Mexico: if you believe Hollywood, it’s a wild desert land of handkerchiefed bandits, impoverished but unfeasibly attractive peasant girls, brutal drug lords, and photogenic cacti. Perhaps because of Hollywood’s relative proximity to the Mexican border, an idea of that border as some conceptual dividing line between civilization and lawlessness, order and chaos, has long been a conceit in American cinema. This vision of Mexico has little to do with the realities of a huge and complex country, but still, in celebration of Cinco de Mayo –- also an event that has little to do with the realities of Mexico, considering it’s barely celebrated there — here’s a series of films we’ve selected for their outlandish depictions of our southern neighbors.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
“What’s in Mexico?”
And, obviously, vampires. And giant snakes. And Cheech Marin pontificating outside a club called the Titty Twister. With From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino took Hollywood’s anarchic vision of the land south of the border to hilarious and ludicrous extremes, and in doing so created one of the more entertainingly silly horror films of the past few decades.
El Mariachi (1992)
Texan native Rodriguez, of course, is no stranger to Mexico, having set his first three films in a nebulous and lawless south-of-the-border interzone populated by cold-hearted criminals and merciless killers. El Mariachi –- made, as has been well-documented, for only $7,000 -– remains the first and arguably the finest realization of his vision.
Straight to Hell (1987)
There are plenty of films set in Mexico that never actually got anywhere near the country in the course of their production. So it is with Straight to Hell, Alex Cox’s 1987 punk-themed faux Spaghetti western -– in the finest tradition of Sergio Leone, et. al., the film was shot in Spain’s Almería province. It starred a bunch of Cox’s musician mates from London, including The Pogues and Joe Strummer, along with a very young Courtney Love, who’d had a bit part in his previous film Sid and Nancy. And there’s also a guy in a pink Nazi uniform, for no particular reason. It’s all very silly, but enjoyable enough if accompanied by a six-pack of Tecates and a bottle of tequila.
Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Similarly, while it may well have been fun in Acapulco, Elvis Presley never found out as he never actually left the USA. All his scenes for this film were shot in a Hollywood studio, something that reinforced both that Mexico existed for Hollywood (and its audiences) more as a kind of general concept than as a reality, and that by the mid-’60s, the King wasn’t exactly giving it all when it came to movies. The songs are enjoyable enough, though.
Sam Peckinpah’s grim and blood-drenched magnum opus, featuring all the Mexican tropes you could ask for -– a shadowy crime lord, a gorgeous and doomed peasant girl, and several gun-toting men in sombreros. And a disembodied head with which the protagonist occasionally strikes up a conversation. It’s either a classic or a God-awful load of misogynist horseshit, depending on how you look at it. But either way, a young Quentin Tarantino was clearly watching closely.
Plenty of the United States’ cultural mythology is set around the idea of venturing into the wild, which perhaps explains why Mexico retains such an allure to American filmmakers. Visions of Mexico as a lawless land of opportunity pervade this 1948 classic made by John Huston -– one of the first US films to be shot on locations south of the border –- which follows two Americans as they venture into Mexico to search for gold and dodge bandits who absolutely did not have to show you any stinkin’ badges.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The idea of Mexico as modern-day Wild West continues to pervade American cinema –- you can find echoes of it in films as diverse as No Country for Old Men, Babel, and Traffic, all of which are largely beyond the remit of what’s essentially a light-hearted feature. While (as we’ve just seen) it wasn’t the first to create this idea, arguably the greatest of all Mexican-themed Westerns is The Magnificent Seven, which transplanted the story of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai into the context of the bleak expanses of Morelos. The film is a classic, but it’s also arguably responsible for implanting in Hollywood a vision of Mexico that remains prevalent half a century later.
Santo the Silver Mask vs. The Martian Invasion (1966)
Of course, Mexican cinema hasn’t exactly been above cheesiness over the years -– where else would a film get made about the Earth being saved from an alien invasion… by a lucha libre wrestler? We discovered this via an article in Wired a couple of years back about overlooked Mexican sci-fi classics of the 1950s and 1960s. It looks amazing.
El Topo (1970)
This is one of the strangest films ever made, presenting the unspecified Mexican locale in which it’s set as the backdrop for a metaphysical journey into… well, it’s hard to know, really. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky uses the desert landscape as a blank canvas for all sorts of wacky shit to play itself out. If you’ve ever longed to see an acid-drenched Western that features plentiful dwarves and philosophical mumblings, look no further.
Nacho Libre (2006)
Oh, come on. It’s actually pretty funny, and it’s perfect brainless hangover viewing. Save it for Seis de Mayo.