Nov 012012

Rating: ★★★½☆
Warner Brothers, 1939, 120 minutes
Cast: Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Brian Aherne, Claude Rains, John Garfield, Donald Crisp, Joseph Calleia, Gale Sondergaard, Gilbert Roland, Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport
Based on the play Juarez and Maximilian by Franz Werfel, and the novel The Phantom Crown by Bertita Harding
Screenplay: John Huston, Aeneas Mackenzie and Wolfgang Reinhardt
Associate Producer: Henry Blanke
Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: William Dieterle

Historical Background

After overthrowing the dictator Santa Anna in 1855, liberal forces established a republican government. A plan to weaken the power of the Catholic clergy resulted in the War of Reform (1858-1860) when the clergy persuaded conservative generals to launch a coup d’etat. Although the liberals won the war, both sides had run up sizable debts to Britain, Spain and France. President Benito Juarez tried to negotiate a long-term payment plan, but Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France used the debts as justification to place Archduke Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the throne of Mexico, to create a pro-France, Catholic empire next to the United States, which led to the French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). Although the Mexican army had been defeated by a French army in 1864, Maximilian’s support was limited to the conservative elite, while the countryside was dominated by Juaristas, guerrillas loyal to Juarez. Despite Maximilian’s neutral stance during the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union government refused to recognize Maximilian as the ruler of Mexico. After the fall of the Confederacy, the victorious Union would not tolerate a French presence on its southern border. Blatant pressure convinced the French to return home, enabling Juarez to regain control of Mexico.

Plot Summary

Hoping to limit the expansion of the American republic, French Emperor Napoleon III (Claude Rains) seizes the Mexican republic’s refusal to pay the debts of the previous conservative dictatorship as an excuse to invade Mexico. Aware that the United States is busy with its civil war, Napoleon conspires with the conservative elite to offer the throne of Mexico to Archduke Maximilian (Brian Aherne), brother of Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maximilian proves to be a well-intentioned but naive ruler, who does not comprehend that he is simply a pawn. Despite the military superiority of the French army, President Benito Juarez (Paul Muni) refuses to surrender, and his defiance inspires a widespread guerrilla movement, although he has to contend with the constant scheming of his vice-president, Alejandro Uradi (Joseph Calleia). Propped up by the French army, Maximilian genuinely believes that he is popular, but he discovers the harsh reality when the North wins the Civil War, and American pressure convinces the French to abandon Mexico.

Historical Accuracy

Planning to make an epic, the studio commissioned a huge amount of historical research, and the story does follow the facts closely. However, the script unfairly places all of the blame on Napoleon III, portraying him as a ruthless schemer, who manipulated the well-intentioned Maximilian, and then abandoned him when circumstances changed, while Maximilian’s less savory characteristics are airbrushed from the film.

The internal issues that drove Maximilian to accept the offer are ignored by the movie. No longer heir to the throne, since his sister-in-law had produced a child, the real Maximilian had begun to chafe because he had been raised to value duty. Strongly encouraged by his wife Charlotte, Maximilian accepted the offer, despite worries that he would not be accepted by all of Mexico. Charlotte was the grand-daughter of Louis Philippe, king of France from 1830 to 1848, until the popular uprisings in 1848 drove him to renounce the throne. Growing up in exile among bitter relatives, she was taught that Louis Philippe had been too weak to hold on to the throne, and she would always urge her husband to be strong.

While his high-born backers are offended when he makes General Tomas Meija, an Indian, commander of his Mexican troops, the screen Maximilian’s refusal to return land that had been confiscated from the wealthy minority and then sold to the peasants costs him the support of the Conservative Party. Actually, Meija was not appointed head of the Mexican army, and Maximilian disappointed the clergy by refusing their demand to make the Catholic Church the dominant religion in Mexico. Aware of the church’s habit of fostering rebellions, Maximilian sent Leonardo Marquez and Miguel Miramon (Henry O’Neil), the two most conservative generals, out of Mexico to deprive the clergy of their support. However, the script transforms Miramon into Maximilian’s most devoted follower, even though the real Miramon had offered to fight for the republicans if he was given command of the army.

