment of some wild, poetic, impulsive figure from Irish fiction’. (Griffin 1983:137). In fact, it was Meagher who planned the 1870 Fenian invasion of Canada, though he did not live to participate in it. Meagher’s untimely end, death by drowning in the Missouri River at aged forty-one, also fed the myth. The ‘fighting Irish configuration’, exemplified by Meagher, is a major component in the plot of Peckinpah’s Major Dundee.

Malle was attracted to this problem, namely the participation of one group of oppressed peoples in the repression of another. He had already dealt with that subject in his film Lacombe Lucien (1974), the only moment he felt was truly Marxist in his work, in spite of the fact that it also contributed to a disturbing ambivalence in that film. (25) Yet the trope of Irish adventurers in South America is not comparable to Malle's African refugees who were trapped in France during the Second World War. (26) Generally speaking, Irish roles in the conquest and colonisation of the West remain unquestioned in Irish cinema. Where the Irish diaspora, recently described - perhaps more accurately- as the Irish Empire, involves the suppression of indigenous cultures to enable white colonisation; the escape from oppression in colonised Ireland serves as a justification for this act rather than a contradiction. As Mary Lawlor points out in her essay ‘Fitzcarraldo: Irish Explorer’, in a number of films set in the nineteenth-century outposts of empire, Irish characters are represented as imperial innocents, un-implicated in the colonial machinations in which they are embedded’ (Lawlor :249). Lawlor describes the Irish in South America as belonging to, but not quite part of, the institutional machinery of empire; they are thus considered to be ‘paracolonialist’ (Lawlor:249). Malle often used the adventurer theme to explain the participation of his characters in historical events. Lucien in Lacombe Lucien, 'falls' into the Gestapo through a series of 'accidental' events. Claude Berri in his introduction to Lacombe Lucien describes these events as 'un concours de circonstances' (Barri & Davy 1973:Dustjacket) Both Bardot and Moreau’s Maria characters engage with the Mexican Revolution through a similar series of haphazard incidents and encounters. They experience the Revolution as an adventure, much in the way that they experience striptease as an enjoyable consequence of an accident. This theme of chance in history has created some problems for Malle, particularly in the case of Lacombe Lucien where Lucien's lack of motivation for joining the Gestapo has potential as an excuse for collaboration. For André Pierre Colombat, a troubling aspect of Malle's films comes from the feeling that key actions of his heroes are only the result of chance and circumstance, not from internal conviction. In Colombat's view, this poses serious problems when it comes to confronting actions of the resistance, victims, or bystanders with actions of Collaboration (Colombat 1993:270-287). On the other side of the coin, Maria O'Malley's participation in armed resistance in Viva Maria! is presented as much an accident of place as Lucien's collaboration previously had been. This has curious implications for the function of the Ireland revolutionary text in the film. These two elements, the conversion of the Irish figure from terrorist to soldier and then to the 'bystander' of accidental participation historical events, are played out in the representation of Maria O'Malley in Viva Maria!. This depiction is a double-edged sword. It has the effect of absolving the characters from blame, the same criticism that has been lobbied against Malle’s other film, Lacombe Lucien. It also robs the characters of agency and self-determination; they are not responsible for their actions. They are thus cast in the role of minors, whereas the representatives of the dominant culture are teachers, father figures, and leaders.

The south-of-the-border films of the 1960s also develop the theme of the colonised as betrayer. Maria O'Malley in !Viva Maria! is technically a deserter, having run away from her father's war with the British. The motif of betrayal reflects the imperialists’ real difficulty in understanding their rejection by the colonised that they are trying to save in their 'civilising mission' (Tarr 1997:65). In !Viva Maria! and in Giù La Testa, the Irish 'terrorist' expertise is deployed usefully in battle but the actual integrity, trustworthiness and reliability of the actual Irish person is consistently called into question. On hearing the revolution declared following the death of the rebel leader Flores, Maria II sums up the position of the Irish figure in the genre by saying 'Don't count on me!'. (27) In the south-of-the-border western - and this includes Giù La Testa! - the Irish do not function as principled teachers of revolution, they are represented as largely self-interested and apolitical guns for hire. Many reviews of !Viva Maria! reflect a celebration of both Bardot and her character Maria as the embodiment of action, pure will, and animal instinct. This absence of informed political will is frequently exercised as an apology for Bardot’s own later engagement with the far-right and has the double-thrust of generating paradigms of freedom as freedom from social responsibility and immunity from the burden of guilt and consequences.

