Viva Mexico

Belstaff's new film The Outlaws extends the country's long history as a star of the silver screen in its own right.

Still from Outlaws in Mexico

Sundance Kid: 'Why don't we just go to Mexico?'

Butch Cassidy: 'Cause all they got in Mexico is sweat.'

For decades now, Mexico's sun-scorched landscapes, as refracted through the camera lens, have come to promise freedom, extremes of physical and mental difficulty, passion and, for Butch Cassidy at least, perspiration. Dusty and desolate, on the silver screen old Méjico is a challenging place where blood is routinely spilled, feuds are settled and strangeness is encountered regularly.

It all began with the dozens of pictures made by Emilio Fernández during the 1940s and 50s. While the legendary director's indigenous aesthetic aped the folksy works of popular painter Frida Kahlo, his true legacy was his depiction of a rural Mexico near-fetishised by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa with his painterly, stationary long shots. Coupled with Fernández's idealisation of the mestizo population, this romanticised portrayal quickly became cinema's standard for rural Mexico.

Treasure Of The Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, 1948. Snap/REX

Those locals appeared almost as caricatures in 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the first-ever Hollywood productions shot outside America. This black-and-white potboiler directed by John Huston saw three greedy gold prospectors, including one Humphrey Bogart, grappling with murderous bandits, and finding hospitality from friendlier villagers.

A similar mentality pervaded Spaghetti Westerns, which were often filmed in Spain or Italy but set in Mexico. In Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, for example, the first and dustiest of the Dollars Trilogy, Clint Eastwood's nameless gringo plays depraved, dumb rival gangs against each other within an archetypal hick town.

The violent universe of the movie reinforces a long-running motif of American film, extending beyond Westerns: the notion of the outlaw's break for the border, to sneak beyond the reach of justice. Many bids falter, such as that of Billy the Kid in 1988's Young Guns, while others are plain ill-advised, like that of brothers Seth and Richard Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) in Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn. Just as deadly but far more garish, Mexico for them is represented by a vampire-infested strip joint operating a 'one in, none out' door policy.

Young Guns, featuring Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez, Christian Slater, Lou Diamond Phillips. Moviestore Collection/REX

Rodriguez straddled that 1995 thriller with a corpse-ridden revenge trilogy. In all three pictures - El Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico - a black-suited musician defies scores of bandits in battles among balmy adobe streets, accompanied by the twangs of his guitar.

Contemporary Mexican cinema, meanwhile, has gone more urbane, with movies such as Amores Perros and Babel. But some of that old rural yearning remains: starring Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal in their breakthrough roles, Y Tu Mama Tambien is a wide-ranging road movie in which our heroes encounter coastal villages, floral funeral processions and drugs checkpoints. Once more the Mexican countryside is an enigmatic place of adventure and abandon: a land where the rules are different, or there are no rules at all.

'Mexico has the right combination of magic and madness. It became a main character in itself.'
– Geremy Jasper, Director, Outlaws