Santo el enmascarado de plata (1917-84) is one
of the greatest heroic showmen the science of cinema
ever uncovered. Being the premiere masked Mexican wrestler
in history was all in a day's work for el Santo. So
from 1958 to 1982, he moonlighted as the greatest movie
star in Mexican wrestling, making 26 features through
the 1960s (Elvis did 28). Santo had seven of his features
released in 1966 alone.
"Santo vs. Death" has the big man on the
road in Colombia and Spain. While wrestling around the
world, Santo routinely teams up with local detectives,
enforcing justice and throwing down a comprehensive
catalogue of wrestling movie conventions. Here Santo
forgoes any supernatural elements, opting for a straight
program of TV-friendly urban crimefighting (bring me
the title where Santo literally wrestles Death
After a truly amatuerish scene between suits in some
interpol office, we get down to business: Santo's ritual
heroic descent from the Aeromexico jet that's landed
him in mountainous Bogatá. After being warned
by his cop friend about the suspicious hot blond on
the tarmac, Mexico's greatest wrestler is shuttled downtown.
The filmmakers simply crank up their Bolex and turn
Santo loose in the streets. Picture him pacing like
through the brown and gray avenues, a hero popular,
trailing an excitable cloud of Colombian teens. Santo,
in Bogatá. There's heat on the street that can't
be manufactured on the back lot with central casting.
The documentary shooting style depicts a youth scene
marked by mocha skintones, black hair, black eyes, sharp
cut jackets and straight leg pants, doo wop pompadours
and pencil mustaches, with skinny new wave ties.
Then come the formal wrestling sequences, the anchors
in the narrative. No music, no fast cutting, just wrestling
and crowd shots that put you inside the evening match.
This is the basics, preferably with Santo vanquishing
some kind of ruffian, Caucasian or adversary of equally
In short order we get introduced to some Mexican soap
opera-style villains. The ultimate baddy, the Number
One ring leader,
is called Mysterious Unknown One. He always sits with
his back to the camera in a big hat at a luxury desk.
Number One is also actually Number Two, which we find
out after several reels of watching him run around on
orders from himself. Number Two is a smooth soap
opera acting-type guy. He makes phone calls and says
things like, "We are leaving Hideout #1, and proceeding
to Hideout #2."
This gives our hero a chance to wear cool red jerseys
that set off his silver mask while he's riding on the
roof of cable cars carrying crooks an eye-popping 2,500
feet up the mountain side.
There's some intrigue at the bellydancing club, shot
in Spain, giving us some Syrian gyrations before the
dancer gets backstabbed. Then Santo has to wrestle the
murderer a bad guy disguised perfectly as el
Santo! We get the doppelganger battle twice in this
picture. There's also a cat fight between the two Latina
culminates in Santo performing parachute manuevers with
the Colombian Air Force! Soon after that, he jumps from
a police helicopter into a boat cruising fast along
the river Magdalene in the jungle.
After a fight, Santo throws the villainous #1 overboard.
"Will he survive?" the blond chick asks.
Santo says, "No, there are too many crocodiles."
Then comes the best part. Santo lets the blond go like
he's pardoning her because he's honorably bound to give
a lady the chance to go straight. So she leads him right
back to the stolen emeralds that are the object of this
entire run-around. Then he has her thrown in the can.
"Take her away." Right there in the Bogotá
airport. Santo is the mack.
So my one friend Cisco was the only one I could get
to go downtown in the middle of the night to see Mexican
wrestling on film. I go, what is it about this phenomenon?
They had no money. They had no script, and no talent
for acting. Nevertheless, it's the greatest story ever
told. What gives?
answer? "The Santo cinema style is like play acting,
like what we used to do when we were kids playing out
movie plots, war games, fights and chases. And watching
is like being in the group playing along. It's fun."
"Fun." There's something in that. And the
way the Santo movie echoed in lo-fi mono Spanish inside
that dark, big ass, ancient vaudeville cavern? Pure
Aztec gold. It's what Saturday night local TV station
wrestling used to be in America as late as the 1970s,
before the truly un-fun, unfunny, money-mad steroid
overdose of Smackdown.
Thanks to E. Michael Diaz and everyone at the Cinemateca
of Los Angeles: L.A. needs los Luchadors! Keep these