The Irish figures in the south-of-the-border westerns mediate military attitudes, including negative attitudes to political cultures, as represented by the revolutionary action, and positive attitudes, such as the uncivilised and exotic spaces of pre-revolutionary and peasant Mexico. Attitudes to ‘civilisation’ in the south-of-the-border genre echo the paratrooper rejection of Western civilisation as corrupt. The genre reflects the romance of the marginal which leads to a Manichean universe of absolute opposites, barely responsive to the actual complexities and over-determination of the situation under determination (Connor 1989:236-7). Burt Lancaster as the professional gunslinger, Dolworth, in another south-of-the-border western, The Professionals (Dir: Richard Brooks, 1966), sums up the ideological opposition of good and bad as he attempts to answer the question, 'what were the Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?'. He replies '[m]aybe there's only one revolution, since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys. Question is: who are the good guys?'.

In the American south-of-the-border films, this opposition of good and bad, identity and allegiance, civilisation and nature, resonates in the negative portrayal of rebellion. Inevitably, in this genre, the revolutionary impulse is drowned in a sea of blood, and the military engagement only serves to heighten the paratrooper character's profound disgust for humanity. At the end of The Professionals, Dolworth [Lancaster] comments: 'the revolution? When the shooting stops and the dead are buried and the politicians take over, it all adds up to one thing, a lost cause'. However, the reduction of the Mexican Revolution, which was an actual historical event, into simply one episode of a mythic and continuous battle against evil waged by the good Americans is indicative of a not-yet-articulated contradiction between politics and metaphysics. (28) '. Aldrich's Vera Cruz is similarly pessimistic. In the words of one critic: ‘The setting up of the mirror image of good and bad - of Gary Cooper and of Burt Lancaster - transforms the history of the gold convoy across Mexico by two adventurers ... into a mortal game in which each one searches the negation of his own choices in the other'. (29) Thus, in the film, the revolution becomes a duel between two personalities; the revolutionary action as a communal struggle for liberty loses its meaning.

In spite of its apparent homage to the south-of-the-border western, !Viva Maria! does not reproduce the classic narrative of a standard western such as Vera Cruz, but rather it deliberately disrupts the genre and opposes simple reductionism and closure through its use of parody, pastiche and surrealism. The second part of !Viva Maria! mocks the military’s attachment to new technologies and superior weaponry in the professional western, and, in doing so, also criticised the Fifth Republic's obsession with weaponry in the form of nuclear warheads. In many of Malle's more celebrated films, the central characters progress through a desire to conform, to be with the group, through self-awareness and finally to resistance. (30) The characters are alienated but collaborate in evil through an absence of knowledge. !Viva Maria! constructs the natrrative that Irish Maria's gave her father in his fanatical bombing campaign as another example of the way that people might behave in an 'immoral' fashion through ignorance. The characters of Malle's films are not particularly evil, but they do fall into evil by following the dominant culture. While this position is problematic, as we have seen, there are redeeming aspects to Malle's attitude because it resists fatalism. Evil in Malle's terms is banal and comes from class-based politics of selfishness. It is not an apocalyptic organic evil but something definitely man-made. There is, therefore, the possibility of choosing to do good. Furthermore, !Viva Maria! presents the 1910 revolution itself as a product of histories of oppression, and, thus, celebrates it as an agent for change, whereas in an overwhelming majority of American films, revolution is represented as catastrophe.

