La vorágine: a movie lost to whim.
La vorágine was based on the homonymous novel written by Colombian author José Eustasio Rivera (1888-1928). This literary work is considered one of the most relevant Latin American modern novels.
We do not pretend to delve into the novel itself, as anyone interested in knowing more about it will find plenty of authoritative articles, reviews, and pieces of literary criticism regarding this masterpiece.
For the readers not familiar with La vorágine, we will just say it is about a vain, womanizing man with vague patriotic sentiments that has to confront social injustice and a merciless Nature in the Colombian jungle; at the same time, he is to learn about love, fatherhood and commitment. This is an open-ended novel written in a poetic language; yet, the author showed no reticence in describing the cruelty and brutality at the Colombian rubber camps.
According to some sources, the author wanted La vorágine to be made into a feature film in the United States, as a means of denouncing the ruthless exploitation of rubber camp workers in his country. He died in New York in December of 1928, before achieving his goal.
In Mexico, some people showed interest in making a film based on La vorágine since the middle 1930s. For one, actor Julián Soler expressed his intention of undertaking this project in 1935, but nothing came out of it. Twelve years later, Dyana, an influential team of Mexican producers/directors, announced its plans to make the movie at last.
Dyana was “Directores y Autores Nacionales Asociados”, a company formed by three producers/directors: Miguel Zacarías, Fernando de Fuentes, and Juan Bustillo Oro; the other partners were Jesús Grovas, one of the most powerful producers/distributors in the history of Mexican cinema, and his brother, Adolfo. The three directors were close friends, and had previously partnered with Grovas in Producciones Grovas, S.A. some years earlier.
It is worth mentioning that the Mexican film production system was different from Hollywood’s. Instead of major studios dominating the scene, in Mexico there were independent production companies that leased facilities and hired services from the studios, which main function was to serve those producers, not making their own films. So, Mexican producers were the holders of their movies, not studio executives.
The figure of a producer/director was common in the Mexican film industry. In fact, several of the most successful production companies’ founders had that profile. Among them: Raúl de Anda, Juan Orol, Ramón Pereda, and the three aforesaid Dyana’s partners.
Moreover, some of them even wrote some of the screenplays of their films, and/or star in them.
In Dyana, the partners had equal rights, and decided between them which films to make, and also who should direct each one. Needless to say, costs, cast, and every other matter was discussed and determined by all members of the team. However, Jesús Grovas, the financial backer, used to have the last word.
In the case of La vorágine Miguel Zacarías, well known for his literary inclinations, was appointed to adapt the novel to the screen and write the final script. Fernando de Fuentes was the first option to direct the film, perhaps due to the success of his earlier film Doña Bárbara, based on the novel by Venezuelan writer Rómulo Gallegos, which brought María Félix to stardom. Finally, Zacarías was chosen to direct the film.
The cast was excellent. Armando Calvo, Alicia Caro, René Cardona Sr., Dalia Íñiguez, Rafael Alcayde, Arturo Soto Rangel and Eduardo Arozamena were seconded by other outstanding actors, such as José Torvay, Ernesto Vilches, Manuel Dondé, and many others.
Making the movie was difficult and quite expensive. First, directors Zacarías, de Fuentes, and Bustillo Oro were not in the best terms with Jesús Grovas, and a split seemed imminent in Dyana. Thus, the making of the movie itself proved problematic.
Miguel Zacarías wanted, according to his own words:
…to retain the novel’s grandeur in the film. The usual cinematic effects would not do in this case; we had to go deep into an actual jungle with a massive film unit. We had to repeat some [complex] scenes, like La Maporita’s fire. We had to rebuild the hacienda and put it on fire several times. All that was very costly […]; arguably, this is the most expensive movie Grovas has made so far.
Needless to say, shooting in the jungle near Tuxpan, Veracruz, was a true ordeal. Though the region is beautiful, hot and humid weather, long workdays, and inadequate lodging were a nightmare for the cast and crew.
Miguel Zacarías seemed to be deeply influenced by the novel; as a producer/director, he was generally successful in reaching the artistic results he wanted without overspending. La vorágine was an exception. He was taken by the literary masterpiece, and fell in a vortex of artistic ambition and perfectionism. The repetition of a costly and difficult scene as the fire of ‘La Maporita’ indicates he was under the novel’s spell.
