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Border Incident (1949) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

mexican parkson american pablo

Principal social theme: immigration

MGM. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard da Silva, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw, James Mitchell, Alfonso Bedoya, Teresa Celli, Jose Torey, Arthur Hunnicutt, John Ridgely, Sig Ruman, Otto Waldis, Harry Antrim, Tony Barr, Fred Graham, Martin Garralaga. Written by John C. Higgins. Cinematography by John Alton. Edited by Conrad Nervig. Music by André Previn. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack. Directed by Anthony Mann. B&W. 96 minutes.


Border Incident is one of the first films by a major studio to focus on illegal immigration along the Mexican-American border. It foreshadows major concerns by incorporating the red tape of legal immigration, the needs of the agriculture industry for cheap labor, the exploitation of immigrants, and cooperation between the American and Mexican governments. The film was also filmed largely on location along both sides of the Mexican border.


A lengthy narration provides the background for Border Incident . Mexican workers known as braceros apply for work permits to enter the United States, but it is a slow, sometimes cumbersome procedure that can take six weeks. Instead, many Mexican laborers cross the border illegally, some using their own resources and some smuggled in by criminal organizations. These immigrants face many hazards. Those crossing on their own are often robbed and killed by bandits. Those brought in by others often find themselves cheated and exploited. The story focuses on one particular case in which two top undercover agents, American Jim Bearnes (George Murphy) and Mexican Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) work together to crack a sinister gang that victimizes illegal immigrants. Pablo poses as a poor bracero who wants to cross over the border. Jim poses as a crook on the run who infiltrates a gang working the smuggling racket. The illegal operation turns out to be headed by a wily rancher, Owen Parkson (Howard da Silva). The story concentrates on the inhuman treatment experienced by the Mexican workers who fall into Parkson’s clutches. Parkson discovers Jim’s identity and orders him killed, crushed to death by a tractor. Pablo escapes from the ranch and gets a message through to the American immigration officials. He is recaptured by Parkson’s gang, who plan to dispose of him and other troublesome workers by throwing them in quicksand in an isolated location nicknamed the “Canyon of Death.” American lawmen conduct a raid at the canyon just in time to save Pablo. Parkson and his henchmen are killed in a shootout and by quicksand. Jim Bearnes is awarded a posthumous medal, and Pablo Martinez is also cited by both the American and Mexican governments for his work in cracking the Parkson gang. However, constant vigilance must be maintained to prevent other groups from emulating Parkson. The film ends noting that the story was based on an actual case.


By focusing its plot on the plight of migrant workers, Border Incident raises numerous concerns beyond the limits of the central plot, the adventures of the two undercover agents. The film is very bleak in tone, like many film noirs, with a particularly hard edge as demonstrated by the dramatic killing of one of the film’s two leads late in the picture. The choices faced by the braceros wishing to enter America are difficult. To enter by the legal route involves much paperwork and many weeks of waiting at the border crossings. Even after entering America, their life is difficult, although the law offers them a handful of basic protections and a wage of seventy-five cents an hour. The illegal route risks death and conditions beneath human dignity. Their wages are only a third of the legal workers’, as they become totally reliant on the ranchers who exploit them. Border Incident portrays greed rather than racism as the root of the exploitation, as a number of Mexicans are included among the parasites who ruthlessly smuggle human cargo. The film tries to include an upbeat ending, but the prospects for the braceros are not really improved. Like the drug trade, other vultures are ready to step in whenever one criminal organization like the Parkson crowd is brought down. No explanation is ever given as to why the legal process is so drawn out and complicated. The script never faults these Mexicans for turning to illegal options. No one in the Immigration Department seems to realize how their system is failing both the citizens of the United States and Mexico, practically driving honest immigrants into the clutches of criminals. This message is clearly at the heart of Border Incident , but government officials turn a blind eye to it. Border Incident can serve as a launching point for discussions about how the system has or has not changed for immigrants, and how the situation could possibly be improved or remedied.


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