“100 Rifles” and the Late 1960s: Part II

On Tuesday, I wrote about 100 Rifles (1969) as a commentary on the cultural moment that it originally appeared within. Today, I want to continue that discussion by briefly looking at couple of more scenes from the film that should be examined. Continuing from where the previous post left off, this post will look at Lyedecker and Herrera’s conversation with the priest as they walk towards their execution. Along with this scene, I will briefly discuss the relationship between Lyedecker and Sarita that develops throughout the course of the film.

As a guard escorts the men to towards the firing squad, Verdugo stops them and motions for a priest to come and speak with Lyedecker and Herrera. The exchange that occurs calls to mind conversations about religion during the period by authors such as Ernest J. Gaines in “The Sky is Gray” and “Three Men” and Amiri Barka in his plays. The priest approaches the men saying, “My sons, allow me to help you.” Halfway through the forced plea, Herrera interrupts him with, “Look,  we ain’t no sons of yours. There’s probably one scattered around here someplace.” With this comment, Herrera, again the “white” character in this situation, confronts the institution of religion that the priest represents as an imperialistic tool to conquer and subjugate the Yaqui, African Americans, and others.

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Continuing, the priest asks the men to prepare, in peace and love, their hearts for death. Again, Herrera rebukes the priest’s supplication by telling him that he should talk to Verdugo about peace and love rather than getting them ready to die. Ultimately, Herrera and Lydecker refuse the priest’s calls for confession. In this exchange, the film confronts the issue of imperialism and colonization in the name of religion, pointing out the logical flaws in the act of colonization and domination based on a doctrine that preaches peace and love towards everyone.

While the church, Verdugo, and Grimes do not represent the way to succeed, the interracial relationship between Lyedecker and Sarita provides a template, much like Charles Chesnutt’s “The Future American” back at the turn of the twentieth century did, for social progress. After Sarita a group of Yaqui rescue Lydecker and Herrera, the group returns to a village to regroup and rest. Sarita tells Lyedecker that she needs him to keep Herrera in line and to help the opposition to Verdugo. Later, after the general and his men find the village and burn it to the ground and the Yaqui retaliate, Sarita dresses a wound that Lydecker receives during a battle.

After she cleans his wound and they talk for a minute, Sarita kisses Lyedecker. He then grabs her by the waist and passionately tries to kiss her. Sarita fights him, repeatedly screaming, “No! no! no! Please, not like this. Not with you.” It is unclear whether or not Sarita is a virgin, but that does not necessarily matter in this context. Her response, after she initiates the exchange by kissing Lydecker, brings to mind the fears that white audiences might have of a black man and a white woman together. She viscerally tries to push him away, and rather than continuing with his pursuit, Lyedecker acquiesces, rejecting the stereotype of African American men as sexual brutes who want nothing more than to be with white women.

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The two exchange a look, Sarita walks away, and Lyedecker follows her, grabbing her gently by the waist. She turns and kisses him. The scene initially rejects the stereotype, takes a beat, then replaces the stereotype with an image of Sarita and Lyedecker in a consensual embrace that has all the hallmarks of silver screen romance. This scene caused a stir at the time, for obvious reasons. We need to remember that only two years before, in 1967, the Supreme Court made a ruling in the Loving v. Virginia case calling miscegenation laws illegal. I have written about this before in relation to Gaines’s Of Love and Dust and other texts.

Later in the film, Sarita calls Lyedecker into a house. She bends over the fire and tells him, “Your supper is almost ready.” Lyedecker stands against the wall, and in this scene, we see a domestic image of the couple, getting ready to sit down to meal, even amidst the fighting and turmoil that surrounds them. “Lyedecker,” Sarita says before they sit down, “you are my man.” He looks back, lovingly, and simply says, “You know you gotta be careful for a thing like that.” She responds by telling him she does not have to be careful because, as she says, “I am your woman for as long as you want me.” She asks, “Do you want me?” At this, Lyedecker grabs her arm, and it appears as if, for a beat, he will kiss her; however, he draws her close and embraces her in a hug.

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Unlike the previous scene, this exchange solidifies the relationship, highlighting the fact that Lydecker and Sarita, an interracial couple, can love one another. Along with their love, the film also shows that their relationship can fight back against the representative powers that seek to keep them apart and in subjugation because of their respective ethnic backgrounds and the color of their skin. Coming on the heels of Loving v. Virginia, we must read the onscreen relationship between Lyedecker and Sarita in relation to contemporaneous debates over interracial relationships and the fears that some attached to them. 100 Rifles subtly obliterates these fears through deconstructing the stereotypes and showing, albeit very briefly, a budding, loving interracial relationship in the form of Sarita and Lyedecker.

There is, of course, more that could be said. I have not even touched on the fact that Lyedecker becomes the Yaqui general after their leader dies, and at the end of the film, Herrera takes over the position. These acts, in and of themselves, warrant exploration. However, I do not have time for that here. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

 

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