Unlike Vera Cruz, !Viva Maria!'s revolution is worthwhile. Much of the film’s humour stems from the idea of women taking over leadership roles that were traditionally male. !Viva Maria! imagines how a revolution might succeed and how a female French presence might be one of solidarity with another oppressed group. We are inclined to accept this quite radical point of view because the film makes us laugh. The circus theme serves to counter and to poke fun at the ideology latent in the paratrooper and professional soldier myths. Not only does !Viva Maria! paradoxically depict Bardot as paratrooper, but it also turns nationalist ideals of Irish womanhood on their head by having its heroine be a sensualist, a stripper, and a philanderer to boot. Where there is weaponry, it belongs to the people and emerges hidden under hens and buried in floorboards. These scenes have cultural precedents. The early scenes of the film Shake Hands with the Devil (Dir: Michael Anderson, 1959) also refer to the subterfuge of a people in revolt and show how, during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), guns were hidden in coffins and transported through the staging of mock funerals. In !Viva Maria! the combination of striptease, circus song, burlesque and revolution are not only celebrations of the carnivalesque as liberty, a pronounced feature of the French Revolution, but they also have a real connection with the 'Mexican' setting of the film. In a much milder fashion than the Mexican folk dance called the zarzuela, which Mexican playwright Usigli described as a theatre of revolution, !Viva Maria! draws on the European tradition of the carnivalesque and the revue to build its revolution.

In spite of the fact that the first part of ¡Viva Maria! reproduces some of the imperialist thinking that underpins typical South-of-the-border films, its second part undermines the genre in a radical way. !Viva Maria!'s inquisition scenes introduce an anti-clerical theme not found in the border/Mexican adventure genre, neither of the American variety nor in the more irony-driven ‘spaghetti’ western. (31) It is this sequence that most troubles the film’s critics. It is also the most surreal part of the film and contains direct references to the films of Luis Buñuel, with whom Carrière had collaborated on many scripts. The presence of the Inquisition, which had long been extinct when the actual revolution began in 1910, is suggestive of the history of Mexico as Spanish colony. The alienating effect of this false history creates problems in reading the film. (32) The playful and farcical aspect of surrealism, recalling the long tradition of the carnivalesque as resistance, constitutes the biggest threat to the bodies who would suppress it. As Buñuel himself stated at the University of Mexico in 1953, 'Film is a magnificent and dangerous weapon if it is wielded by a free mind.' (Carriere 1994:90) For both Malle and Buñuel, the form of their films generates disruption, particularly through their use of the open text and their resistance to closure. In their films we find 'the summation of the clash between instincts, impulse of friendship, love, desire, enjoyment of life and the appeal of freedom and the agents of their repression (the church, the police, bourgeois morality, society)' (de la Colina & Turrent 1992:202-7). This clash is played out in the two Marias’ opposition to the twin institutions of the repressive State-as-dictatorship and the Catholic Church-as-state apparatus. By introducing this theme, Malle returns to the great traditions of radical cinema, a cinema borne of a desire to speak ‘truth to power’, underpinned by a belief in humanity and in human friendship as transformative which is the hallmark of Malle’s work in his masterpieces such as Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), Humain Trop Humain (1972). For Malle, the presence of the Irish figure against this backdrop of Mexico as a post-colonial society dominated by an authoritarian Catholic Church does not represent an escape from history but rather a gives us picture of history replete with holes and thus a history which empowers us.


1 Dr Paula Gilligan is Head of Humanities Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT), Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, and co-ordinator of its Centre for Public Culture Studies. Recent publications include ‘Race, nation, class, and the Confederate Irish in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965)’, in Ruth Barton, Ed., Screening Irish-America, 2009; and ‘Space, Violence and the City in the 1930s films of Liam O’Flaherty’, in ed. Justin Carville, The Journal of Early Popular Visual Culture, 2008.

2 Naficy is indebted to Iglesias, quoted in Fregosa (1999, pp.189-90) for this formulation which he has modified considerably. See Naficy, An Accented Cinema, p.239.

3 Louis Malle states that the initial idea for !Viva Maria! came from Vera Cruz and indeed numerous references to Aldrich's work, including a gun that can shoot around corners, are made throughout Malle's film. French, Conversations avec Louis Malle, p.5.

4 The two women become partners in a circus act. During their first show together Irish Maria accidentally invents striptease. That night, the Marias take part in a huge fiesta where Moreau's Maria meets the revolutionary leader Flores, played by George Hamilton and Irish Maria has her first sexual experience. While travelling, the troupe witnesses a massacre in a village by the agents of the Dictator. Irish Maria intervenes and shoots one of the agents and the troupe is taken prisoner. French Maria meets Flores again and falls in love. The women escape from the dictator but Flores is shot. The circus troupe take him back to the village where he dies in Maria I's arms. The villagers, led by the parish priest, are reluctant to continue their campaign but French Maria declares that she will carry on the revolution.

