Emilio 'El Indio' Fernandez is not only the most famous figure in the history of the Mexican film industry, he was for many decades a national symbol. Fernandez's legendary on-and-off screen persona incarnates a type of Mexican "machismo" that grew out of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17: the temperamental, at times violent, man committed to the defense of cultural nationalism--those ideals and values perceived as authentically "Mexican". Fernandez was born to an Indian mother in the Mexican state of Coahuila. As a young man he participated in the revolutionary struggles, and after the defeat of his faction he sought exile in the United States. In Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 30s, Fernandez worked as an extra and bit player while he learned about filmmaking.
In 1933 Fernandez was able to return to Mexico and the following year he commenced his long career in the Mexican motion picture industry, first as a screenwriter and actor. He had his first lead role, as an Indian, in the drama "Janitzio" (1934). El Indio's athletic physique and his strikingly Indian countenance made him much in demand to play revolutionaries, bandits and "charros" (Mexican cowboys). By the 1960s, Fernandez's off-screen reputation as a violent man had led to his typecasting as brutal villains in many Mexican and American films such as Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969), in which he played the sadistic military leader Mapache.
However, acting and screenwriting were lesser concerns for Fernandez, who became Mexico's most famous director in the 1940s, the so-called golden age of Mexican cinema. Two of El Indio's finest films were "Flor silvestre" and "Maria Candelaria" (both 1943). "Flor silvestre" is a rural melodrama-love-story-adventure set during the Mexican Revolution; "Maria Candelaria" tells the tragic tale of the suffering and love of an Indian peasant couple in Xochimilco, a picturesque area of gardens and waterways. Both these films and Fernandez's other important works from the 1940s--"Enamorada" (1946), "Rio Escondido" (1947) and "Pueblerina" (1949)--were co-scripted by the director and photographed by the prominent cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. In these films, the Fernandez-Figueroa team developed a beautiful poetic-epic visual style evidently influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished "Que viva Mexico" (1932) and Paul Strand's photography for "Redes/The Wave" (1936). This style glorifies the beauty of the Mexican landscape through meticulously composed, stationary-camera long shots that highlight "typically Mexican" motifs: the prickly pear cactus and the maguey, the towering poplar trees along the waterways of Xochimilco, baroque churches, rolling clouds in boundless skies.
Fernandez continued directing films in Mexico until the mid-1970s, but his creativity started to decline in the 1950s. Today the director is best remembered for his distinctive visual style and his private notoriety--he was convicted of manslaughter in 1976 for fatally shooting a farm laborer, he claimed, in self-defense.