Film and political propaganda: a production still of Judas (Manuel R. Ojeda, 1936).

Tell a Friend

This photograph comes from the Carlos Villatoro special collection held at the Agrasánchez Archive.

Carlos Villatoro started his cinematic career as a leading man during the silent era. He went on with acting after the advent of sound, but eventually became a bilingual script clerk and assistant director, as well as screenplay writer. He also tried film producing and filmmaking.

Villatoro loved cinema, and all the way through his career he kept record of his activities in the way of film rolls, documents, annotations, and photographs.  He gathered an invaluable personal archive, which in the end was divided in two; one part is now held at the Agrasánchez Film Archive.

To know more about Carlos Villatoro and his archive, the reader can consult the book written about the subject by film historians Esperanza Vázquez Bernal and Federico Dávalos Orozco.[1]

The photograph we show in this page is a production still of Judas, a moral drama that served as a vehicle for political propaganda, made in 1936.

The film was produced by Remex, S.C.L., a co-op founded by brothers Gustavo, Carlos, and Alfredo Villatoro.  Gustavo, the senior brother, a respected diplomat, playwright, and professor wrote the story. Director Manuel R. Ojeda and famous poet, folklorist and politician Antonio Médiz Bolio assisted don Gustavo in writing the screenplay.

Judas would be Remex’s first and only feature film. After that, the company produced only a pair of short subjects.

The P.N.R.[2] funded the film, through its “cinematographic branch”, created to support co-op movie production, provided that films reflected revolutionary values and were of social interest. In the case of Judas, the intention was to show how beneficial the Revolution and the subsequent Reforma Agraria were to peons, who earned freedom from abusive landowners and got the right to land, education, and health.

The film’s production was attended by Lic. Emilio Portes Gil. He had been interim President of Mexico from 1928 to 1930, following the assassination of the elected President, General Álvaro Obregón.  In 1936 he was the P.N.R.’s chairman, and it that capacity he decided to fund the production of Judas. Lic. Portes Gil had always been a supporter of Mexican film.

The story takes place in post-revolutionary Mexico, and reflects Gustavo Villatoro’s fervent beliefs.  Contrary to movies based on “la novela de la Revolución Mexicana”, this movie celebrated the movement and its outcome. Gustavo Villatoro himself had taken active part in the uprising, under General Álvaro Obregón’s orders, and always remained an unwavering supporter of revolutionary values. 

The crux of the plot is the triumph of the Revolution, and of love over betrayal.  The action happens in the period 1895-1936, from the Porfiriato to the Reforma Agraria times.

Judas Iscariot was chosen as the personification of betrayal in this film.

There is something in the screenplay that evokes Katherine Ann Porter’s “Flowering Judas”, but any connection should be further analyzed.

Manuel R. Ojeda, veteran actor and filmmaker, directed and edited the film.  The cast included Carlos Villatoro, Josefina Escobedo, and Víctor Urruchúa. Victorio Blanco played the part of Judas.  Alex Phillips was the cinematographer and a young Roberto Gavaldón was the assistant director.

The film’s prologue is evidently inspired by the film L’inferno (Giuseppe de Liguoro, 1911); in fact, a title appearing at the beginning reads:  “El infierno de Dante”. 

Some striking effects are achieved by using double exposure techniques, for the most part in battle scenes.  Actual military took part in several scenes.The realism in some scenes is noteworthy: in one, a snake bits Emilio’s father in an ankle and one of its fangs gets stuck in the man’s skin; one can see the animal trying to free itself.  In another scene, a revolutionary soldier is hung from a tree, and the effect is shocking.

Documentary footage from the Revolution is shown in the battle scenes, and the actual escuela ejidal for peasant children in the Hacienda

de Arroyo Zarco’s expropriated land is shown in the final scene.

The original music score, composed by underrated artist and musical director Raúl Lavista, is excellent.  Alas, the film negative is well-worn, and sound quality is considerably reduced.

Part of the film was shot on location, at the Hacienda de Arroyo Zarco, which was one of the largest and most relevant of New Spain.  Its vast land included territory of what now are the States of Mexico, Querétaro and Hidalgo. By the time the film was made, the hacienda had already been expropriated and divided into ejidos (small ranches given to former peons), as a result of the Reforma Agraria.

The production still shown in this page shows former President Portes Gil during his stay on location, accompanied by the film’s cast and crew. It has Carlos Villatoro’s handwritten inscription on the reverse, which not only allows one to identify some of the people in the photograph, but also acquaints us with Villatoro’s own thoughts at the time.

