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August 23, 2008

Silent Reflections – The Gaucho (1927)

by HELEN GEIB

The Gaucho is one of Douglas Fairbanks’ splendid ‘twenties adventure stories. It has all the hallmarks of Fairbanks’ films of that decade: vivid characterizations; a strong current of humor; exciting, acrobatic stunts; an exotic setting created by lavish sets and costumes; and its star’s magnetic personality at its center. But while it offers the familiar pleasures of a Fairbanks-style adventure, the commonalities decorate an unconventional story that is typical of its genre only at first glance.

The setting of The Gaucho is a fictive city in the Argentine Andes that grew up around a pilgrimage site. The object of pilgrimage is a church that houses a mountain spring where a young girl received a vision of the Madonna about a decade before, an event depicted in prologue. Pilgrims and the city’s poor are succored by “the Padre,” a Franciscan priest, and the “Girl of the Shrine,” the now-adult visitant who has dedicated herself to the charitable ministry. The city has reaped material prosperity from the steady flow of visitors and its gold makes it the target both of Fairbanks’ bandit, the titular “El Gaucho,” and a military expedition led by “Ruiz, the usurper.”

The film’s atypicality resides in the fact that the contest between El Gaucho and Ruiz is not the main plotline, but rather provides the context for a story of Christian conversion. It deserves emphasizing that banditry is El Gaucho’s profession, not a masquerade a la The Black Pirate or a form of political protest a la Robin Hood, and that he does not reform for the love of a good woman. His lover, “the Mountain Girl,” is a tempestuous local woman from a mountain village who loves him good, bad, and in between. She is neither instigator nor reward for his conversion, and is so far from empathizing with his spiritual journey that she confuses it with infatuation with the Girl of the Shrine.

The actual impetus for El Gaucho’s conversion is twofold. The path is prepared by the evangelism by example of the Padre and the Girl of the Shrine. Against his inclination, El Gaucho is impressed by the priest’s charity and wisdom and awed by the visitant’s holiness. On the verge of committing suicide because he has been infected with leprosy, he is guided by the Girl of the Shrine physically to the spring and mentally to its spiritual source. The conversion is effected when El Gaucho opens his heart to the grace of a healing miracle.

The aftermath of the miracle is a truly wonderful sequence. One of El Gaucho’s prominent bits of character business is showily lighting a match for his rolled cigarettes, most often between forefinger and thumb. He was deliberately infected by a vengeful leprous beggar who told him that the loss of sensation in the fingers is the first marker of the disease’s inevitable physical decay, a statement he tested by lighting a match in his usual fashion. After he is cured, El Gaucho runs joyfully around the church passing his hand over the flames of the candles on the altar and at the Stations of the Cross, rejoicing in the pain that is proof of God’s mercy. His all-consuming joy is undiminished even as he is arrested in the church and marched into a jail cell.

Fairbanks’ physical expressiveness in this sequence is part and parcel of his performance throughout the film. He never walks when he can bound, never runs when he can leap, never takes a step when he can take a skip and a jump. The film showcases his acrobatic stunt work in two great action set-pieces. In the first, El Gaucho leads Ruiz’s soldiers in a merry chase around the town, dashing up staircases, jumping from balcony to balcony, popping in and out of doorways. In the second, El Gaucho escapes from jail to join his men who are besieging the town by jumping over the town wall and into the surrounding forest, swinging from branches and on vines in a sequence that puts the best Tarzan movie to shame.

Fairbanks’ performance has his characteristic vigor and joie de vive, modulated by a pleasing maturity that makes El Gaucho’s conversion fully convincing. His lover is played by Lupe Velez in a dynamic and sensual performance that defies any attempt to file it away in the box of Latin stereotypes. Eve Southern and Nigel de Brulier give able supporting performances as the Girl of the Shrine and the Padre. In further defiance of convention, he looks like an elderly ascetic, but is hot-tempered in the face of injustice and she is not an otherworldly innocent, but a self-assured woman who confronts sin unflinchingly in the confidence of Christian love.

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