The following has been edited from a 2008 article.
It started out as a much smaller movie. It was designed to help dramatize the hard-edged reality of life among Taoseños faced with the clash between water, land, culture and encroachment by wealthy interlopers promising progress. But when producer-director Robert Redford got hold of "The Milagro Beanfield War," a screenplay adapted from the novel by Taos author John Nichols, it became a whole different animal.
The film, which will be screened from a 35mm print, will be celebrated with a "special 30th Anniversary run" Friday through Monday (March 16-20) at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
Friday, Saturday and Monday screenings are at 7 p.m. Sunday screening is at 2 p.m.
The event will feature a live interview and question and answer session with Nichols, hosted by Kelly Clement, after the Saturday evening screening. (The date for this session was in error in Tempo magazine's Thursday (March 15) issue. It has been corrected here.)
Nichols has had these last three decades to ruminate about how his story became a sprawling, Oscar-winning major motion picture with big name stars and a multi-million dollar budget. And it hasn't all been good. His book, which many say faithfully captured the tone of life in this unusual community and the issues swirling amid the sagebrush and rippling creeks at its edge, was, at 800 pages or so, a formidable adaptation to say the least.
"The movie has an anniversary coming up," Nichols joked 10 years ago, "but all my anniversaries ended in divorce."
Nichols said the year "Milagro" was shot and released easily was the most difficult of his life. "I don't want to remember that too much," he said. "It was just a nightmare when they were shooting the movie and all the hoopla over it." He said the resulting publicity "destroyed my equanimity, my anonymity, my happy little life in Taos."
Still, in many quarters, having your book made into a movie by a director of Redford's stature from a screenplay of your own device would likely be called the pinnacle of success. "You know, that was the tragedy," he said. "Everybody comes up to you and thinks you're so happy and so successful and so rich, and I was taking, like, four different kinds of heart pills from the stress. That was not the kind of success I was looking for."
The movie was a long time brewing since Nichols first published what would become his best-known novel in 1974. The Denver Post called it "funny, irreverent, ribald, poignant … Wondrously fresh and alive" while The Seattle Times referred to it as "a fine, zesty novel … compassionate, affectionate, and exciting as human cussedness can make it."
Its story about a lowly farmer's defiance in the face of conventional progess mirrored the struggles Taoseños were facing as developers began looking at how this land and people could be exploited for profit. And it was funny, because the culture of Taos -- made up of a peculiar mix of a Pueblo Indian, native Hispano and transplanted Anglo outlook based on poverty, isolation and tenacity -- could be off-the-wall and relatively incomprehensible to outsiders. Of course, there'd be a clash.
And it was happening every time some newcomer came running out of their house in the spring wondering what all the men in the village were doing cleaning the ditch that ran through "their property." But, Nichols said that peculiar character may have worked against portraying the deeper issues he hoped the story would reveal.
"After the book came out," he said, "I felt that perhaps the message underlying the book, which is basically a struggle against cultural genocide and ecocide or whatever, and the attempt of people to maintain culture and community in the face of what we've seen happen, right?, didn't come through that clearly because there was so much humor in the book."
Nichols illustrated this dichotomy by explaining how his story was being pitched to the media. He said that when asked by The New York Times what the story was about, he replied "It's about class struggle in northern New Mexico."
But, when the reporter approached Redford and read to him Nichols' description, the director's reaction was quite different. "Of course," Redford freaked, "The communist is spouting." (Redford) said, 'Oh no, no, it's not about class struggle. It's about something much larger than that. It was funny.'"
In a story published in The Taos News' Tempo magazine noting the film's 10th anniversary in 1998, Nichols addressed the accusation some leveled against "Milagro" for co-opting local Hispano culture to make his point.
"You just do your writing and take your chances," he said then. "One of the side effects is that, of course, you're going to offend a lot of people. As many people as like what you do, there's just as many who don't like what you do … I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said they loved the book or the movie. But I've also had guys come up to me in bars and say, 'You stinking Communist! If I had a gun, I'd blow you away.' "
He added that "the work of an artist -- it doesn't matter if you're black or Chicano or Native American or Samoan -- is to simply use your imagination to create stuff that elucidates and honors the human condition … I'm not a Chicano writer. I'm not a black writer. I'm not even an Anglo writer. I'm just a person who's trying to write with some sort of compassion and sympathy and humor."
So, he wrote "The Magic Journey," number two in his New Mexico Trilogy, in order to bring a sharper focus to the issues he felt were overlooked in "Milagro." He said it was the second book that he "really cared about because I felt all the politics, as well as the nature of humor and the spirit of the area, were there, but that you couldn't miss the message. But, you know, c'est la vie."
In a perfect world, if "Milagro" had been made smaller, more political and with less of an effort to take advantage of the fashion over Latino magical realism, the movie might've sent people home with the same sense "Salt of the Earth" projected: that the value of culture and community and land and especially water are still and always will be more important than the needs of a government-corporate monster.
It's what puts good clean food on the table. It's the product of honest hard work that directly benefits you and your family.
A movie is a movie, and a book is only a book, and while one sometimes feeds off the other, they remain different yet distinct creatures. In the case of "The Milagro Beanfield War," you may be able to sit in the dark with your neighbors enjoying the fanciful antics of Joe Mondrágon and Amarante's pig and sneer at the villainous Ladd Devine, but ultimately those neighbors sitting next to you will probably bear more of a resemblance to the characters in the book: more complex, interesting, tougher, funnier, more eccentric, and yet part of the same connection that keeps the acequias clear and filled with the life-blood of the community. Plus, you'll have to live with them far longer than the running time of Robert Redford's movie.
Tickets are $12, $10 for Taos Center for the Arts members, and $5 for youth. For more information, call (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.
For a synopsis of the film, see "Film clips" on Page 35.