Here is the transcription of the original text in Spanish, which will be translated and commented below:

“En la Hacienda de Arroyo Zarco.  Visita e inauguración de los trabajos por el Lic. Portes Gil.

  1. Administrador de la Hacienda.
  2. Médiz Bolio (ya me habló para ser protagonista en otra película).
  3. Victorio Blanco.
  4. Roberto Gavaldón.  Asistente de Director (por cierto muy competente).
  5. Manuel Ojeda (que se está luciendo deveras).
  6. Ing. Rodríguez. Sonido.
  7. Lic. Portes Gil.
  8. Josefina Escobedo. Magdalena.
  9. Alex Phillips. Fotógrafo.
  10. María. Mujer de don Benito.
  11. Tillie Orozco. Maquillista.
  12. Emilio (caracterizado de viejo).
  13. Ing. Almada (apoderado del Lic. Portes).
  14. Capataz.
  15. D. Benito.
  16. Mateo Rodríguez.
  17. Emilio de 15 años.
  18. Pedro Espinosa.”


At the Hacienda de Arroyo Zarco.  Lic. Portes Gil’s visit and opening ceremony.

  1. The hacienda’s foreman. [Actor José Rocha, who plays the role of the hacienda’s foreman in the movie].
  2. Médiz Bolio. [Antonio Médíz Bolio] (“Who has already offered me the leading role in another film.”)
  3. Victorio Blanco.
  4. Roberto Gavaldón.  Assistant director. (“Quite competent, by the way.”)
  5. Manuel Ojeda. (“Who is doing extremely well.”)
  6. Ing. Rodríguez. Sonido. [Roberto Rodríguez, sound engineer].
  7. Lic. Portes Gil. [Attorney Emilio Portes Gil, former interim President of Mexico, and the National Revolutionary Party’s chairman when the film was made.]
  8. Josefina Escobedo. Magdalena [Leading lady; Magdalena was her character’s name].
  9. Alex Phillips. Cinematographer.
  10. María. [Actress María Díaz de León characterized as “Don Benito’s wife”].
  11. Tillie Orozco. Make-up artist.
  12. Emilio. [“Characterized as an old man”; he is, in fact, Carlos Villatoro.  He plays two roles in the movie:  Emilio, the leading man, and a short appearance as Emilio’s father.  In the photograph, he is in the middle of the make-up process to portray the father].
  13. Ing. Almada. (“Lic. Portes Gil’s legal representative.”)
  14. Foreman. [Actor David Valle González; he played the role of a one of the hacienda’s foreman in the 1895 scenes].
  15. Don Benito. [Actor and staff member Max Langler Montenegro; he played the role of Don Benito].
  16. Mateo Rodríguez.
  17. Fifteen-year-old Emilio.  [The young actor who played the part of the leading character at that age].
  18. Pedro Espinosa.

(To take a closer look to the people in the list, go to the gallery here )

According to film reporter Esteban V. Escalante[3], former President Portes Gil stayed at the Hacienda for two days, watching the shooting. Ing. Almada, his legal representative, and don Antonio Médiz Bolio, chairman of the P.N.R.’s social action office came with him.

The ejidatarios received Lic. Portes Gil and his companions readily. Some people gave speeches, and flower mazes were all over the place. At the end of the visit, a couple of days later, locals made barbacoa for their guests.

Escalante interviewed former President Portes Gil, who confirmed the creation of the “cinematographic branch” of his party. Questioned about the funding of Judas, he corroborated that the Mexican government backed it, and also said a million dollar pesos had been allotted to support movie production; that amount would be increased as soon as positive results of the project came out. Besides, he declared said “cinematographic branch” had no head yet, because the party was looking for the right film expert to take charge.

Before leaving, Lic. Portes Gil told the reporter: “You will see, Mr. Escalante, the government is going to make movies in Mexico!”

Thanks to Carlos Villatoro, this moment –and countless more- in the history of Mexican film were frozen in notes, documents, and images, and now researchers and love aficionados can relive the stories they tell.

[1] Dávalos Orozco, Federico y Esperanza Vázquez Bernal, Carlos Villatoro: Pasajes en la vida de un hombre de cine; 1st. edition, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; México, D.F., 1999.

[2] Mexican political party that later became P.R.I.

[3] Escalante, Esteban V., “El P.N.R. productor de películas”, publicado en Revista de Revistas, México, el 10 de mayo de 1936, p. n/a.