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A Cinematic Emergency: Hollywood’s History of Movies About the Mexican Border

Each new picture in this strangely persistent cinematic sub-genre asks one big, loaded question: Which side are you on?

In the movie The Border, Jack Nicholson plays an immigration agent who gets roped into a scheme that involves taking payoffs to look the other way while traffickers truck undocumented laborers into the United States. While he and his partner (played by Harvey Keitel) pretend to have moral standards that draw the line at drug-smuggling and murder, on a near-daily basis they either witness or facilitate human exploitation and cruel family separations.

Did I mention that this movie came out in 1982?

No matter what certain politicians say, any problems we’re having at the United States–Mexico border today aren’t that different from what we’ve dealt with for over a hundred years. Hollywood knows this. Perhaps because of Los Angeles’ proximity to Mexico, movies have told stories about border disputes since nearly the dawn of cinema. The nature of those stories has evolved over time, depending on what public sympathy favors: immigrants searching for the American dream, or law enforcement officers keeping drugs and crime at bay.

Here then is a brief history of films dealing with immigration and border security, from the 1940s to today, tracking how the narratives have changed… and how they haven’t.

1940s–1950s: The Lawless Frontier

Because the dominant American movie genres in the mid–20th century were westerns and film noir, border stories in the ’40s focused on rugged men holding the line against nefarious thugs who are out to take advantage of the desperate. In the 1943 Hopalong Cassidy vehicle Border Patrol, the matinee cowboy investigates an evil mine owner who’s been kidnapping Mexicans. In 1949’s Border Incident, Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy play immigration agents — one Mexican, one American — who team up to break up an operation that’s been treating migrant workers as slaves.

A prestige MGM production, Border Incident has a top-shelf crew, with director Anthony Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and composer André Previn all adding polish to a pulpy story. Illegal Entry, also from 1949, is a grubbier version of a similar premise, with Howard Duff as the smug savior who swoops in to stop labor smugglers. Both films enjoyed cooperation from the government, which provided insider details on a real-life scourge.

The most thematically resonant film from this era though is 1958’s Touch of Evil, written and directed Orson Welles, adapting a Whit Masterson novel. Welles plays corrupt border cop Hank Quinlan. Charlton Heston is Mexican narcotics agent Miquel Vargas. As Vargas investigates the possibility that Quinlan’s been planting evidence in drug cases, he’s also faced with some not-so-subtle sneering over his own interracial marriage. He ultimately discovers that bigotry — and in particular the presumption that Mexicans must be guilty of something — has allowed Quinlan to pursue his frontier justice for years.

1960s–1970s: The Corruption

Although The Border was released in 1982, it has more akin to the American cinema of the 1970s, which turned conventional genre premises into earthy, morally complex character studies. The tagline for The Border — “It divided the land, it divided the man” — speaks to what the movie’s really about. This is partly an exposé of the same kind of human trafficking the ’40s border films decried, but it’s more about how that kind of crime can stain a person’s soul.

The Border is the culmination of two decades’ worth of American movies where “the border” was more abstract symbol than pressing political concern. The revisionist westerns and violent crime pictures of the ’60s and ’70s typically treated the border as a place Americans escape to, not an entry point for something unwanted. Films as varied as The Wild Bunch, The Getaway and Aloha, Bobby and Rose hold Mexico up as a kind of promised land.

Movies about the men protecting the American side of the border, meanwhile, tended to portray them as jaded and authoritarian. Telly Savalas in Border Cop and Charles Bronson in Borderline are like a cross between those old ’40s heroes and Touch of Evil’s Hank Quinlan, setting themselves up like the mini-kingpins of their territory. Both men use their powers to fight the real bad guys, but the presumption is that they needn’t adhere to the letter of the law to do their jobs — because they’re working in a place no one else wants to supervise.

1980s–1990s: The American Dream

In the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years, the nation’s existential threats evolved. Human trafficking, drug-running and organized crime were all still featured on the daily news — and in the weekly movie schedule — but the Mexican border figured less in alarmist nonfiction and fiction stories, as Americans fretted more about Soviet missiles and armed domestic militias.

