Written by John Steinbeck and directed by Elia Kazan, the famous Mexican revolutionary general leads the peasant farmers with help from his brother to get their land back.
In 1909 in Mexico City a delegation of peasants from the state of Morelos are at the capital to see their President. Soldiers laugh at the knife a peasant has and let him keep it. They are ushered into a large room in the palace for an audience with President Porfirio Diaz (Fay Roope). The peasants say powerful people have taken their land away and are planting sugar cane in their corn fields. Diaz asks for proof they own the land. They present their papers from the government, and Diaz says he will send them to his personal attorney. He urges them to verify their boundary stones with facts. He says he is busy and has been their President for 34 years. They start to leave, but Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando) says they can’t verify their boundaries. Diaz says these things take time, and they must be patient. Zapata says they need his authority to cross the fence, or they will be arrested. Diaz says he can only advise them. Zapata says they will do as he advises. Diaz asks for his name and circles Zapata on his list.
The peasants are singing as some men and then others go through the barbed-wire fence. They find some of the boundary stones. They hear a trumpet, and a man on a horse warns them to go back. They run back to the opening they made in the fence as men set up a machine gun and shoot at them. Men on horses try to capture Zapata who is on a white horse, but he escapes.
In the mountains Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman) yells to Zapata as he climbs. Eufemio Zapata (Anthony Quinn) shoots his rifle near him to discourage him. Emiliano tells him to shoot again but not hit him. Eufemio suggests they kill him, but his brother says no. Aguirre comes near and says he is looking for Emiliano Zapata. Eufemio asks if he has any weapons, and Aguirre says no, only a writing machine. Eufemio wants to destroy it; but Aguirre shouts frantically, and Emiliano tells him not to damage it. They give Aguirre water, and he introduces himself. Pablo Gomez (Lou Gilbert) shakes his hand, but Emiliano only listens to him. Aguirre reads what Francisco Madero has written about their corrupt government. He says he is the leader against the government. He is in Texas preparing to move. Aguirre says he was sent to Morelos. They give him food to eat. Emiliano asks Pablo about Madero and complains he has not taught him how to read yet. Emiliano sends Pablo to find Madero and look in his face to see if they can trust him. He tells him to go now. Emiliano tells him if he trusts him to say they accept him as their leader against Diaz. The others leave on their horses, leaving Aguirre behind.
In a town Emiliano Zapata hides from police and follows Josefa (Jean Peters) and her another woman into a church. Eufemio sits behind the other woman and covers her mouth. Emiliano sits next to Josefa and says he wants to ask her parents for her hand. She says she does not want to be poor. He says his ancestors were chiefs, but she says he is not that now. He says he has been offered a good position by Don Nacio. She asks what he can do, and he says everyone knows he is the best judge of horses in the country. She says he is conceited. He says he could take her away by force. She says she would not prevent him, but eventually he would go to sleep. She sticks a long needle to his chest and says she wants to marry a rich man. He says she does mean that. She tells him to come back when he can offer her that. She tells Eufemio to let the woman go and tells her not to scream. Eufemio does so. Emiliano caresses her hand and then leaves with Eufemio. The woman and Josefa both admit that they like him.
In a stable Emiliano Zapata tells Don Nacio (Arnold Moss) which is the best horse. A man catches a boy stealing and grabs him. Zapata intervenes by attacking the man. Don Nacio says he had charges dismissed and that violence is no good. Zapata says the boy is hungry. Don Nacio asks if he is responsible to everyone and says he cannot be the conscience of the whole world. Don Nacio gladly gives him a cigar. He asks if he talked to Señor Espejo. He makes Zapata apologize to the man he attacked. Zapata nods and says he apologizes. Don Nacio sees Eufemio and Pablo, and Emiliano goes to them and sees Aguirre too.
The four men are in the mountains. Aguirre says that the United States has a more democratic government. Aguirre says Madero wants a message from him, but Zapata says to tell Madero to get another man because he has other things to do.
On a country road policemen on horses are pulling a prisoner with a rope around his neck. The Zapatas ride up to him and ask what he did. Emiliano says they should let him go. They ride off and drag the man by the rope until Emiliano cuts the rope with his sword. They find the man is dead, and Aguirre says he could have cut the rope without talking. A woman says he was stubborn because he wanted his corn field. The peasants say they will be after Zapata now, and they offer to hide him.