5 Penelope Houston, for example, talks of an 'audience of enchanted Mexicans' in her review of the film. See Houston, ‘Viva Maria!’ Sight and Sound 35, #2 (Spring 1966): p.90.

6 The French under Napoleon III established an empire in Mexico in October 1863 and placed Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian on the throne. The Mexicans under the Mexican president Zaragosa and directed by General Porfirio Díaz and supported by the USA, fought the occupation. Just four years later the empire was dismantled and the French withdrew from Mexico. Díaz went on to establish the dictatorship which led to the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

7 ‘Le Méxique n'est pas cartésien. A son contact, nous avions oublié que nous l'étions nous-memes.’ See Jean-Claude Carrière quoted in Réné Prédal, Louis Malle, (Paris: Edillig, 1989), p.67.

8 P’tit Bonhomme tells the varied and exciting adventures of a waif, as he travels around Ireland of the nineteenth-century. It was published in Ireland in 1895 under the title of Foundling Mick.

9 Malle quoted in French, Conversations avec Louis Malle, p.51.

10 Coyne criticises the celebration of arms in films like Vera Cruz in the same vein: 'the essence of America's tragedy is that the nation most dedicated to freedom has clearly confused liberty with licence and nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the national love affair with guns'. Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western, (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997), p.132.

11 ‘L'hégémonie américaine attient son sommet, [dans les années cinquantes], et se fait sentir sous ses diverses facettes. Il est certain qu'à partir du moment où le Mexique a exproprié les compagnies pétrolières, l'economie a subi une transformation favorable à la bourgeoisie nationale. Il n'en demeure pas moins vrai que meme si l'on a fait passer le capital étranger au second plan, la pénétration impéraliste a commencé à se faire sentir d'une manière plus subtile –à travers des prets de capitaux, le controle du marché, les mythes culturels, etc., - mais aussi plus profonde et plus violente’. Emilio García Riera, ‘Mexique,’ in Guy Hennebelle and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, eds, Les Cinémas de l'Amérique latine, (Paris: L'Herminier, 1981), p.223.

12 These discourses have considerable currency in the USA. The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001 prompted endless repetition of the phrase, 'the end of innocence' in media headlines that week.

13 'Or c'est au début du siecle que le Mexique fut secoué par les révoltes de Zapata et de Pancho Villa qui inspirérent les films !Viva Villa! et !Viva Zapata!. Ce contexte historico-filmique constitue évidemment la base de !Viva Maria! dont le titre est ouvertement référential.' Prédal, Louis Malle, p.69.

14 In post-war American films, for example, Ford's revolutionary heroes of films like The Plough and The Stars, (1936) had all but disappeared from Hollywood screens only to surface again in the South-of-the-border Westerns.

15 See Les Chiffres de l'Année, (TV review for 1990, Médiamat, p.v.). O'Malley is also described as a terrorist in the review of !Viva Maria! by Stephan Eichenberg on the IdBM database,

16 ‘Au cours d'une tournée dans un pays d'Amérique latine fortement agité, Maria 2 apprend à Maria I comment mener une révolution,’ Marine Landrot, !Viva Maria!, in Télérama #2390 (1-11-1995): p.151

17 'Nous sommes les défenseurs d'une liberté et d'un ordre nouveau'. Philip Dine, (1994), p.29.

18 Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out the role of the Irish in the Australian colonial project against aboriginal culture. See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London: Routledge, 1994), p.5.

19 Emilio García Riera argues that USA hegemony in Mexico attained its summit in the 1950s, and that it made itself felt in all its diverse aspects. He says that ‘It is certain that, from the moment that Mexico annexed its petrol companies, the economy underwent a transformation favorable to the national middle classes. It remains no less true that, even if, as a result, foreign capital had moved into this secondary position, the imperialist penetration began to make itself felt in a more subtle manner--through capital loans, the control of the market, cultural myths, but also more profound and more violent’.(my translation), Riera, ‘Méxique,’ in Les Cinémas de l'Amérique latine, p.223.

