02 · 15 · 21

My Son, The Hero (Los hermanos Del Hierro), the anti-Western

By: Rafael Aviña

In the late 1950s, Hollywood was starting to explore new trends, gradually leaving popular, traditional genres – like the Western – behind. The Old West, with its cowboys, horses, rifles, pistols, Indian attacks, Seventh Cavalry, sheriffs and duels at sundown, became the fare of the nascent television industry with shows like Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, Bat Masterton and Gunsmoke, among others. Other countries took advantage of the mythology created by the Western: Italy with its Spaghetti Westerns, or Mexico where, as the sun set on the Golden Age, the industry focused on making ´pony films´, with masked vigilante heroes, shoddy locations, ranch music, inept canteen fights and wild arguments that wavered between horror and comedy, all set somewhere in the middle of Mexico.

Shooting on Los llaneros – soon to be re-named Los hermanos del Hierro (My Son, The Hero) – started on January 2, 1961, produced by Gregorio Walerstein and Films Rodríguez. The film´s director, Ismael Rodríguez, and its screenwriter, Ricardo Raribay, came up with a story in which, using the guidelines of the traditional Western, they explored the idea of violence as a kind of vice that corrupts and consumes a family from the North of Mexico, the Del Hierros. A widowed mother (Columba Domínguez) longs for revenge against the man (Emilio “el Indio” Fernández) who murdered her husband (Eduardo Noriega), who was shot down in front of his two children (Sadi Dupeyrón and Alfredo Morán) – they end up walking around with their father´s blood on their faces and clothes and go on to grow up in a climate of hate and macho brutality.

Los hermanos del Hierro

Garibay was adept in writing dry, laconic dialogue that plausibly reproduced northern dialects. In turn, Do Rosalío Solano provided elegant images, like the impressive opening sequence (accompanied by Jesús Gaytán´s song “Dos palomas al volar”), in this psychological Western that operates in absolute opposition to the ´pony films´ that prevailed at the time. The film brought together important figures from the Mexican film industry like Pedro Armendáriz, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Ignacio López Tarso, David Reynoso, José Elías Moreno, David Silva, Pancho Córdova, Amanda del Llano, Noé Murayama and Arturo de Córdova as the film´s narrator. With them “El Indio”, Columba and their grown children, played by Antonio Aguilar, as the older brother Reynaldo Del Hierro”, and Julio Alemán as the hallucinating, psychopathic Martin, who murders people for pleasure every time he hears the song “Dos palomas al volar” and whose surname refers as much to ´hardness´ (the word ´hierro´ means ´iron´ in English) as to his mistakes.

Los hermanos del Hierro (1961, dir. Ismael Rodríguez)

Los hermanos del Hierro (1961, dir. Ismael Rodríguez)

Although it wasn´t trying to, Los hermanos Del Hierro ended up being a masterpiece, whose prestige only grew over time – even more commendable since the genre was largely under-appreciated. Inspired by real events, the film is set in a wild no-man´s-land, where Oedipus complexes, childhood fears and a murderous gunman coexist. Tony Aguilar, seen here in one of his best roles, lends nuance to his character: a peaceful man turned criminal, persecuted by the law and in love with the same woman as his brother, Jacinta Cárdenas (Patricia Conde) – all of which leads to a tragic, inescapable end. Conde´s casting is one of the film´s major successes, although he was essentially an unknown actor compared with Tere Velázquez, who the producer Walerstein originally wanted for the role. The same with Julio Alemán, who played Martin del Hierro, originally written for Gastón Santos.

Ismael Rodríguez insisted in shooting in black and white as a way to intensify the drama, as well as to include scenes of enormous sexual tension, such as one in which Patricia Conde locks eyes with Julio Alemán as she milks a cow. The smartest move that Rodríguez made was to disrupt the idea of the Mexican Western as it was defined at that moment: 90% action and 10% (if that) human values. He decided to reverse that formula, to endow the film with complex characters and undertake a broad psychological study of their personalities; a moral reflection on human fears and values with only minimal action, which usually takes places off-camera anyway (like the sequence showing the death of David Silva, or a confrontation between Alemán and Gregorio Acosta at a dance). The film was ahead of its time, and it barely recovered its original investment.

Los hermanos del Hierro (1961, dir. Ismael Rodríguez)

Columba Domínguez en Los hermanos del Hierro (1961, dir. Ismael Rodríguez)

Los hermanos del Hierro premiered at the Alameda cinema and was cancelled within a week – an absolute failure. The role of the mother was originally written for Dolores del Río, who was hoping to star in a film directed by Rodríguez. She was fascinated by both the script and the character, but when she learned that her eldest son would be played by Tony Aguilar she rejected the role outright, claiming that Aguilar only made ´charritos´ films (films about Mexican ´charros´, essentially elegant cowboys). Del Rio was unable to comprehend the director, whose creative genius went beyond simple narrative conventions, and so she lost the opportunity to participate in this drama of madness and revenge masquerading as a Mexican Western. Columba Domínguez, who was ten years younger than Tony Aguilar, is extraordinary in the role, sacrificing her youth and beauty to appear as the aging, spiteful mother of the Del Hierro brothers.