Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’: A Vastly Underrated Magical Comedy

March 27, 2020 Updated: April 8, 2020

R | | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy | 18 March 1988 (USA)

In this time of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus, we need some uplifting-ness! Something magical, with mirth and miracles. And so in this episode of Popcorn and Inspiration, I give you 1988’s comedy “The Milagro Beanfield War,” about a jack-of-all-trades named Joe, who’s mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore, and steals government water to irrigate his dad’s old beanfield. A most magical pandemonium ensues!

It’s a whimsical, rustic, Americana fable about an outback, dirt roads, sage and scrub-brush, New Mexico-Chicano community with red rocks and snowcapped mountains ringed round, that’s got roots in the realistic and its heart in the mystical.

It is, IMHO, Robert Redford’s best directorial work, or at least neck and neck with “A River Runs Through It.” If you missed it all these years, now’s the time to Netflix it and have yourself a happy time.

Joe Starts a Revolution

Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera), in his own words, can run a backhoe, lay pipe, and is a good finish-carpenter. But the local jobsite that’s fixing to build a big, sprawling golf course smack dab in the middle of the quaint, sleepy, Chicano hamlet of Milagro in northern New Mexico is not hiring.

Joe’s mad as hell! Driving home in his 1948 Chevy pickup truck, he stops at the site of his dad’s old, barren, parched beanfield.

Joe’s wrath at his helplessness (and encroaching poverty) leads him to take a running drop kick at the rusted sluice gate on the land-development-owned irrigation ditch, which runs along the elevated crest. As water trickles down into the beanfield of his forefathers, Joe has the following conversation with 90-something Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme), the oldest man in Milagro, whose adobe hovel abuts the field:

old man and pig in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme) and Lupita the pig, in Universal Pictures’ comedy “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

Amarante: Jose, I was just talking to your father the other day, and he told me he’s going to have the squash all near the house, and the corn over near the chicken coop …
Joe: Amarante, my father died six years ago!
Amarante: Yes. I know …

Joe considers shutting the water off but then decides that maybe he’ll sleep on it. Arriving home, Joe’s pretty wife Nancy (Julie Carmen) is already furious—word travels like lightning in small towns!

Chicano gathering in New Mexico in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Julie Carmen (C) in Universal Pictures’ comedy “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

Now, it just so happens I copied out their following argument to rehearse in acting class, years ago. Still had it on the computer:

Joe: (Enters front door) How come you kids are watching TV? Get out! We never watched TV when I was a kid.
Nancy: That’s because you never had a TV.
Joe: What do you say? … You wanna take a nap?
Nancy: (Glares at him. Phone rings)
Joe: Aren’t you going to answer that?
Nancy: I don’t need to.
Joe: You … know already?
Nancy: Everybody knows already. I heard it from Stella Arnico, and Betty Aporata, and Lucy Hernandez, and Gloria Martinez, and everybody else who has telephone!

man with red and woman in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Julie Carmen and Chick Vennera play Nancy and Joe Mondragon in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Rural Americana Versus Urban Sprawl

“Milagro” describes the dilemma of any number of regional cultures, heritages, customs, and mom-and-pop businesses across small-town USA threatened with insidious, creeping death by urban sprawl.

But while some have criticized the film for being wishy-washy and Capra-esque, Redford does an excellent job of showing the complexity involved in such situations: Certain townspeople back Mondragon’s rebellion, some are terrified by it, and some do the three monkey thing: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

a church gathering in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
A church meeting with “The Senile Brigade” in the front row, in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Ruby Archuleta (Sônia Braga), the firecracker owner of the local auto-body shop, has the requisite activist passion to stand up to the land developers. As she says, ”I always knew Joe Mondragon couldn’t go through life without attempting one great thing.”

two women talking in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Julie Carmen (L) and Sônia Braga in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

A good-sized slice of the film’s fun involves her using an arsenal of tactics, including feminine wiles, withering criticism, major guilt-tripping, and general nosiness to badger local newspaper editor and erstwhile progressive lawyer Charlie Bloom (John Heard).

a man and woman talking in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Sônia Braga and John Heard in the comedy “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Bloom’s a former 1960s East Coast hippie radical, who became disillusioned and trekked west to get away from it all. He’s reluctant to weigh in. Ruby thinks Bloom should run an article in the paper backing Joe’s beanfield revolt. Bloom knows that the Miracle Valley development will bring higher taxes and force the Milagro Chicanos to migrate north, seeking work.

