“This isn’t the real Mexico”: Examinations of Border-Crossing in Hollywood Film

The tension between borders– and specifically that of Mexico and America– is not something that Hollywood has ever shied away from. Without it, how else could they churn out the generic cartel/trafficking/illicit affairs white saviour action flick once every year? The border has become an increasingly symbolic space for Hollywood film, where not only can a figurative and literal clash of two worlds take place, but also can conflate itself to epic proportions.

Both Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) and From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) are Hollywood films that explore the border and border crossing as one of their central themes. With a specific focus on Mexico and its border, we can trace the foundations laid by Touch of Evil to the more extreme and less genre-conforming From Dusk Till Dawn. Both are tied together by the simultaneous fascination and repulsion at what lay beyond the borders they set out to cross. 

Firstly, what exactly constitutes a ‘border film’? Border issues have become a staple in the cultural zeitgeist of both Hollywood and Mexican films. Film scholar and anthropologist Hamid Naifcy posits that border films must possess a number of criteria, including:

  1. Significant journeying and border crossing and use of border settings
  2. Significant reference to the borderlands or the problems of ethnic identity

Both films strongly fall in line with the concept of significant journeying; In Touch of Evil, a Mexican bomb explodes on American soil and so the characters are caught between both sides of the border. In From Dusk Till Dawn, the route is more linear; Seth and Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney) will begin as outlaws in America and end in Mexico, with new identities awaiting them. The physical structures of the border differ between the two, which thus affects the journeys they make; in Touch of Evil it is simply a police officer at a checkpoint (see fig. 1), making border crossing easy and accessible, whereas in From Dusk Till Dawn the border has conflated itself, it has become a place of tension and gate-keeping (see fig. 2), that for many, offers only one chance of entry. 

Yet, they both share a common denominator: on the far side of both borders is “a place of sin and corruption, of fortune tellers and prostitutes, where the Puritanical values of the North have no authority once they cross the line” (Josh Kun. “Listening to the Line: Notes on Music, Globalization, and the US-Mexico Border.”). In Touch of Evil this takes the form of gang violence and Tanya (Marlene Dietrech)’s brothel, in From Dusk Till Dawn it manifests in a vampire-infested strip club. The border we see in From Dusk Till Dawn, then, is merely an answer to Touch of Evil, an attempt to control and corral such activities (including bomb-planting) far from the iron fist of North American civility. In many ways, we can thank Touch of Evil for From Dusk Till Dawn; without the former laying the foundation for what would become the Hollywood archetype of the ever-elusive “border”, the Tarentino-Rodriguez duo would have never been able to bring this archetype to its most extreme degree. As Camilla Fojas writes:

Since Touch of Evil (1958) the Hollywood border is represented as a lawless place ruled by dark mythology… it is certainly no accident that the border zone has become a frontier of radical experience… where the US Citizen goes… for every vice forbidden by the standards of Western morality.

Camilla Fojas. “Bordersploitation: Hollywood Border Crossers and Buddy Cops.” Symplokē 15, no. 1/2 (2007): 80-99. 

In line with Naficy’s criteria, references to both issues of borderlands and problems of ethnic identity are just as prevalent in both, though in very different ways. While Touch of Evil roots itself firmly in the borderland, it portrays it in a startlingly negative light. Welles condemns both the North and South of the border when Ramon Vargas (Charles Heston) explains it to his wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), saying “This isn’t the real Mexico, you know that. All borderlands bring out the worst in a country.” Both sides of the border hold vice; from gangs to brothels to corrupt policemen. In From Dusk Till Dawn, however, the references to borderlands are considerably more subtle, and its representations of the problems of ethnic identity take a more meta approach.

Both films approach issues of ethnic identity interestingly from a meta point of view. For example, in Touch of Evil, Charlton Heston, a white man, plays Vargas, a Latino, with noticeable brown face. Despite the fact that Vargas is undoubtedly the hero of the story, any moral superiority he holds is undermined by the fact that it is a white man who is portraying him.  To contrast this, From Dusk Till Dawn employs Latino actor Cheech Marin in three roles; as a border guard (nationality unclear), as the club owner and as Carlos, Richie’s contact. In the latter two he employs a strong Chicano accent, along with a more unruly and more stereotypical ‘Mexican’ look.