None of Maximilian’s numerous affairs are shown in order to make the fictional emperor more sympathetic. While the real Maximilian routinely cheated on his wife, there was little doubt that the two of them genuinely loved each other. In fact, Charlotte served as regent whenever he travelled away from the city, and his ministers came to appreciate her sharp intelligence, which was considered to be greater than that of the emperor. Maximilian did make the grandson of Ituribe, the first Mexican emperor, his heir to calm fears about the succession, since he and Charlotte had acknowledged that they could not have a child but it was a public relations disaster that managed the impressive feat of angering both sides. It is unknown if she was infertile, he was infertile or if they simply were not having sex because she was angry about his affairs.

Aside from one scene where the screen Maximilian explains the correct attire for his coronation, he is depicted as a diligent ruler, who genuinely cares about his subjects. That is a serious misrepresentation of the real man. While Maximilian bore his subjects no ill-will, he was neither diligent nor concerned about the welfare of his subjects. Mexico’s finances were already in bad shape when Maximilian arrived, but the cost of his household and extravagant balls quickly doubled the debt. Ignoring the advice of his more practical-minded wife, Maximilian was pre-occupied with the court and the construction of a new castle, rather than the humdrum administration of Mexico. Convinced that the people could not accept him as their emperor unless he actually had a court and a castle fit for an emperor, most of Maximilian’s time was spent in the castle, surrounded by courtiers, therefore he never really appreciated how little control he had over Mexico.

A key scene has Maximilian charm a captured Porfirio Diaz (John Garfield), one of Juarez’s best generals, before setting him free with an offer for Juarez to become prime minister. The real Diaz had been taken prisoner after a lengthy siege in the state of Oaxaca, but he escaped on his own, and Maximilian could not have met with Diaz, since they were in different parts of the nation at the time. However, Maximilian did write a letter to one of his supporters in Europe, who was in contact with Juarez, knowing that Juarez would eventually receive the message. Juarez was offered a role in the government, but the offer was not accepted.

The script shows that Maximilian meant well but French pressure and Juarez’s intransigence drove him to sign a decree that permitted immediate execution of any captured guerrillas. In the film, the decree was the brainchild of French Marshal Francois Bazaine (Donald Crisp), but the genuine Maximilian had conceived of the decree with his cabinet. Far more people had been executed before the decree than after, but once again, Maximilian managed to anger both liberals and conservatives. Liberals hated the execution of prisoners, while the conservatives and French were offended that the routine executions of captured guerrillas that had been performed during the past several years were now illegal.

The French Intervention in Mexico involved France, Belgium and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, as well as the United States and Mexico, but the film focuses only on the United States and Mexico, skipping over events in Europe. The security of the screen Maximilian’s regime rests on the French army and Mexican loyalists, but thousands of volunteers from Belgium and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had helped prop up the regime until both Austria and Belgium stopped sending recruits to Mexico. The Austrian emperor needed all of his forces to face a very likely war with Prussia, and King Leopold II, Charlotte’s brother, who had assumed the throne in December 1865, wanted to devote Belgian resources to exploiting colonies in Africa.

 Claude Rains plays Napoleon III as a strutting weakling. At one point, he literally sulks until his wife, Empress Eugenie (Gale Sondergaard) suggests a solution to a problem. This is an inaccurate portrayal, since the real man had escaped from prison, won election as president of France in 1848, and seized power in a coup three years later. Although Napoleon would personally lead the French army to a humiliating defeat at Sedan during the war with Prussia in 1870, he had overseen a revitalization of the French economy and a vigorous, if overly ambitious, foreign policy, including participation in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the Second Opium War (1956-1860), and the invasion of Vietnam. Moreover, the screen Napoleon repeatedly refers to himself as an autocrat. While the real man certainly wanted to be an autocrat, the huge cost of jump-starting the French economy and expanding the French empire across the globe had forced him to restore much of the legislature’s power in order to gain its support for the ballooning government debt.