Meanwhile, Ladd Devine (Richard Bradford), owner of the development company, who’s already bought off most of Milagro’s inhabitants to clear the way for his “Miracle Valley Recreation Area,” wants to smash Joe’s beanfield and cut off the water supply. He hires union-busting state police agent Kyril Montana (Christopher Walken) for intimidation purposes.

man with cowboy hat and woman with short hair in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Richard Bradford and Melanie Griffith in the comedy “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Joe’s cousin, the town sheriff (Rubén Blades), is caught in the middle trying to assuage the outrage felt on both sides. He has a sleepy, soothing, unruffled, smarter-than-he-looks ability to keep the powder keg from igniting.

mayor and sheriff talking in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Freddie Fender (L) and Rubén Blades in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Other colorful characters include Herbie Platt (Daniel Stern), a New York University sociology student who comes to study the locals. At first he’s skeptical and scientific regarding the local mixture of Spanish Catholicism and Native-American paganism, with their candle-laden shrines and offerings of tamales and beer to various saints, but after awhile he grows some faith and comes around to their way of thinking.

His best scene is when he’s offered a cup of lizard-tail tea by Amarante, whose adjacent hut he’s more or less couch-surfing on. Highly suspicious of the taste and attempting to make polite small talk, he says, “Oh wow, this must have been in your family for generations.”

Amarante: “No, I found it on the highway this morning.”

Realistic Versus Mystic

Redford does a fabulous job of juxtaposing the modern, cutthroat land developers with the rural culture that’s populated with hilarious characters, such as the wizened “vieja loca” (crazy old lady) who hides in the town square and throws pebbles at people.

director and camera in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Director Robert Redford at work on the set of “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Probably stemming from his “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Jeremiah Johnson” days, Redford obviously loves the northern New Mexico Spanish-Native-American-Mexican culture. He also loves actors, being one himself, and you can feel the infectious sense of fun throughout.

A little-known fact about Redford is that he trained as a painter before becoming a movie star, and his vision for this film is downright painterly. In fact, if you’ve ever seen the work of Southwest painters Ed Sandoval and Tracy Turner Sheppherd, “Milagro” is like a number of their paintings come to life, especially the old man with the walking stick (that’s Amarante Cordova exactly) who wanders through almost every one of Sandoval’s breathtaking landscapes. Like the best paintings, you want to step inside their magic.

old man and a pig in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Lupita the pig and Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme) in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

The most enchanting character of all is Coyote Angel (Robert Carricart), an ancient, kindly, slightly irreverent, very funny, minor Mexican deity, who does a loping dance around the town at dusk and dawn, causing mischief by stirring up dust devils, playing his accordion, and dispensing elder advice to those who are clairaudient enough to hear him. Amarante can see and hear him loud and clear, and they bicker like crotchety old men-friends. Ruby can only hear his accordion. Charlie Bloom can’t hear him at all.

woman talks to man leaning against truck in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
Sônia Braga and John Heard in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

Various and sundry magical and idyllic moments are captured by cinematographer Robbie Greenberg: for example, Coyote Angel sitting in an antediluvian rusted-out Ford deuce coup, with his giant sombrero, chatting with Amarante. Later on, we see the NYU sociology student and old man Cordova playing chess in a field, with Lupita the pig dozing, and the snowcapped mountains framing them. Such moments abound.

A Tribute

“The Milagro Beanfield War” captures the coziness of the inherent naiveté of the liberal 1960s sentiment of power to the people. It captures the rustic atmosphere of a New Mexico culture that’s fading into memory. It’s hilarious, haunting, incredibly warm, laden with atmosphere, but also wistful in that the film seems to bow to the inevitable: that the golf resort will eventually manifest and will most likely assuage the pain of traditional culture loss by handing out gain in the form of service-industry employment possibilities.

The film is a tribute to a rich but fading culture, but it also leaves one with a slight ache, knowing that soon nobody will be able to hear the wisdom of the Coyote Angel.

a man dances in silohuette in 'The Milagro Beanfield War'
The Coyote Angel in “The Milagro Beanfield War.” (Universal Pictures)

‘The Milagro Beanfield War’
Director: Robert Redford
Starring: Chick Vennera, Julie Carmen, Sônia Braga, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Robert Carricart, Daniel Stern, Rubén Blades, Richard Bradford, Christopher Walken, Melanie Griffith
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Release Date: March 18, 1988
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch