June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
The San Patricios
The Story of the San Patricios— released under the somewhat baffling title One Man’s Hero —is a compendium of everything that’s wrong with the movie business. The original script, based on the history of the U.S. Army’s Irish brigade in the Mexican War of 1846–48—the St. Patricks, or San Patricios as they came to be called by the Mexicans—sat around for years waiting for John Wayne to make up his mind about whether he would play the unit’s star-crossed leader, John Riley. Apparently he was finally dissuaded by his friends, who convinced him that playing a man convicted of disloyalty to the United States wouldn’t fit his screen image.
The film was finally made by Orion Pictures and scheduled for release in the fall of 1998. Then Orion was bought by MGM, which shelved it for more than a year. On August 2, 1999, it premiered at the West Belfast Film Festival and was received enthusiastically. The company had no plans for it until a letter-writing campaign rallied enough support to persuade MGM to release it in the United States. Unfortunately, the studio’s idea of release was to dump it on the market (under its new title) without support or even an American premiere. Fortunately, it has recently been issued on DVD.
The San Patricios is the only major motion picture ever made about the U.S. war with Mexico. The film doesn’t hedge. This war was nothing less than naked aggression fueled by greed and an unwavering sense of racial superiority. For the Mexicans’ part, the government and ruling class are exposed as corrupt, arrogant, and hypocritical. Caught in the middle are struggling Mexican peasants and the mostly Irish-Americans of the St. Patrick’s Brigade, who were subjected to shameful anti-Catholic bigotry by Army officers.
The film has two heroes, both fighting for lost causes. Joaquim de Almeida plays a Mexican rebel leader whose political stance anticipates the coming Juárez revolution, and Tom Berenger is Riley, one of the truly tragic figures in American history. The Irish actor Patrick Bergin is properly imperious as Gen. Winfield Scott, while James Gammon steals his portion of the film, playing Gen. Zachary Taylor as a shrewd crackerbarrel philosopher. The director, Lance Hool, is hardly a distinguished name among filmmakers, but having grown up in Mexico City, he brings an empathy and insight to the complexity of Mexican society.
The San Patricios’ courage was undeniable; they knew they were allying themselves with what would almost certainly be the losing side. Many were captured when Mexico surrendered and were hanged near Chapultepec in Mexico City, saluting the U.S. flag before they died. Riley’s fate, though the subject of a lively historical debate, is still unknown.
The San Patricios has some serious flaws. It is poorly paced and sometimes incoherently staged; it’s difficult at times to tell which crowd is headed in which direction or why. But it’s unfair to judge historical films by purely aesthetic standards; The San Patricios has a devastating dramatic punch, derived largely from its devotion to historical accuracy. For those interested in finding out more about Riley and his men, an excellent documentary, The San Patricios , by Mark R. Day, is available on video. (You can e-mail your request to firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 760-630-7398.)