Emiliano Zapata (Brando) is a peasant farmer from the southern Mexican state of Morelos. He and his fellow peasants petition President Porfirio Diaz for assistance against the sugar barons that have taken their land, but Diaz, a corrupt autocrat, instead tries to have Zapata arrested. Zapata, accompanied by his brother Eufemio (Quinn), lead a peasant revolt and raise an army. Other rebels rise up, including Pancho Villa in northern Mexico, and Diaz is forced to flee the country.
Diaz is replaced by Francisco Madero, a liberal, but Zapata is unsatisfied by the pace of Madero's reforms. Things get worse when conservative general Victoriano Huerta pulls off a coup d'etat and has Madero murdered. Zapata gathers his men once again, and, working in tandem with Villa, is able to overthrow Huerta as well. Zapata briefly holds power in Mexico, but fears that power may corrupt him.
Star-Making Role for Quinn. John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, the only original screenplay he ever wrote (he also adapted his own novel The Red Pony, and he wrote the original story for Lifeboat). Alfred Newman composed the music. Alan Reed, who appears briefly as Pancho Villa, would later voice Fred Flintstone on The Flintstones. Jean Peters, who stars as Love Interest Josefa, retired from acting a few years after this movie when she married Howard Hughes.
Compare Viva Villa!, a movie made 20 years before with a similar title and recounting many of the same events, but from Pancho Villa's POV.
- Bald of Evil: Victoriano Huerta, as he was in Real Life (both evil and bald), murdering Madero, establishing himself as dictator.
- Based on a True Story: As with most biopics of the era, accuracy wasn't considered a very big deal. The real Emiliano Zapata was not illiterate. He never held power in Mexico City, even briefly, although he did pose with Pancho Villa in the palace◊ as is depicted in the film. Huerta was not present at the murder of Madero. The key role of American ambassador Henry Wilson in the overthrow and murder of Madero is omitted.
- Brownface: Used for most of the actors. The surprising thing for the era is not that they used Brownface on actors like Brando, but that they managed to cast two actual Mexicans, Anthony Quinn and Margo.
- Call-Back: When Zapata is briefly in charge of Mexico, he's met with a squad of peasants from Morelos who are dressed exactly as they were in the opening scene. Zapata makes empty promises of help, just as Diaz did in the opening scene. One peasant refuses to move when the other peasants shuffle away, and even holds up his hand to interrupt Zapata, just as Zapata does to Diaz in the opening scene. Then an angry Zapata circles the peasant's name just as Diaz circled his name. At this the parallels hit home with Zapata, and he decides on the spot to go back home and fight for his people in Morelos rather than hold power in Mexico City.
- Dead Guy on Display: Zapata's corpse is displayed in the square to crush the spirits of the peasants, but it doesn't work.
- Establishing Character Moment:
- The film opens with a group of meek peasants from Morelos obtaining an audience with President Diaz. They ask for relief from the sugar barons; Diaz makes empty promises about how the peasants can get their land back if they sue in the courts. Then all the peasants start shuffling out, dejected—except for one, Zapata. Standing tall, he calls Diaz out, noting that peasants never win legal fights against the land barons under Diaz's government. He even holds up his hand to quiet Diaz when Diaz tries to argue. Diaz for one appreciates the Establishing Character Moment, circling Zapata's name as someone genuinely dangerous. Werner Herzog named this as the greatest opening scene in movie history.
- Huerta gets his own Establishing Character Moment when, with his very first lines of dialogue, he is demanding that Madero have the rebellious Zapata killed.
- Evil-Detecting Dog: Zapata's old horse is twitchy and snorting as Zapata pets him. At the moment the soldiers appear on the rooftops, the horse rears up, screams, and gallops off.
- Full-Circle Revolution: A theme of the film. Government succeeds government in the Mexican Revolution, each being as bad as its predecessor. Eufemio steals land from the peasants, just what he and Emiliano were fighting against early in the movie. Emiliano himself nearly does this when as president he meets a group of peasants just as in the opening scene (see Call-Back above) but makes a conscious decision to cast power aside and continue to fight.
- Hand Gagging: Zapata doesn't let a little thing like being a fugitive from Diaz's government stop him from courting Josefa, instead sneaking into a church to talk to her. Eufemio puts a Hand Gag over Josefa's mother's mouth while Emiliano and Josefa talk.
- King in the Mountain: The film ends with the peasants who see Zapata's mangled body refusing to believe that he is dead. They say "he's in the mountains", and that if the people ever need him, he'll come back again.
- Multiple Gunshot Death: Zapata is gunned down in the square by an entire regiment. An officer looking at the body muses "They must have been really afraid of him; they shot him to ribbons."
- Never Learned to Read: A source of shame for Zapata. He has to get his buddy Pablo to read letters from Madero. Later, he gets his wife to teach him to read so that he can deal with government types.
- Powder Trail: Diaz's solders, manning a fort, take little notice of the old ladies that are hauling bags of produce to market. They do not realize that the old ladies aren't hauling bags of produce, they're hauling bags of gunpowder, and they're leaving trails on the ground via holes cut in the bags. The soldiers start shooting when the old ladies get too close to the gates but it's too late, as the trails are lit, the gates are blown, and Zapata's men take the fort.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Zapata after succeeding in his rebellion takes office but worries that he'll become a tyrant like he once opposed, so he resolves to fight and live among the people inspiring them from below rather than above.
- Title Drop: Shouted in triumph after they get the news that Diaz has fled into exile.