Emiliano Zapata tells Josefa’s father that he is working for Don Nacio who orders women to bring him better water. He says Zapata is a man without substance and is a brawler, though in some quarters he is desirable. Zapata grabs him by the neck and says his daughter can be queen of the warehouses. Then he goes outside. Three men grab him as Josefa watches from a window. They see peasants carrying the man who died. Eufemio is kneeling in the street and starts tapping two rocks together. Women start tapping, and others do so also. Police have arrested Emiliano and tied a rope around his neck and tied his hands behind his back. Men on horses lead him away. The father goes in the house and closes the door as Eufemio picks up his brother’s things.
As the police lead Zapata, peasants follow in a procession, some in front and some behind the prisoner. As they proceed on the country road, many peasants join. Eufemio points his rifle at the police. A policeman says the man is a criminal, and they are making themselves liable too. One peasant says they are there to guard the prisoner and so are not breaking the law. The policeman has Zapata released, and he gets on his white horse. Aguirre advises him to cut the telegraph wires before they send a message, and Zapata gives the order for the men to do so.
A train runs into a car of explosives, and peasants with rifles come out of the hills to raid the train. They do not find any ammunition except dynamite. Zapata says they will not wait but use what they have.
Soldiers are guarding the funeral procession with a machine gun on a wall. Women bring baskets to the gate, and the officer warns them to get away. They leave the baskets, and he orders the men to shoot at them. They run off. A trail of powder is lit on fire, and the fire moves to the baskets and blows open the gate. A battle begins.
Emiliano is sitting at a table eating amid a celebration outside in town. A man brings a boy who captured a machine gun. Emiliano says he should have a reward and offers him a pig. The boy shakes his head. Emiliano says he can have anything, and the boy looks at his white horse. Emiliano says he can take him, and the boy rides off on him. An older man is brought to Emiliano and presents Aguirre as a representative of Madero. Aguirre hands Emiliano a paper, and Pablo reads it for him. Madero has created Emiliano Zapata general of the southern forces in Mexico. Eufemio announces it to the men, and they shoot guns to celebrate.
Emiliano is sitting in a circle with Josefa and other women.
Across the street Eufemio does not like it and says he has had hundreds of women and that he should just take her.
Emiliano and the women exchange proverbial sayings as they drink.
Eufemio sees a pretty woman and goes after her.
Emiliano says he believes a man is fire and that a woman is fuel, and that a beautiful woman is born to be married. He sees through a window the boy on the horse and tells him to get out of there. He asks Josefa to go on a walk with him alone, but the women object. Emiliano is asked a question. He stands up and says that he believes that love cannot be bought except with love. A friend comes to the window and tells Emiliano that Diaz ran away and has left the country. People outside are celebrating. Emiliano embraces his friend through the bars of the window. Then he embraces Josefa and says the fighting is over. She is happy. A band plays and marches in the street. Eufemio is on a balcony with a woman.
Emiliano and Josefa in a wedding dress come out of church as people throw confetti on them.
At night Josefa wakes up in bed and sees Emiliano is out of bed. She goes to him and embraces him. He says it is almost morning, but they can hear people singing. Eufemio calls to them from outside. She goes out on the balcony and then asks Emiliano to come back to bed.
Eufemio is drunk and says they are getting very old. He tells Aguirre that he is unhappy because the fighting is over. Aguirre says nothing was really won. Eufemio says he loves him but he never liked him. He tells him to be human and enjoy himself.
Josefa is in bed and says Emiliano is restless. He tells her to go to sleep. He stands by her and kisses her. He puts his head on her chest, and she says they will find a good piece of land and will settle down. He says Madero is in the capital and that he will go and see him. She asks if they will have children. She wants to name one after Madero because he brought peace. She asks if there is something about her, but he says no and kisses her. She asks him to tell her. He is concerned about men from schools and lawyers. He admits he can’t read and is ashamed. He asks her to teach him, and she agrees. He tells her to start now with a book. She gets up to find one.
He goes out on the balcony and tells others to be quiet. They sing quietly.
Josefa brings a book, and Emiliano tells her to begin. She lies on the bed and reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then she repeats it very slowly.
