The film focuses on the conflict between Maximilian I (Brian Aherne), a European political dupe who is installed as the puppet ruler of Mexico by the French Napoleon III (Claude Rains), and Benito Juárez (Paul Muni), the country's president.
In 1863, Napoleon III of France, fearful he will lose Mexico to Juárez, circumvents the Monroe Doctrine by instituting sovereign rule and controlling an election that places Maximilian von Habsburg on the Mexican throne.
Upon his arrival in the country with his wife Carlota (Bette Davis), Maxmilian realizes he is expected to establish French supremacy by confiscating land that Juárez had returned to the native people and penalizing the rebels under his command. Maximilian decides to abdicate his throne but is deterred from doing so by Carlotta.
Maximillian offers Juárez the position of prime minister, but Juárez's refusal to compromise democratic self-rule for the Mexican people creates an unbridgeable rift between the two. When the American Civil War comes to an end, the United States warns Napoleon that it intends to enforce the Monroe Doctrine by military force if necessary, sending arms in support of Juárez's army. Their efforts are thwarted by Vice-President Alejandro Uradi (Joseph Calleia), who seizes the American ammunition and therefore virtually guarantees victory for Maximilian. However, Napoleon orders all French troops to evacuate Mexico, leaving Maximilian without an army.
Angered by this move, Carlota returns to Paris to appeal to Napoleon, but she suffers a mental breakdown. Juárez and his rebels capture Maxmillian and his men. Although arrangements to set him free are made, he insists on remaining with his supporters. Tried and found guilty, they are sentenced to death by firing squad.Paul Muni as Benito Juárez
Bette Davis as Carlota of Mexico
Brian Aherne as Maximilian I of Mexico
John Garfield as Porfirio Diaz
Claude Rains as Napoléon III
Donald Crisp as General Marechal Achille Bazaine
Joseph Calleia as Alejandro Uradi
Gale Sondergaard as Empress Eugénie
Gilbert Roland as Colonel Miguel Lopez
Henry O'Neill as General Miguel Miramon
Harry Davenport as Dr. Samuel Basch
Louis Calhern as Le Marc
Walter Kingsford as Prince von Metternich
Irving Pichel as Gen. Carbajal
Montagu Love as Jose de Montares
Mickey Kuhn as Agustín de Iturbide y Green
As early as 1935, producer Hal B. Wallis had proposed a film about Maximilian and Juárez to director Max Reinhardt. At the time he was interested in casting Luther Adler as the Mexican president. In 1937, Wallis and Jack L. Warner, in an effort to dissuade any other studios from embarking upon a similar project, purchased the screen rights to both the novel The Phantom Crown by Bertita Harding and the play Juarez and Maximilian by Franz Werfel, and on September 30 Aeneas MacKenzie began writing a first draft under associate producer Henry Blanke's supervision. According to Blanke, "Our problem from the outset in preparing this story for the screen was by no means one of glossing over facts, but rather one of cleaving to the exact line." To ensure the film was as accurate as possible, Warners head of research Herman Lissauer acquired three hundred books on the subject, and two historians were hired to help with changes to the script. Because Wallis had decided to cast Paul Muni, then one of the studio's most prestigious contract players, as Juárez, MacKenzie was instructed to make the role the most dominant in the film. His initial script was long enough for two films, and John Huston and Wolfgang Reinhardt were called in to help trim it. Abem Finkel, who had contributed to the screenplays for Marked Woman and Jezebel, worked on the dialogue but received no screen credit for his efforts.
In August 1938, Wallis, Blanke, director William Dieterle, and Muni traveled to Mexico, stopping in fifteen small towns before visiting the National Museum in Mexico City, where Juárez's personal papers were housed. They also managed to find a 116-year-old man who had fought with Juárez and Porfirio Diaz, and Muni questioned him about the president's mannerisms and speech patterns at length. He worked with makeup artist Perc Westmore to transform his face to resemble Juárez by changing his bone structure and skin tone, a process that took three hours each day. Despite the fact the actor closely resembled his character, studio head Jack L. Warner was unhappy with the results and complained, "You mean we're paying Muni all this dough and we can't even recognize him?"
On October 12, 1938, Bette Davis was offered the role of Carlota while in the midst of filming Dark Victory. Although the part was small, she welcomed the opportunity to portray an historical figure, especially one who would go mad during a dramatic confrontation with Napoléon III. She was asked to submit to makeup tests by Perc Westmore and costume fittings by Orry-Kelly but refused to do so while still working on another character. She reported to the set on December 13, two weeks after principal photography had begun and one week after her divorce from husband Harmon Nelson had been granted, but announced she was unprepared to film her first scene and went home. Filming was suspended for several days, and when Davis returned to the studio she was fretful and distracted. By Christmas she was close to a nervous breakdown. Soon after the holiday, she was diagnosed with a severe case of pleurisy, and as a result she frequently remained in bed until 3:00pm, finally reporting to work in the late afternoon with a high temperature. Filming of the scene in which Carlota confronts Napoléon III was postponed for two days until she felt well enough to attempt it.
John Garfield was cast as Porfirio Diaz at the request of Paul Muni, who was familiar with his stage work in New York City. Garfield was relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time, but by the time filming began he had received critical acclaim for his performance in Four Daughters. Studio executives questioned his playing a relatively minor role in Juarez, but the actor was anxious to appear in it, so he remained in the cast, his box office appeal managing to win out over his heavy Bronx accent. Garfield's reviews were uniformly bad, and Diaz proved to be the only period role he played in his career.
The epic film boasted 1,186 supporting players performing on fifty-four sets designed by art director Anton Grot and his assistant Leo Kuter. The largest was an eleven-acre replica of Mexico constructed on a ranch in Calabasas. Behind the throne room and living quarters of Maximilian was a 250-foot-long and 50-foot-high backdrop of Mexico City, with Popocatépetl in the distance.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold researched the music popular in Mexico during the period and discovered it was "unmistakenly Viennese." He composed 3,000 bars of music for the score, at times emulating the rhythms of Frédéric Chopin and Franz Schubert, and the second theme of the first movement of his Violin Concerto was drawn from his work for the film.
Audience reaction to the first preview was so negative the film was recut, with entire scenes transposed. A new ending designed to soften Muni's portrayal of Juárez was filmed, although the scene - in which Juárez visits the cathedral where Maximilian is lying in state and asks for his forgiveness - has no basis in fact.
The film opened in New York City on April 24, 1939 and went into general release on June 4.
Upon its initial release, Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times observed, "Ideologically the new Warner film is faultless. What it has to say about the conflict between imperialist, benevolent despot and democrat has been expressed logically and eloquently, with reasonable fidelity to historic fact . . . But approval of a film's purpose and message cannot blind one altogether to some of the weaknesses of its structure. Juarez has not been smoothly assembled. Its central character has been thrown out of focus by a lesser one. Too much and too little attention has been paid to the subordinate people in the drama. William Dieterle, who ordinarily directs so well, has been guilty in this instance of a surprisingly static camera, of stage technique rather than cinematic. The picture runs for something more than two hours, which should have been enough to balance its budget and its plot. Yet it is out of balance, in character and in narrative. Possibly the fault is in its editing, although that would not explain it all." He continued, "The picture seems one long dissolve from council chamber to council chamber, broken rather pointlessly by a pompous ceremony of royal adoption . . . and dramatically by Carlota's mad scene and Juarez's bold outfacing of a traitor. In the last mentioned two, the picture enters brilliantly into the true medium of cinema expression, blends imagery with eloquence and vitalizes its screen. But the very vividness of these sequences accentuates the staticism of many of the others — a pictorial staticism, we hasten to add, for the quality of the writing is splendid, the measure of the performance high, the concept admirable." He concluded, "Juarez, with all its faults, still must be rated a distinguished, memorable and socially valuable film."
In later years, Time Out London stated, "Only Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard have any fire in this otherwise plodding Warner Bros costume drama," while Channel 4 noted, "Despite the frills, there is very little substance in this overcooked adventure."
Brian Aherne was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach. Tony Gaudio was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography but lost to Gregg Toland for Wuthering Heights.