Old Gringo

It is very easy to feel a fondness for Old Gringo merely because it is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore: sweeping, romantic, grand. But there are other reasons to feel fond of Old Gringo that have nothing to do with nostalgia. It is a literate, handsome movie, with a sprinkling of near-classic scenes; not quite a success, perhaps, but a fine film.

It is based on a best-selling novel by Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s leading author. The story takes off from a tantalizing real-life mystery: What happened to Ambrose Bierce, the sardonic American writer who disappeared into the Mexican desert in 1914? Bierce was 71 years old when he wandered away from the world that made him so bitter, and he vanished utterly.

The story of Old Gringo imagines an end for Bierce. But it is told from the viewpoint of a woman, a spinster (Jane Fonda) who journeys to Mexico to serve as the governess for a wealthy family only to find that her employers have been whisked out of their mansion by the revolution. Stuck in the rebels’ camp, she meets Bierce (Gregory Peck) who has come in search of adventure and, probably, his own death.

They meet the dashing young general (Jimmy Smits, from L.A. Law) who has sacked the property. But his feelings are ambivalent. He also grew up on the place, and his link to the hacienda is strong.

Needless to say, an attraction will develop between the spinster and the general, with Bierce weighing in regularly with some elegant dollops of wisdom (wonderfully spoken by Peck, who brings his decades of professionalism and grace to this meaty role).

The film is great to look at; director Luis Puenzo (who made the excellent The Official Story) has an unfailing eye for the epic touch. And for at least the first hour, Old Gringo is rich in character and incident. Puenzo, who also adapted the script with Aida Bortnik, takes time for the slightest of privileged moments, such as Bierce’s show-stopping demonstration of his old wooing technique, or his genteel invitation to bed with the spinster (after all, he points out, how fitting: it would be her first time, and almost certainly his last).

I think the movie begins to crumble in its second half, possibly because the general’s reluctance to act has a murky psychological basis; and the film, at two hours, could even be longer, given the ground it’s trying to cover.

A “woman’s film” crossed with a David Lean epic, Old Gringo fulfills the most important requirement for this kind of thing: It takes the viewer Somewhere Else, a fully imagined and exotic world apart. There’s a lot to be said for that.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

I am surprised to learn that I liked as much of this film as I did, given that it remains a very vague memory. It was Puenzo’s biggest Hollywood shot, and flopped badly. Also one of Peck’s last films. My take: The title should have been The Old Gringo, as the novel translation had it, because without the definite article it just sounds weird.


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