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‘Old Gringo’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 06, 1989

In "Old Gringo," Gregory Peck talks to Jane Fonda as if she'd just banged her tricycle into his shinbone. His words have the caressing condescension that wizened age bestows on clumsy youth. With an outjutting of the great granite chin and a wise cocking of the noble skull, this eminence makes his pronouncements, and Fonda soaks up the flood of wisdom as if she were a toddler perched on Granddaddy's knee. If she blinked any harder with awe, you'd swear she'd knock herself unconscious.

"Old Gringo" is a grandly scaled folly, so stuffed with overblown revolutionary nonsense that it instantly becomes a kind of classic -- not the kind of classic the filmmakers intended, but a classic nonetheless. Based on the novel by Carlos Fuentes, the movie plays like a "Gone With the Wind" for the committed left. This is a movie in which robust whores trade sex for books and soldiers sing allegorical campfire songs to their leaders. It's a movie with a little bit of everything: It's got romance, it's got spectacle, it's got good politics. What it hasn't got is anything close to a sense of its own outrageous wrongheadedness.

Directed by Luis Puenzo, who wrote the script with Aida Bortnik, "Old Gringo" is achingly windy and high-minded, and if it weren't such a hilariously misconceived bit of radical daydreaming it might be infuriating. At its center are two Americans and a Mexican -- Harriet, the spinster schoolmarm who leaves behind her drab Washington life to seek adventure in revolutionary Mexico; the writer Ambrose Bierce (Peck); and a young general with Pancho Villa's army named Tomas Arroyo (Jimmy Smits). All three are caught smack in the middle of personal crises. Harriet's is the simplest and the least compelling; she has come to Mexico to be reborn. Bierce, on the other hand, has come to die. After a lifetime of writing newspaper copy for William Randolph Hearst, he is a walking martyr -- a man in search of something worth dying for.

Spiritually, the old gringo is the film's great patriarch, the one who does all the thinking for us and puts everything in philosophical perspective. And, squinting under his steel gray locks, Peck turns Bierce's speech into a grand event. What Peck does here is hollow, blowhard acting -- self-regarding and ungrounded. But since he has made a career out of just this sort of self-mythologizing work, the approach isn't surprising, just more naked than in the past, and perhaps a little sadder.

The relationship between Bierce and Arroyo isn't as patronizing as the one the older man has with Harriet, but it's close. Arroyo's story is the most complicated. The bastard son of the landowner whose land he has seized, the general is paralyzed by the split in his heritage between the peasant and the aristocrat. Smits is an actor with real fire in him, and if his character weren't such an editorial cartoon, with an Anthony Quinn mustache and bandoleers crisscrossing his chest, the fierce-eyed intensity he brings to his performance might have been enlivening.

Most of the film's action takes place in a grand hacienda outside the city of Chihuahua where Harriet was supposed to work as a governess before the rebels took it over. Here, in the aftermath of the film's one great battle, both men make their passes at the woman, usually after elaborate speeches, and sort out their courses while she decides which one she wants.

Given the ages of the men, the contest isn't really a serious one, but that isn't the point, really. The point is Harriet's enlightenment, and toward this end she takes a little from each. "Old Gringo" is about a woman brought to life through her exposure to righteous struggle and her love of a good radical, and if this heroine's progress sounds familiar from other Jane Fonda movies, it's because it is. The dramatic curve of Harriet's radicalization here is numbingly close to the one Fonda took in "Coming Home." And to the extent that it's the story of lessons taught to an innocent by a more experienced hand, it's similar to the part she played in "Julia" as well.

"Old Gringo" is the first film from Fonda's own production company, and it is less interesting for what it tells us about Mexico or Ambrose Bierce than for what it reveals about its star. The role is an indulgence for Fonda, a chance for her to play girlish and demure -- in short, a chance for her to play a virgin. But was even Lillian Gish ever this virginal? What's more, the lack of sex seems to have stopped the flow of oxygen to her brain. This is a stupefying performance by Fonda, her lowest ebb; for the first time in her career, she seems nearly ridiculous. At one point, Bierce propositions her (and in a manner that certainly couldn't have gotten him many dates) and she's so flummoxed that he actually has to reach up and shut her mouth for her.

Just as in "Coming Home," freeing the body is the first order of revolutionary business. In a railroad car set up as a portable bordello for the troops, a whore named La Garduna (Jenny Gago) kids Harriet about her corset. And off it comes! Next, she's unpinning her hair, wearing loose-fitting peasant blouses and spinning around in post-orgasmic ecstasy. If they'd had surfboards in revolutionary Mexico, she'd be on one.

There's something almost touching in Fonda's belief in the transforming power of great sex. After the big battle, Harriet catches a glimpse of the general celebrating victory with his lover, and the image of their bodies together is loaded and idealized in the same way that shots of the Statue of Liberty are in immigrant movies. In playing the dowdy, overwhelmingly average Harriet, Fonda is, of course, playing us, the ill-informed, sleeping public, which, like her character, is waiting to have its consciousness raised -- and its corset ripped off. For the life of her, she can't stop making workout tapes. Radical Politics! Orgasm! Deliverance! Feel the burn!

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