Emilio Fernandez - Mustard comedy magazine
The Wild Bunch

Emilio Fernandez

The true tale of Mexico's greatest director, who shot over 40 films,
plus one film critic and a farm hand.

Shoot To Kill

Unless you're a fan of Mexican cinema or old westerns, it's possible you won't have heard of Emilio Fernandez. Those that worked with him had a hard time forgetting 'El Indio'. "Emilio was a true original," recalls Cliff Coleman, who encountered Fernandez on the set of The Wild Bunch. "I don't know whether this was before he'd shot that producer, but he had an awesome aura. He'd brought his harem with him โ€“ 50 girls who lived at his hacienda. I'd love to have owned the penicillin concession on that place."

Renaissance Desperado

But there was more to Emilio Fernandez than extreme violence and hard-core carousing. From the 1930s until his death in 1986, Fernandez was Mexico's premier filmmaker, shooting over 40 features. He was a man of contradictions too โ€“ a card-carrying macho whose films featured strong heroines and whose hobbies included painting and poetry. Had he been less of a degenerate, he'd have be a celebrated as a renaissance man. But it's for a lifetime of violence that Fernandez remains a cult figure. And it's his dedication to the whoring arts that means people concentrate on his lifestyle rather than his trailblazing pictures.

Raised in poverty in Coahuila, Emilio Fernandez made the jump from starving wretch to in-demand filmmaker via the familiar route of imprisonment, escape and intercontinental relocation. Jailed for fighting on the 'wrong side' in the Mexican Civil War, the 14-year-old Emilio spent three years breaking rocks before fleeing to California, where he found work as a stunt man and bit-player. Invariably cast as an Indian or bandit, these perfunctory roles would help Fernandez to establish himself behind the camera when it became safe to return home.

The Wild Bunch

It was after returning south of the border that Fernandez's life started to hot up. For one thing, he became an in demand writer-director, creating 16 films in just eight years. For another, he started cultivating the life of a desperado. His debauchery was lent a frame of reference by friend and occasional collaborator Sam Peckinpah, who provided the Mexican with an object lesson in how to brawl and bed whores, and cast him in the role that cemented his reputation. Indeed, as The Wild Bunch's villainous Mapache [top photo, far right], Fernandez is so scuzzy, you can almost smell the stale tequila and semen on him.

Emilio's bad-ass act was no illusion. Five years before Peckinpah picked him out, El Indio spent a second spell in jail after a row at a film festival led to him shooting a producer. A media sensation in Mexico, talk centred upon whether Fernandez had fired in self-defence, as he claimed, or should be tried for attempted murder. n the end, he was sentenced to just a few months imprisonment on the lesser charge of attempted manslaughter.

Old Age and Hard Time

As time and the good old bad old days began to take their toll, Fernandez's demeanour didn't improve. The most celebrated of these later scrapes involved Fernandez shooting dead a farm worker while scouting locations. As before, the director claimed he'd fired in self-defence. Tried in December 1976, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four-and-a-half-years hard time.

Describing the shooting and its aftermath as "a humiliating experience", Fernandez feared the incident would kill his career. But just as it's medically remarkable that his drinking and shagging didn't do for him in his 50s, so it was incredible that Emilio's second conviction didn't interfere with his acting. On the contrary, 'Indio' found regular work right up until his death of a massive heart attack in 1986.

Having divided his life between the director's chair, the bar and the brothel, Emilio Fernandez had little to call his own. "My only family is my home," he complained in 1976.

"My servants, my pets, a fighting cock โ€“ that's all I have to show for a pretty hectic life."

Emilio Fernandez

Fernandez in The Wild Bunch
Photos © Warner Brothers

~ R.L.


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