20 Mastery of modern weaponry is key sub-plot of ‘Major Dundee’ Lt. Graham (Jim Hutton) employs a small mountain field piece to defeat the French Calvary charge, and the dialog reflects knowledge of field artillery. He orders fuses cut to length for range and elevation corrections for aim.

21 Carroll hypothesises that freedom gained by revolution is rarely if ever represented in the South-of-the-border Western as occurring independently of the military or as an advantage gained against them. Carroll, ‘The Professional Western: South-of-the-border,’ in Buscombe & Pearson, eds, Back in the Saddle again, p.78.

22 For an example of a Vietnam reading of ‘Major Dundee’ see M. Coyne, The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western, (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997), p.132.

23 In the USA, numerous strategies were maintained to contain the problem of the revolutionary Irish, a problem compounded by the Irish role in political agitation for social rights in the fields of labour and land reform at home and abroad. Alarmed at political activism in Ireland, American legislators introduced the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which raised the probationary period for attaining citizenship from two years to nineteen. See William D. Griffin, A Portrait of the Irish in America, (New York: Macmillan, 1083), p.137.

24 Meagher was exiled to Tasmania, but escaped and set up law practice in New York. Schooled in the Public schools in England, he was ‘the idol of the New York Irish’ and, as a brigadier general, recruited thousands of them into the Irish Brigade at the start of the Civil War. See R.A. Pritchard Jr., The Irish Brigade-A Pictorial History of the Famed Civil War Fighters, (Philadelphia, Courage Books, 2004), pp.51-3.

25 Malle described how, in his research, he discovered incidences of recruitment by the Gestapo of people from Martinique and Algeria, who, trapped in France, were faced with starvation and death. See Malle quoted in French, Conversations avec Louis Malle, p. 100.

26 Irish writer John McGahern's 1963 short story Korea, (translated into French in 1970), also turns on the participation of the recently de-colonised Irish in the suppression of Korean Independence by the United States. McGahern has a large readership in France. He has received the 1994 Écureuil Prize in Boredeaux, all his work has been translated into French and are available in Folio paperbacks. His novel, The Barracks, was a core text of the Aggregation exam in 1998. The Irish screen adaptation of Korea, directed by Cathal Black and released in France in 1995, discards the War of Independence setting of the original story and reworks it as a civil war story. The film's use of Vietnam genre iconography closes off the instability and anti-patriarchal elements in McGahern's story in favour of a father-son reconciliation narrative.

27 Ne compte–pas sur moi!'.

28 ‘Between the 'nightmare of history' –still attributable to the cruelty of other people –and some more ontological vision of an implacable nature in which ‘God is the first criminal, since he created us mortal.’ In Jameson's view, the only response to this mutation can be some private ethical stoicism of ‘a myth of Sisyphus.’ Fredric Jameson, The Geo-Political Aesthetic, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p.35.

29 'Vera Cruz introduit une ironique distance entre deux personnages qui vivent la meme aventure selon des valeurs opposées. La mise en miroir du bon et du méchant –de Gary Cooper et de Burt Lancaster – transforme l'histoire du convoi d'or escroté à travers le mexique par deux aventuriers en proie aux memes convoitisés que ceux dont ils doivent le protéger, en un jeu mortel où chacun cherche en l'autre le négatif de ses choix'. Olivier-René Veillon, Le Cinéma Américain, 1945-1960, (Paris: Éd. De Seuil, 1984), p.18.

30 ‘Pour moi, faire un film consiste à prendre un personnage à un certain moment de son existence, à le suivre un temps alors qu'il lui arrive quelque chose qui le change et le force à se reconsidere et puis je le quitte là, tout a coup.’ Louis Malle quoted in Prédal, Louis Malle, p.71.

31 Having surveyed the 600 spaghetti westerns listed by Thomas Weisser, I found no other example of the anti-clerical theme although frequently monasteries appear as sanctuaries and the occasional nun appears needing protection by the hero. See Weisser, Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, The Bad, and the Violent, (London: McFarland, 1992).

32 ‘Indeed reviewers generally tend towards the opinion that the inclusion of this sequence interfered with their enjoyment of the film as pure entertainment and introduced a disturbing element into an otherwise ‘delightfully‘ frothy farce. He [Malle] throws in some torture in a monastery which could be interpreted as a homage to Luis Buñuel.’ Gordon Gow, (1966), p.6.