While Touch of Evil’s  portrayal of an ethnic identity is a product of racism, From Dusk Till Dawn presents an interesting aspect of border crossing; on one side of the border Marin’s character is an enforcer of law, a clean cut and polished man, one who has integrated entirely with American culture and the American look. On the other side of that same border, he becomes transformed; he breaks the laws he once enforced, his shaven face is replaced by noticeable facial hair. He loses the clipped American accent, replaced instead by the Chicano vernacular. The same is true for Richie and Seth; the only reason they escape to Mexico is to receive a new identity from Carlos, and stay out of the grasp of the law. In this way, we can see that in From Dusk Till Dawn border crossing is not merely geopolitical, but holds a huge economy of identity.

The identity crises that border crossing holds is something that both films deal with. As Joseba Gabilondo has noted:

… when the Other is on the other side of the border it becomes a vampire. However, when the Other is on this side of the border… it becomes homosexual.

JOSEBA Gabilondo. “Like blood for chocolate, like queers for vampires: Border and global consumption in Rodriguez, Tarantino, Arau, Esquival and Troyan”

In both Richie and Vargas’ case they are considered “success” stories; they have, as Gabilondo puts it, encountered, consumed and exploited the other “without being queered by it.” The same cannot be said for the supporting characters around them; in Richie’s case, his brother and hostage family are all killed by blood-thirsty vampires, and he abandons Katherine (Juliette Lewis) for fear that she would compromise the new identity that Carlos offers him. As for Vargas, the villain Quinlan (Orson Welles) is heavily coded to be a gay man, as demonstrated by the way in which he strangles Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), an intricate ritual involving a game of cat and mouse, and the ripping off of Grandi’s shirt, all constructed merely to touch another man. Vargas escapes falling into the same trap; he is morally upright, where Quinlan certainly was not, and he still has a wife to go home to, where Quinlan did not. In both films, the border becomes a place where the psychodrama of crossing such physical and personal borders is played out from a safe distance, without being of any actual effect to identity, all the while portraying the threat it holds. Though the vampire and the homosexual share no outward similarities, they exist both as ‘the other’, the spectre which looms either side of the border. When that border is crossed, they must be confronted and dealt with; if you do not defeat it, you risk becoming it. 

The similar fascination and repulsion of border crossing is clear throughout both films. From Dusk Till Dawn balances this with its colour palette; the neon of the outside of the bar is entrancing and inviting, however the inside is drenched in reds and blacks, immediately signalling danger. Similarly, Touch of Evil, border crossing holds a sublime nature; though crossing the border means coming into contact with the ‘other’,  it is sweetened by the love the far side of that border holds (Susie, Vargas’ wife). This is also in many ways represented by the genre-crossing both films do; From Dusk Till Dawn initially sets itself up as a Western, and quickly becomes a horror when they enter the bar. Similarly, Touch of Evil trangessed the standard Hollywood ideal of the time of white being inherently good and Latino people being stereotyped as a host of offensive and sterotyped characters. Instead, Vargas is a beacon of moral goodness, where Quinlan is nothing but an antagonistic villain, and is never portrayed as being anything but. 

Both Touch of Evil and From Dusk Till Dawn offer a unique insight into the borders they cross, but it cannot be forgotten that they both come from a distinctly American viewpoint, and so the border will always be inherently ‘other’. The genealogical traces between the two cannot be overlooked; without the foundations that Touch of Evil laid, films like From Dusk Till Dawn may never have come to be. The mix of romanticisation and revulsion that the border is framed with is not unique to the two films discussed in this essay, in fact it can be found in nearly every Hollywood film situated in the borderlands.  The halfway point between natural and unnatural is where it remains, at once a place of sanctuary and sacrilege, of asylum and danger.  

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