After more than one month filming on location, production was halted for a few weeks, and resumed in July, at the Churubusco studios for taking indoors sequences. Reportedly, Jesús Grovas sent a telegram on August 15 from Spain, where he was in a business trip, with an order to finish shooting at once. Though he was only one of the partners at Dyana, he was the one with the money, and knew how to exert his financial power.
The director’s cut resulted in too long a film (24 reels), and suggestions by Zacarías to make the footage into two films was not accepted by his partners. Instead, Juan Bustillo Oro and Fernando de Fuentes made the final cut, with no consideration to the director’s opinion or to a smooth transition between scenes. Of course, this resulted in the obliteration of whole sequences, and a lack of continuity.
At any rate, La vorágine received more praise than criticism.
It was distributed to domestic and international markets. When it came to Colombia, legal difficulties began to arise. First, Elías M. Soto’s family sued Dyana for including Soto’s music in the film without licensing it. Then, José Eustasio Rivera’s family followed the example and forced Dyana to sign an agreement, which main clause was the original negative of La vorágine should be destroyed after two years of commercial exploitation. Dyana complied, and a well made film; a production with a budget 250% higher than the average Mexican film in those days, and the only cinematic rendering of the novel went to the pyre due to the Rivera’s inexplicable family decision.
However, one 35mm print survived, at least for some years. La vorágine was screened in theaters that catered to Spanish speaking audiences in Texas until 1956.
We have selected 30 movie stills for a gallery of La vorágine. Though a few of the images are highly contrasted, most of them are very good, and give the viewer a glimpse of a lost film. The link to visit it is at the bottom of this page.
La vorágine has not been made into a movie again, but it was produced as a TV series in Colombia in 1990. However, the novel was an evident influence in Las muñecas del King Kong (Alfredo Crevenna, 1980), in the sequences shot in paradisiacal locations nearby La Mesa, Colombia. Though the story in this film has nothing to do with the exploitation of workers, the fight between an honest man and a vile criminal bears a resemblance with La vorágine, at least in the crude imagery and the characters’ emotions. There are some sequences, such as the villain being eaten by piranhas after a fist-fight versus the hero, a brutal amputation, and the rape and kidnap of a girl that were undoubtedly taken from the novel.
Will we be able to watch La vorágine on the big screen some day? Who knows. We will continue searching for Dyana’s 1948 version.
As follows, we list the actors in Zacarías's film and the characters they played in the film. In a the cases of a few supporting actors, we have made a guess based on the collection of movie stills we have at the archive. Needless to say, there might be some mistakes, since the movie is not available. This list may be useful for readers that want to take a look at the La vorágine movie still gallery, featured here:
Armando Calvo Cova
René Cardona Sr. Franco
Alicia Caro Alicia
Dalia Íñiguez Griselda
Rafael Alcayde Barrera
Arturo Soto Rangel Tuerto Mauro
Eduardo Arozamena Viejo Zubieta
Ernesto Vilches Silva
Amparo Arozamena Clarita
Gilberto González Millán
José Torvay Aquiles Vácares 'Váquiro'
Manolo Calvo Helí Mesa
Elena Contla Basiliana
Salvador Quiroz Don Rafo
Julio Daneri Palomo
Sara Cabrera Madonna
Jorge 'Che' Sareli Ramiro Estévanez
Julio Ahuet Matacano
Francisco Pando Cayeno
Francisco Reiguera Dr. Castillo
Manuel Dondé Pipa
Eduardo Vivas ?
Agrasánchez, Rogelio Jr., Miguel Zacarías, creador de estrellas, Guadalajara, México, Agrasánchez Film Archive and Universidad de Guadalajara, 2000.
Agrasánchez Film Archive:
Iconographic collections: box: ‘La vorágine – set of photo negatives’
Cinema Reporter, México, 1947-1948
Novelas de la pantalla, 1947-1948
 Producciones Grovas had made Canaima in 1945, based on the novel by Rómulo Gallegos and directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, who always preferred to shoot in sets at the studios. Instead going to the jungle to shoot, art director Luis Moya recreated it in a set, reaching good results.
 Miguel Zacarías for ‘El Universal’; interview published on April 24, 1949; cited by Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr, in Miguel Zacarías, creador de estrellas, México, Agrasánchez Film Archive and the Universidad de Guadalajara, 2000, p. 98.
 In one occasion, don Miguel Zacarías mentioned to Rogelio Agrasánchez that professional jealousy had a role in the cutting of the movie by his partners.
 Íbid, pp. 98-100.
 Information consulted at http://www.semana.com/cultura/articulo/la-ley-de-la-selva/13241-3,.