A huge American army was sent to the Rio Grande to intimidate the French into leaving but it was ordered by General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant acting on his own authority, not Secretary of State William Seward. By this time, the real Napoleon was regretting his decision to become involved in Mexico. The resistance was much more entrenched than previously believed, Maximilian had a passive personality and the north had emerged from the Civil War stronger than expected. Concerned about Prussian ambitions, he began to wonder if the 40,000 troops in Mexico might be better employed guarding France. Reluctant to lose face, he publicly declared victory while privately washing his hands of the affair. On January 22, 1866, Napoleon announced that Maximilian had become strong enough to stand alone, so France would gradually withdraw troops, and all French soldiers would be out of Mexico by October 1867. Aware that Juarez could easily beat Maximilian on his own, Mexican troops began deserting to the republicans.

 Since Paul Muni was one of the studio’s biggest stars, Juarez single-handedly creates the strategy of scattered uprisings to keep the French off-balance, while fending off the conspiracies of his vice president, who eventually revolts. Although the real Juarez did not orchestrate a series of uprisings to keep the French off-balance, Juarista guerrillas did control everything outside of the main cities. One of the movie’s most dramatic scenes occurs when Juarez relies on people power to face down his rebellious vice president. Juarez did break his own constitution by continuing to rule even though his term was up but there was no usurper. Chief Justice Ortega felt that he should become president because Juarez’s term had ended and no election could be held with Mexico under foreign occupation, but Juarez refused. Instead of pressing the issue, Ortega went to the United States to raise volunteers. Although uncomfortable with Juarez extending his term, most prominent republicans backed him in order to avoid unnecessary internal conflict.

 Learning that the French army will leave Mexico, the screen Charlotte (Bette Davis) travels to Europe to in a futile attempt to personally change Napoleon’s mind. The genuine Charlotte did fail, but the script does not mention that the speedy defeat of Austria during the Austro-Prussian War (June 14-August 23, 1866) had made Napoleon realize that France was next on Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s to-do list. Charlotte did slip deep into insanity when Napoleon refused to help, and she did fear that he was trying to poison her.

Learning of Charlotte’s madness, Maximilian plans to abdicate and return to Europe but he is persuaded to stay because his faithful generals will be executed once he is gone. The real Maximilian knew that Napoleon wanted him to take the easy route and return to Europe but he felt that such an action would dishonour the Habsburg line, even though two Austrian frigates had been sent by his brother to bring Maximilian back to Austria. Torn between duty and self-preservation, Maximilian toyed with the idea, making plans to abdicate and then changing his mind until it was too late.

Honestly surprised that a court believed it had the authority to try an archduke, Maximilian was tried for treason against the Mexican Republic, since he had aided an invading army and had accepted the title of emperor, ignoring the legal authority of the republic. Sentenced to death for signing the death warrant, Maximilian was executed along with Miramon and Meija.


Although he projects Maximilian’s disconnect from reality, Brian Aherne’s version is considerably more decisive.

Paul Muni does capture Juarez’s calm determination and sarcasm. It took three hours of make-up each day to transform Muni into Juarez, altering his bone structure and skin tone so well that studio head Jack Warner complained that the star was unrecognizable. However, his constant habit of talking as if posing for a picture quickly becomes annoying.

While Bette Davis overacts in the beginning, showing that Charlotte was already heading into insanity, her depiction of madness was disturbingly convincing. Davis had started the film shortly after her divorce from Harmon Nelson and was already on the verge of a genuine nervous breakdown, which explains the intensity of her performance.

A solid introduction to the French Intervention in Mexico, a relatively unknown episode in history when France tried to turn Mexico into a puppet state, Juarez presents the basic chronology, but is limited by the decision to have Paul Muni’s Juarez single-handedly evict the invaders.

If you want to learn more about the French Intervention of Mexico, check out my French Intervention in Mexico Page.

  • I always loved this film and for some inexplicable reason I think that I was captivated by Muni’s potrayal of Juarez and by Claude Rain’s potrayal of Napoleon as a pompous bufoon.  So it is great to have this article as a corrective on my enthusiams.  I still love it.

    • historyonfilm

      That is the problem with researching the actual history behind movies, but I usually try to separate my enjoyment of a film from the historical issues. Even a film like the Patriot, which I think is insulting to the actual revolutionaries, is still fun to watch.