The trouble with revolutions about destroying hierarchy is that they require leaders. 1969's Tepepa presents characters wrestling with this problem in the context of revolutionary Mexico in the early 20th century. A Spaghetti Western, or in a subgenre called "Zapata Western", it presents the terrific violence and memorable personalities associated with the Italian/Spanish productions from the 60s with an ambition to be something a bit like David Lean's epics at the time. It doesn't quite reach those levels, it's too cartoonish, and the double moral centres, in the form of a cool Englishman and a little Mexican boy, make the film insubstantial in an effort to make it less ambiguous. But Tomas Milian and Orson Welles both turn in good performances and, of course, Ennio Morricone's music is fantastic.
The irrepressible pluck against the frustrated oppressor suggested by the music is nicely complemented by Tomas Milian in the role of Tepepa, a sort of Errol Flynn-ish version of Zapata. Friend or foe, joy or misfortune are as likely to provoke a hearty laugh from this charismatic hero. But he's quite shrewd.
Real life Mexican President Madero is here played by Paco Sanz looking a lot more like Vladimir Lenin than Madero did in real life. When Tepepa helps him take over the country he's quick to notice the same fat cats end up in charge of things. For the purposes of the film, the villain and key fat cat is embodied ably by Orson Welles.
Welles plays Colonel Cascorro, as weary and cynical as Tepepa is lively and positive. But both men are of the unusual kind best suited to be leaders, men who can see the big picture and make decisions outside the confines of crowd mentality or public opinion. Cascorro keeps order with brutality sometimes, Tepepa decides life and death for reasons sometimes unclear or dubious to his followers. He kills one man, formerly loyal, for betraying him and he kills him right in front of the man's son. This is the little boy who becomes somewhat awkwardly symbolic as the movie progresses, leading to an ending in which the boy actually makes a statement on behalf of the spirit of Mexico. In case it just wasn't clear.
The other moral centre befriends the child briefly and almost adopts him. Henry Price (John Steiner) is a doctor from England, perhaps representing the foreign perspective on the political conditions in Mexico. He comes across as faintly psychotic and he's in Mexico to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancee at the hands of Tepepa. At least, that's what he's heard. But he rescues Tepepa from Cascorro at the beginning of the film for reasons he doesn't seem to understand himself.
His continuing investigation into whether this Tepepa fellow is worthy or not mirrors Tepepa's own dissatisfaction in the inevitability of human nature to produce corrupt leaders. If Tepepa turns out to be such a leader himself, does he have the capacity to see it? It's an interesting question perhaps posed a little too cartoonishly in the end.
Tepepa is available on Amazon Prime.