Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 20, 2023)
When he died in 2009, I suspect obituaries of Ricardo Montalban focused on TV’s Fantasy Island and 1982’s Star Trek II, projects from relatively late in his career. However, Montalban debuted as a cinematic actor back in 1940, and 1947’s Border Incident offers one of his earlier roles.
The US depends on Mexican workers to harvest crops, but only a limited number can cross into the States legally. This leaves many desperate to enter any way they can, and border gangs use and abuse these folks in a violent manner.
To combat this threat, Mexico and the US combine forces, and they send agents Pablo Rodriguez (Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) undercover to foil these plots. Inevitably, this leads both into danger.
Because I wouldn’t enter the world until a couple decades after this film’s release, I don’t know much about the social climate that surrounded Incident. I must imagine it offered a much more benign circumstance than what we see circa 2023, as immigration turned into a massive political “hot button” over the last decade or so.
Indeed, I can’t imagine a story like this would get made today. The premise comes with too much fraught context for this era.
That said, I appreciate the movie’s perspective, as it treats the Mexicans who aspire to something better with sympathy. Whereas an entire media ecosystem now demonizes these folks relentlessly, Incident offers the characters dignity.
Given the era in which the movie got made, no one should expect a particularly realistic feel to Incident, though. This seems vaguely ironic because the film sets itself up as fact-based at the start.
The era’s censorship restrictions clearly limited how grim or true to life Incident could be, of course. Within the constraints of 1947, it does its best to show the inhuman treatment of the Mexicans.
Even without graphic brutality, Incident offers a reasonable take on these abuses. No, it won’t give us a visceral view of violence ala something like 12 Years a Slave, but it paints an unpleasant enough picture.
Incident loses some points due to inconsistent storytelling. Whereas the film sets up Rodriguez and his journey as the focal point, it makes an abrupt turn to concentrate on Bearnes about one-third of the way into the movie.
This doesn’t mean Incident completely abandons Rodriguez, as he continues to offer a thread. However, that role definitely takes a backseat much of the remaining film.
I view this as a disappointment for a few reasons, but primarily because too many movies that should emphasize non-white characters don’t. Hollywood tends to tell those stories through white eyes even when that doesn’t make much sense.
Actually, I guess I should appreciate how much Incident does concentrate on the Mexicans, as they get far more screen time than one might expect, especially given the era in which the film was made. Nonetheless, the inclusion of the Bearnes scenes can feel gratuitous, like the filmmakers just didn’t have the guts to stick entirely with the Mexican characters.
Beyond that, the story simply becomes disjointed as it goes. While connected at their core, the Bearnes and Rodriguez narratives don’t blend especially smoothly, so the tale feels a bit jerky as it goes.
These criticisms aside, I do like a lot about Incident. Even with the narrative inconsistencies, director Anthony Mann manages to depict the tale in a fairly taut and tense manner.
And as noted, I like the subject matter, as we find something unusual for Hollywood in the late 1940s. While Incident comes with some issues, it nonetheless becomes a generally engaging drama.