The Zapatas are meeting with Francisco Indalecio Madero (Harold Gordon) who says the people will get their land but under the law. He shows a map where there is good land and says it is Emiliano’s ranch. He replies that he did not fight for a ranch and throws down the map. Emiliano says he did not fight for himself. He asks what he is going to do about the land he fought for. Madero says it is a constitutional government, and it will take time. He tells workmen to leave because of the noise. He goes out. Emiliano says he is too much like Diaz. Aguirre says the same men are ruling now as before. If Madero does not do it, then they must get rid of him too. Pablo says he is their friend, but Aguirre says he only cares about the truth. Eufemio urges his brother to take the ranch. Madero comes back and says they must have law and that it is time for them to stack their arms. He orders them to do that. Emiliano asks who will protect them, and Madero says the police will. Emiliano says that is who they just fought. He cocks his rifle and demands Madero’s watch. Madero hands it to him. Then Emiliano gives the rifle to Madero and says now he can have his watch back. Emiliano asks how they can keep their land if they disarm. Madero says it takes time. Emiliano says they need to plant and harvest. He only trusts Madero as long as he keeps his promises. Emiliano says he is going home and will wait but not too long. They go out, and General Victorian Huerta (Frank Silvera) comes in with his soldiers. Madero says that Emiliano is an honest man, but Huerta does not trust him. They hear a knock, and Pablo comes back in. Madero asks him to bring Emiliano back. Pablo tells Madero to come see Emiliano who cannot read. He advises Madero that he needs Emiliano just as much as he needs Madero who agrees to come. Pablo excuses the interruption and goes out. Madero tells Huerta that troops are necessary because there is such a thing as an honest man. He goes out, and Huerta complains about the odor of goodness. He says they are not safe until Emiliano is killed because he believes what he is fighting for. The soldier says they must get rid of Madero too, but Huerta says he is only a mouse; Emiliano is a tiger and must be killed.
Eufemio dances with a woman in the town square. Peasants are turning in their rifles. Madero tells Emiliano and Pablo that the men do not mind giving up their arms. Emiliano says he has been fighting so long that he does not understand peace. Madero wonders how a man can stay honest under the pressure of peace. A woman is turning in three rifles because her husband and two sons were killed. Madero gives her his watch, but she says it is too valuable. Aguirre tells Emiliano to ask Madero what it is. Emiliano asks who posted scouts, and Aguirre says he did. Emiliano orders the trumpeter to sound the alarm. The men get ready to fight the troops who are coming. Madero says he will go to stop them. Pablo says they must trust Madero because only he can bring them peace. Emiliano says no and orders them to send out the snipers. Eufemio arrives with an extra horse, and Emiliano rides off with him in front of the men. Madero and Pablo watch them go and discuss whether Huerta misunderstood him.
In the country soldiers on horses are searching. Eufemio and two others attack one and kill him. Eufemio puts on his hat, gets on his horse, and waves to another soldier to come that way. Soldiers on horses cross a river to follow him. Emiliano watches with field glasses.
In his office Madero hears thunder. A soldier comes in, and Madero asks if he saw Huerta and asks why he is a prisoner there. The soldier tells him that Huerta loves him and is keeping him safe there. The soldier says he is taking him to him now. Madero is glad and gets ready to go. He says it will be all right.
Huerta is sitting in an automobile and asks what is keeping them. They see another car arrive, and it stops. A soldier asks Madero to get out, and he does so and asks where Huerta is. Madero starts to run and sees soldiers. He turns around and says what they do is wrong. A siren prevents him from being heard, and the soldiers shoot him. Huerta says he is late, and his car leaves.
In a field Eufemio is questioning a peasant and says he saw them, and they were ambushed. Emiliano says they planned a surprise; but Huerta was waiting, and they lost 244 farmers. He says this is why they need hard discipline. He orders him shot. A man says some men want to come over to them. Emiliano says it is easy for them to come over now that they are winning. Emiliano breaks a jug and tells Aguirre he needs to get some sleep. Aguirre asks if he is putting it off.
In a room Emiliano and Aguirre question Pablo who says that Huerta killed Madero who was a good man who wanted to build houses and plant fields. He says they need to build and plant while they destroy. Aguirre says he deserted their cause. Pablo says their cause was land and liberty, not a word, and peace, not a dream. He asks if a good thing can come from a bad act. Can peace come from killing? Can kindness come from so much violence? Can a man who fights with hatred lead to peace and govern in peace? He asks Emiliano if he thought about it and if he knows. Emiliano pushes him away. Aguirre says the enemy surprised them. Emiliano says Pablo knew his order against consorting with the enemy, and Pablo admits that he ignored it. Aguirre offers to call the squad. Pablo tells Emiliano to do it himself.
Aguirre walks outside and tosses a knife to a woman. A man arrives with a message for Emiliano. Aguirre says he is busy. They hear a shot, and Aguirre says the general will see him now.
Josefa is told by her father that Emiliano could take half the state and that people would respect him for it. Emiliano comes in and embraces Josefa. She asks how he got through the lines. Emiliano says Huerta is defeated. Villa is in Mexico City, and he will see him there. She asks if he is sick, but he says he is tired. She says something is wrong, but he says they won and lies down to sleep.
