In 1913, Mark Twain’s writer pal Ambrose Bierce vanished into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. In 1985, Carlos Fuentes published a novel about what might have become of Bierce in Villa’s revolution. Last year, Jane Fonda — who’s always up for a good revolution — brought Fuentes’ novel to the screen in Old Gringo.
Fonda plays a virgin gringa schoolteacher who gets mixed up with up with Old Gringo Bierce (Gregory Peck) and Villa’s general Tomas Arroyo (Jimmy Smits). At 52, Fonda has her nerve playing an innocent, but thanks to soft-focus lenses and her astoundingly fat-free physique, she pulls it off.
The movie as a whole is not so convincing. The plot, which revolves around Arroyo’s seizure of the palatial hacienda where he grew up the half-breed bastard son of the landowner, is hard to follow despite its poky pace. The Peck-Fonda-Smits love triangle is clumsily sketched, and the passions that fired Villa’s revolt are reduced to stale, painfully earnest speeches. (Even the army’s traveling prostitute is a feminist.) The stilted dialogue is humorless to the point of comedy. When Smits is smitten with Fonda, he murmurs, ”Look at your eyes — they are more sweet than when I knew you in Chihuahua!” When he inexplicably shoots the Gringo’s steed, Peck asks, ”Why didn’t you kill me? You loved that horse.” Smits has charisma, Peck is wonderfully subtle, Fonda is worth watching; but no actor can redeem scenes and conversations that, torn from their novelistic context, simply make no sense.
Ambrose Bierce, the acerbic author of The Devil’s Dictionary, used words with cold precision, like surgical tools to cut away society’s cant and humbug. Old Gringo uses sloppy words (and syrupy images and gloopy romantic music) in the service of empty sentiments and pious platitudes.