- Abel, Richard, ‘Our Country' / Whose Country? The Americanisation Project of Early Westerns,’ in Back in the Saddle Again, Edward Buscombe & Roberta E. Pearson, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p.47.

- Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p.5.

- Barri, Claude & Davy, Jean-François, Les Films de ma vie: Lacombe, Lucien (Dust-jacket, video edition Fil à Film, 1973

- Carrière, Jean-Claude, The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), p.90.

- Carroll, Noël., ‘The Professional Western: South-of-the-Border,’ in Edward Buscombe & Roberta E. Pearson, eds, Back in the Saddle Again (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p.78.

- Coleman, Matt, 'Geo-political place-making after September 11’, in 11 September and its Aftermath, The Geopolitics of Terror, Stanley D. Brunn, ed. (London; Frank Cass, 2004), p. 90.

- Connor, S., Postmodern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.236-7.

- Coyne, Michael, The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997), p.132

- De la Colina, José and Pérez Turrent, Tomás, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel (New York: Marsilio Pres, 1992), pp.202-7.

- French, Philip. Conversations avec Louis Malle (Paris: Denoel, 1993), p.51

- Gilligan, Paula, ‘Fall in with the Major: Race, Nation, Class and The Confederate Irish in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965),’ in Ruth Barton ed, Screening Irish-America (Dublin: Iris Academic Press, 2009), pp. 233-249.

- Griffin, William D., A Portrait of the Irish in America (New York: Macmillan, 1083), p.137, 541.

- Jameson, Fredric, The Geo-Political Aesthetic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p.35.

- Houston, Penelope,‘Viva Maria!’ Sight and Sound 35, #2 (Spring 1966): p.90.

- Kuenz, Jane, ‘The Cowboy Businessman and The Course of Empire in Owen Wister's ‘The Virginian' The Journal of Cultural Critique 48, #1 (2001), p.101.

- Landrot, Marine, !Viva Maria!, in Télérama #2390 (1-11-1995): p.151 See Les Chiffres de l'Année (TV review for 1990, Médiamat, p.v.). O'Malley is also described as a terrorist in the review of !Viva Maria! by Stephan Eichenberg on the IdBM database.

- Lawlor, ‘Fitzcarraldo, Irish Explorer,’ in Ruth Barton, ed. Screening Irish-America (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), p. 249

- Naficy, Hamid An Accented Cinema, Exilic and Diasporic Film-making (Princeton, Princeton Uni. Press, 2001), p. 249.

- Pastor, Beatriz, ‘Carpentier's Enlightened Revolution,’ in Representing the French Revolution James A. Heffernan, ed. (Cambridge MA: University Press of New England, 1992), p.275.

- Prédal, Réné Louis Malle,(Paris: Edillig, 1989), p.67.

- Pritchard Jr., R.A., The Irish Brigade-A Pictorial History of the Famed Civil War Fighters (Philadelphia, Courage Books, 2004), pp.51-3.

- Riera, Emilio García, ‘Mexique,’ in Guy Hennebelle and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, eds, Les Cinémas de l'Amérique latine (Paris: L'Herminier, 1981), p.223.

- Ridley, Jasper, Maximilian and Juárez (London: Phoenix Press, 2001), pp. 216-7.

- Saïd, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p.75.

- Tarr, Carrie, ‘French Cinema and Post-Colonial Minorities,’ Post-Colonial Cultures in France, ed. Hargreaves and McKinney, eds, (London: Routledge, 1997), p.65.

- Veillon, Olivier-René Le Çinéma Américain, 1945-1960, (Paris: Éd. De Seuil, 1984), p.18

- Weisser, Thomas, Spaghetti Westerns - the Good, the Bad and the Violent, (New York: McFarland, 1992), p.459



Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2010

Published:02 March 2010
Edited: 02 March 2010

Gilligan, Paula 'Who are the Good Guys?: The Irish Revolutionary-turned-Mercenary Figure and the South- of-the-Border Western Genre in Louis Malle’s !Viva Maria! (1965)' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:3 (March 2010), pp. 357-371. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla1003.htm), accessed .

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information