Emiliano enters the large palace room, and Huerta’s portrait is taken down. Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) comes in and has Emiliano sit down next to him for a photo.
In the country Emiliano and Villa are lying by a tree. Villa says he is going home. He says someone took a shot at him this morning. He says he has been fighting too long and that it does not work. He says he only trusts one man. He asks if Emiliano can read, and he says he can. Villa appoints him President because there is no one else.
Emiliano is sitting behind his desk as a man reads a report. Emiliano says he is a general, not the President. Peasants from Morelos come in with a petition, and Emiliano says he knows them. He asks what he can do for them. They are silent. They tell him they have a complaint against his brother who took their land and killed a man who would not leave. Emiliano asks if it is true and says he will look into it when he has time. A peasant says they do not have time. Emiliano says he fought for them, and he is one of them. The peasant says he should know that the land can’t wait. Emiliano asks his name and circles it on the list, remembering. He scratches it out and goes to his desk. He tells Aguirre that he is going home. Aguirre says they will hunt him down. Aguirre begs him not to go in the name of all they fought for. Emiliano says he must go. He says Aguirre only destroys, and he will go to Obregon or Carranza; he will never change. Emiliano leaves.
Emiliano and peasants find Eufemio drinking in his home with a woman. Emiliano asks if he took their land. Eufemio admits he did and that he took their wives too. He says he is a general and complains how little pay he got. He says he has to beg pennies, but he is a general and takes what he wants. He warns him not to try to stop him. He leaves the room with the woman. Emiliano sits down, and the peasants sit by him. He says this land is theirs, but they must protect it. If they don’t, they will lose it. If their house is burned, build it again. He tells them to live and not look for leaders because they change and desert and die. A strong people is the only lasting strength. Eufemio returns with a pistol, and Emiliano shoots him dead. A peasant says they will bury him as a general. Emiliano says no; he did not die in battle. He will take him home with him. Emiliano puts his brother’s hand on his face as he cries.
The President orders his men to wipe out Zapata and his men. A soldier says they cannot find anyone to kill. He says they are not afraid of anything. An officer says ideas are harder to kill than snakes. Aguirre says if they kill Zapata, their problem will be solved.
Emiliano is living in a small house in the country, and peasant soldiers bring a report to him. Emiliano says in a year they will be ready for anything. He asks what proof was given of their good faith. A peasant tells him what the man did. Emiliano says he will think of more proofs and tells them to be ready to ride. They ride off. Josefa comes out and asks Emiliano what is wrong. He says nothing. She is glad to have her husband alone but feels he will soon be dead. He says he is trying to make a plan. She walks away. He follows and says they are getting all the ammunition they need. She says soon someone will come and tell her that he is dead. That is all that is left to her. He says a federal colonel is giving it to them. She warns it is a trick and asks if he wants to die. She cries, and he says he will make up his mind. He must do what is needed. He says it will be all right.
Emiliano is lying down outside playing with puppies and talks with Josefa. She says he has made up his mind. She asks what will become of these people if something happens to him. She asks what has really changed. He says they have changed, and that his how things change. They no longer need him because strong people do not need a strong man. Peasants on horses arrive, and a man tells him that the garrison is destroyed and that the supplies are stacked and waiting. Emiliano joins them and asks what they think. One man says he passed every test. Emiliano says they will leave tonight. He asks Chamaco what if something happens to him. He says they will get along and know how to survive. Emiliano touches Josefa and gets on his horse. He looks back at her, and she screams and runs after him. He rides away, and she collapses.
Along a road lined with cannons and guns Emiliano arrives on his horse. He enters the fort, and his men file in behind him. He sees his white horse, and the officer who welcomed him says he is his. He walks to the horse and touches his head. The officer backs away slowly. The horse makes a frightened sound. The officer pulls out his sword and ducks for cover. Soldiers lined up on the walls all shoot at Emiliano, killing him. Women begin to pray. Aguirre says the horse got away and that the people are superstitious. An old officer says the tiger is dead. Aguirre says that is the end of it, but the old man says a dead man can be a terrible enemy. Aguirre orders his body exposed in the plaza so that they can all see that he is dead.
Soldiers ride into town, and one dumps the body in the plaza. Women run to it, and some bring flowers. The women take care of the body. A man examines the body and tells others it could be anybody. He says they could not kill him. They ask where he is, and he says he is in the mountains and will be back if they ever need him again. The white horse is on a mountain.
This historical biography portrays a man who knew how to fight for justice with weapons but found they were not able to build the peace.