Wrestling Films … BEST OF THREE ROUNDS!By: Rafael Aviña
In wrestling, Mexican cinema found a way to reconsider that age-old fight between Good and Evil. Although the sport came to Mexico in the 1910s, it wasn’t until the 1940s when the acrobatic spectacle – a mixture of drama and hand-to hand combat in the ring – came into its own. El Cavernario Galindo, El Médico Asesino, Gardenia Davis, Tarzán López, Murciélago Velázquez, Gori Guerrero or Enrique Llanes came to acquire, if not special powers, then certainly cult-like status. But there was no one like Santo, the silver-masked man, a truly mythological figure who was followed by other masked heroes like Blue Demon or Thousand Masks.
In the middle of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Italian champion Giovanni Relesevitch arrived in Mexico’s Teatro Principial with his company, while Antonio Fournier and his stars Conde Koma and Nabutaka installed themselves in the Teatro Colón. In the 1920s International names joined the companies, including: León Navarro, Sond Kawamula, Hercules Sampson and George Gadfrey. But it wasnt until Salvador Lutteroth – who founded Mexico’s first national wrestling company in the 1930s and opened the Arena Coliseo in 1943 with a fight between Tarzan López and El Santo – that wrestling in Mexico was truly institutionalized.
Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, alias El Santo, debuted with his silver mask in 1942, though he had been fighting since the mid 1930s under the names Constantino, Hombre Rojo or El Murciélago Enmascarado II. Blue Demon appeared in 1948. The two would go on to become one of Mexican wrestling’s most famous couples. Later, with the advent of television in the 1950s, wrestling would become popularized, coinciding with the appearance of El Santo as the protagonist of the famous graphic novel by José G. Cruz, which sold more than a million copies a week.
Although scenes featuring wrestling appeared in films like Padre de más de cuatro (1938, Roberto O’Quigley) or No me defiendes compadre (1949, Gilberto Martínez Solares), wrestling as a cinematic genre emerged in 1952, the year in which four very different stories collide. A prime example is The Magnificent Beast (La bestia magnífica), directed by Chano Urueta in 1953, starring Crox Alvarado and Wolf Ruvinskis (both of whom had experience in wrestling), alongside the actress Miroslava and the wrestlers Enrique Llanes, Cavernario Galindo, Guillermo Hernández, Lobo Negro and Fernando Osés, among others.
The comedic dancer Adalberto Martínez “Springs” took a turn in the ring in Fernando Cortés‘ El luchador fenómeno. David Silva would play the famous Huracán Ramírez in the film of the same title, under the direction of Joselito Rodríguez. Finally, the most important wrestling film made during the time is El Enmascarado de Plata, by René Cardona (1952), written by Ramón Obón and José G. Cruz. In an unusual way, the myth of El Santo was not started by Rodolfo Guzmán himself, but by another fighter: El Médico Asesino.
These first four examples of wrestling cinema are steeped in family melodrama, comedy, virile masculine friendships, wrestling and suspense. But the genre would end up exploiting the image of the masked vigilante, who faces crazy scientists, monstrous beings, sensual aliens, sorceresses thugs and more, in films that register between comedy, fantastic horror, police dramas and fighting films, all set on the canvas of the ring.
On a subliminal level, this new genre came to replace the highly popular German cabaret cinema. Shiny satin dresses were replaced by gaudy masks; other secretions by sweat and blood and the rickety mattresses of pay-by-the-hour hotels, with canvas and string. The strength of wrestling cinema lies in its mix of melodrama, science fiction, horror and comedy – genre mixes that took heroes like El Santo to the centre of Atlantis, to the universe of the Western, inside a Martian ship, even back to Colonial times, all in search of his mythical silver mask.
A SUCCESFUL GENRE
El Huracán Ramírez and El Enmascarado de Plata would pave the way for masked héroes, including La sombra vengadora and three sequels made in 1954 by Rafael Baledón with Armando Silvestre and Fernando Osés in the role of the enigmatic vigilante fighter La Sombra. 1958 would be an important year for the genre, seeing the release of El Santo contra el cerebro del mal and Santo vs. the Infernal Men (Santo contra los Hombres infernales) by Joselito Rodríguez, filmed in Cuba just weeks before Fidel Castro’s triumphal entry into Havana. More successful was Neutrón, el enmascarado negro (1960), by Federico Curiel, with Wolf Ruvinskis and Julio Alemán. Wrestling cinema would largely prop up the Mexican film industry during the 1960s and 70s, the decade of its decline. A handful of cult films remain for posterity, including: The Aztec Mummy (La momia Azteca, Rafael Portillo, 1957); La última lucha (Julián Soler, 1958); Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Alfonso Corona Blake, 1962); Blue Demon (El Demonio Azul, Chano Urueta, 1964); Mil Máscaras (Jaime Salvador, 1966) or Santo and Dracula’s Treasure (Santo en el tesoro de Drácula, René Cardona, 1968), which was celebrated for its scenes with semi-naked women when it was shown outside of Mexico.
Decades later came figures like Tinieblas, El Rayo de Jalisco, Octagón, Atlantis, El Vampiro Canadiense and El Hijo del Santo, and films like The Legend of a Mask (La leyenda de una máscara, José Buil, 1993), Santitos (Alejandro Springall, 1999), The Virgen of Lust (La virgen de la lujuria, Arturo Ripstein, 2005), Killing Cabos (Alejandro Lozano (2005), Los pajarracos (Horacio Rivera and Héctor Hernández) or Polvo de Ángel (Óscar Blancarte, 2007), representing a genre as excessive as it is colourful and entertaining.