Old Gringo (1989), based on the novel Gringo Viejo by Carlos Fuentes, is a fictionalized account of what happened to real-life American journalist Ambrose Bierce. He traveled to Mexico in 1913 for a firsthand experience of the Mexican Revolution, and subsequently disappeared, presumed dead. The mystery surrounding his death has never been solved. A very intriguing premise, but the resulting film adaptation is all the more disappointing for going absolutely nowhere with the story.
The book is also highlighted in a NYPL blog post about literature and time travel:
“In Bierce’s case life intersects fiction, when the writer vanishes on a route to Mexico. In one of the last known letters Bierce posts to a friend, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination,” subsequently Bierce then becomes a character in fiction when his disappearance fictionalized in the novel by Carlos Fuente’s ‘The Old Gringo.’”
And even though this film adaptation boasts talented actors — Gregory Peck as the title character and Jimmy “Yes, I always look smoldering” Smits as General Tomas Arroyo, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution — the main star, Jane Fonda, is astoundingly miscast as would-be spinster Harriet Winslow. Seriously, her romantic scenes with both Gregory Peck and Jimmy Smits are painful to watch, and I laughed at loud when Arroyo lamented at the end of the film what Harriet would one day tell her children. Fonda simply seems a decade (or maybe two) too old for this role (she was in her early 50s at the time of filming). As her own company, Fonda Films, produced this film, it comes across as a badly miscalculated vanity project; Fonda also “earned” a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress in this film. Ouch.
Even though Harriet Winslow calls herself a spinster in the film — prompting her to travel to Mexico to avoid that dreadful fate — she is NOT the reel librarian in this film. That honor (?) belongs to Laurel Lyle, in a no-name librarian role. After the opening credits, the film opens in a library, a traditional two-level design that looks similar to the law library featured in Criminal Law (1988). We are told that the location is Washington, D.C., 1913. It’s not clear if the library is a public or private library (perhaps a law library?), and I haven’t yet found a listing of filming locations for this film.
Ambrose Bierce (Peck) is engaging in a lively debate, as seen above, but the camera quickly pans upstairs to a smaller room lined with bookshelves and an overloaded table. The librarian greets Harriet warmly; Harriet is obviously a returning library patron, and there is a feeling of familiarity (and similarity?) between the two ladies.
Librarian: Nice to see you, Miss Winslow. Have classes begun yet?
Miss Winslow: I’m not sure I’m going to be teaching this year.
Librarian: Oh. And how is your charming mother?
Miss Winslow: Very well, thank you.
Pleasantries accomplished, Harriet quickly gets down to business.
Miss Winslow: I’d like to learn some Spanish. Have you any books that might help me?
Librarian: Spanish? Well, we must have something. Let me see. Spanish, how interesting.
The librarian heads off to the stacks, looking backwards at Harriet and giving her a perplexed look. Her role is definitely that of an Information Provider, but she is providing more than just a Spanish language book to Harriet. She is also providing, to the audience, a sense of the then-mainstream societal biases and prejudices about not only Mexico and the Spanish language, but also about foreigners in general. She sets up the oh-so-polite disdain that Harriet will face when she decides in the next scene to travel to Chihauhau, Mexico, to work as a governess for a Mexican family.
As the librarian searches for Spanish-language materials, Harriet turns back to the debate, obviously captivated by the older speaker. The veteran journalist gets into a lather about the corruption of writing and journalists selling their writing to the highest bidder; rather, he extolls the virtues of experience:
Day after day, believing that every printed word was eternal. And would, somehow… open men’s minds. … And for what? I wrote. You read. He [William Randolph Hearst] grew richer. Hearst, the owner of my newspaper. Now, after this triumphant presentation, of these 14 volumes of meaningless paper, I bid you farewell.
He finishes his speech by holding up this 14-volume set of books — the cumulation of his life’s work — and drops them in one fluid motion on the floor, and then marches out the door. Quite radical for a speech taking place … IN A LIBRARY. His actions draw gasps from the crowd — and I’m sure any librarians in attendance were scandalized. (Don’t take it out on the books, man!)
Note: After watching the film, I did some light research on Bierce. Turns out his Collected Works, published in 1909, was a 12-volume set, NOT a 14-volume set as the film states. In my humble librarian’s opinion, this seems an error that would have been simple to correct (or not make in the first place.). You can read more about Bierce’s life and works on the Ambrose Bierce Project site, http://www.ambrosebierce.org/works.html.
Even though the library scene is brief, and the librarian’s role in the scene even briefer (landing her in the Class IV category), the film does get a bit clever with the librarian’s final moments. Almost toward the end of the speech, the librarian comes back to talk with Harriet, but is shushed and waved away by Harriet herself. I did let out a chuckle at the librarian being shushed!
The no-name librarian, a 30ish female librarian, is properly dressed in a high-necked Victorian blouse and drab-colored skirt. She also has her hair pulled back in a braided bun, and wears eyeglasses. I’m sure there is a similar outfit underneath Harriet’s dark coat and hat; the two women do look similar when seen side-by-side. And in the very next scene, Harriet decides to change her life and travel to Mexico, and has this pointed conversation with her outraged mother:
Mrs. Winslow: You’re an educated, independent girl.
Miss Winslow: I’m not a girl, Mother. I’m a spinster.
As this scene comes right after the library scene, one cannot help but compare the two characters. Harriet was inspired by the speaker (Peck as Bierce), of course, but the idea that she was on a similar path as the librarian was probably also on her mind. The two women are (supposed to be) around the same age, both educated, independent, and outwardly proper in appearance and diction. So if Harriet thinks of herself as a spinster, she must also view the librarian as one, as well. Things that make you go hmmmm…..
Although the librarian shows up in only the first five minutes of the film, I did my duty in watching the remainder of this (ultimately boring and disappointing) film. Even my husband remarked, once again, of my dedication to my research!
And if I hadn’t watched the rest of the film, I would have missed the following nugget. Toward the end of the film, the old gringo, Bierce, is with a Mexican prostitute, and the subject of books comes up. As you do.
Mexican prostitute: What you do when you’re not fighting?
Old gringo: I read.
Mexican prostitute: You read books? The priest in my village, he says, ‘To read books can make a man go crazy.’
Old gringo: I can’t blame the books. At least not the ones I’ve read. Perhaps the ones I’ve written.
Mexican prostitute: You wrote books? So, why are you sad? When you are gone, the people who know how to read, they’re going to remember you. You give me one of your books, I no charge you. Your work for my work.
I also had fun picking out my favorite outtakes from the screenshots I captured:
I also had fun looking up the term “gringo,” which definitely predates the Mexican Revolution. The Oxford English Dictionary states that it was a well-established word by the mid-1850s, while A New Dictionary of Eponyms, published by Oxford University Press, expounds on several theories of origin:
- The word sounds like the Spanish word for “Griego,” meaning “Greek.” Therefore, it’s similar to the English phrases, “It’s Greek to me” or “It’s gibberish.”
- Another theory stems from the idea that the word comes from the Robert Burns’s song, “Green grow the rashes,” 1783.
- And yet another theory circulates around Major Samuel Ringgold, mortally wounded in the battle of Palo Alto in 1846, that his name was so mispronounced that it sounded like “gringo.”
And word to the wise: Do NOT play a drinking game with how many times the word “gringo” is uttered in the film. You will NOT remember the film afterwards. But then, maybe that’s a good thing.