Drugs are flooding into Veracruz, a bandit who calls himself The Bat is terrorizing unwary travelers and it looks like the state’s top anti-drug crusader is secretly the mastermind behind the biggest distribution network.
Home Media Availability: Released for free streaming via UNAM’s YouTube Channel.
A Career in Cocaine
Mexican silent film is tantalizing because so little of it survives. We treasure the few surviving fragments that we still have. We’re fortunate to have two surviving silents from independent Veracruz-based filmmaker Gabriel García Moreno. He was one of many movie lovers who dreamed of making their own. With a loan from his family, he managed to do just that.
I was extremely impressed by The Ghost Train (El tren fantasma), the 1927 railway crime picture that he produced and directed. It is pulpy, enthusiastic, stylish and fun, everything a movie fan wants in the genre.
The Iron Fist (El puño de hierro) is another crime film that shares many players with The Ghost Train, including the leading man and villain. But it is very much its own thing. Its own, strange, imaginative thing.
The Ghost Train focused on railway holdups while The Iron Fist was all about the drugs. (In fact, it is believed to be the first Mexican film to address illicit narcotics.) Its explicit shots of characters shooting up, drug den orgies and documentary footage of patients in a drug recovery facility have made it somewhat infamous among students of early narcotic pictures. In fact, I would venture to say that most coverage of this film in English has been both academic and focused almost exclusively on those elements, which is fine. But…
This is some really fine vintage pulp performed by a fresh and likable cast with plenty of action and adventure. Don’t be scared away. If all of the things I have mentioned intrigue you, you are the target audience for this picture.
No complete prints of The Iron Fist are known to exist and this review is based on the excellent restoration done by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). UNAM utilized the original screenplay to recreate the title cards but there are still some gaps and I don’t hold them against the film.
The main character of the picture is Carlos (Octavio Valencia, García Moreno’s brother-in-law), a silly young fellow with more money than sense who decides to give drugs a whirl for the fun of it. His horrified girlfriend, Laura (Hortensia Valencia, García Moreno’s wife), is horrified and takes him to a lecture being given by Dr. Ortiz (Manuel de los Rios), an anti-drug crusader.
Also, in the audience are Antonio (Carlos Villatoro), a young ranch foreman, and Esther (Lupe Bonilla), a stylish young lady. The pair are immediately attracted to one another and flirt up a storm.
But nobody is who they seem. Dr. Ortiz is actually the mastermind of the biggest gang of drug dealers, Esther is a prostitute who works in his cocaine den, and Antonio is really the Bat, a highwayman who waylays unsuspecting travelers. Ortiz has set his sights on the wealthy Laura and means to use Carlos to get her.
Meanwhile, the only people who aren’t caught up in drugs and crime are the teenage chauffeur Perico (Manuel Carillo) and a dime-novel-reading, pipe-smoking hero-in-the-making named Juanito (Guillermo Pacheco), who doesn’t let the fact he is only about ten years old interfere with his ambition to become a world famous detective.
Will this ragtag duo manage to bring down Ortiz’s criminal empire? And will Carlos stick to clean, honest banditry or will he be pulled into Ortiz’s organization? See The Iron Fist to find out!
I can’t go any further without mentioning how appealing the cast of this picture is. García Moreno used a combination of friends, family, local amateurs and a few professionals to fill the acting slots and his technique worked beautifully in both The Ghost Train and The Iron Fist. Carlos Villatoro is as strapping a Fairbanksian figure as you could wish for and Manuel de los Rio gleefully chews the scenery as the nefarious Ortiz. (Scenery chewing with relish is welcome and encouraged in pulp crime pictures.)
Hortensia Valencia is warm and appealing as Laura, Lupita Bonilla is slinky and stylish, Octavio Valencia is cute as the clueless Carlos, Guillermo Pacheco is cuter still as the baby detective and Manuel Carillo is a teen crime fighter who puts the Hardy Boys to shame. There isn’t a weak link to be found, in other words.
I hesitate to draw a direct line between this picture and other crime pictures released during the silent era because the whole world was playing influence ping-pong and there are quite a few “chicken or the egg” films out there. That being said, García Moreno was reportedly a huge fan of Hollywood fare and sought to emulate it.
With this in mind, the notion of a bat-obsessed thief could easily have been inspired by the 1926 picture The Bat, which famously features a proto-Bat Signal. Drug films were somewhat hampered by the 1922 arrival of Will Hays in Hollywood but they still made appearances and it’s reasonable to suspect that García Moreno had seen films like The Penalty, which featured twisted criminal gangs and plenty of syringes.
Dr. Ortiz is sometimes compared to Dr. Mabuse and while it is entirely possible that García Moreno saw that picture, don’t forget that Fritz Lang was drawing from a long pulp tradition and such tropes as evil doctors and hidden villains were standard fare in crime pictures and serials alike. In fact, I dare say that Lon Chaney could have fit right into The Iron Fist.
I do want to emphasize that García Moreno’s pictures are not copycats or a Mexican version of foreign films. Rather, he processed his influences and remolded them into something distinct and unique.
What we do know for certain was that García Moreno had ambitions of conquering the United States market and for that reason, his films had title cards that were bilingual with Spanish and English. He did manage to book a few screenings but the USA was a tough nut to crack and his films were not seen widely north of the border prior to the release of the UNAM restorations.
Much attention is given to the film’s bizarre plot twists, use of documentary footage and its borderline surrealism and deservedly so. This strange blend of extreme realism and extreme stylization is a remarkable and impressive accomplishment for a small, independent outfit. However, what really puts the film over for me is the easy camaraderie among the cast. (And, not going to lie, the notably stylish clothing and haircuts. If you’re a fan of 1920s fashions, this will be a real treat.)
I can’t say whether or not The Iron Fist is for you but it is an important and priceless surviving Mexican silent film and I can absolutely guarantee that you have never seen anything like it.
Where can I see it?
UNAM has released The Iron Fist on its official YouTube channel for free viewing in HD with a full score and bilingual English-Spanish intertitles. That’s pretty generous of them, so be sure to check it out.
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