Instead, movies about Mexican immigration became more like writer-director-star Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A., which expands the comedian’s hit parody song into a surprisingly pointed and personal feature film. While playing a cartoonish version of a Mexican-American citizen accidentally deported to Tijuana, Marin tells a story that honors immigrants’ aspirations, and attacks the cynicism of the coyotes and the border patrol.

Filmmaker Gregory Nava takes a more literary approach to immigration in two of his best films: 1983’s El Norte and 1995’s My Family. In the former, two indigenous Guatemalan teens flee political oppression, traveling to Mexico for a fraught passage across the U.S. border, where they find their life’s still a nightmare. In the latter, multiple generations of one Mexican-American family endure long, dogged fights to settle in Los Angeles, despite harassment from INS agents and the LAPD. Both pictures are squarely on the side of their protagonists, admiring the will to pursue what most would consider reasonable dreams.

John Sayles’ 1996 movie Lone Star is only partly about border crossing; it’s primarily a murder mystery, in which a present-day small-town Texas sheriff looks into who killed a corrupt, racist predecessor. But one of the film’s main theses has to do with how life on the border can get all jumbled up. One of Lone Star’s most notable characters is a Mexican immigrant who’s now an anti-immigration hard-liner, not wanting any newcomers to replicate her success and take what she’s gotten. She’s a living critique of everyone who makes it in America and then rushes to pull up the ladder before anyone else can climb.

2000s: The Fine Line

The 2000s began with one of the most ambitious, thorough, and successful movies ever made about the Mexican-American drug pipeline. In 2000, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan turned a British TV miniseries into the Oscar-winning smash Traffic, which considers how good people on both sides of the border must avoid violence, addiction and bribery if they want to keep crime from ruining the lives of ordinary people.

A year later, America and Hollywood’s focus shifted, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Once again, widespread anxiety about crime at the United States’ southern border was replaced by other fears — namely, terrorist organizations operating cells within the U.S.

With the public’s attention elsewhere, filmmakers with an interest in stories about the border felt free to combine Traffic’s matter-of-fact true-crime qualities with the character-driven approach of the ’70s and ’80s. The plots of director-star Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (both written by Guillermo Arriaga) are partially driven by the American border patrol making life miserable for well-intentioned Mexicans. The edgy 2009 thriller Sin Nombre and the trashy B-movie Machete also consider the contradictions inherent in an America that lures immigrant labor but makes life difficult for those who take the bait.

Perhaps the most prescient (albeit heavy-handed) film about immigration from the first decade of the 2000s is writer-director Wayne Kramer’s Crossing Over, starring Harrison Ford as an ICE agent who becomes acutely aware of how his government’s policies adversely affect people who don’t deserve the hassle. Like Crash, Traffic, and Babel, Crossing Over threads in multiple subplots: about Muslims, gang-members, and sleazy immigration enforcers. The movie’s larger point? That immigration issues go far beyond one invisible line.

2010s: Our Troubled Times

When talking about his demand for a border wall, President Donald Trump has often cited disturbing details about terrorist prayer rugs, unstoppable mega-SUVs and captive women found with duct tape over their mouths. Reputable media outlets have looked for corroborating reports on all these, and come up empty. Movie buffs, though, figured out quickly that these salacious factoids were straight out of 2018’s Sicario sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

Like nearly everything else in public life these days, stories about the border have been politicized. Over the past 10 years, several documentaries and feature films — including 2015’s Sicario — have aimed to tell the hard truth about what’s happening on the southern edge of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Or, more accurately, a version of the truth. In 2008’s Linewatch, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a border patrol agent tackling gangs. In the same year’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol, Jean-Claude Van Damme is plagued by heroin smugglers and suicide-bombers. In the 2015 doc Cartel Land, citizen vigilantes on both sides of the border defy drug lords, even as they deal with dissension and mission creep within their own ranks. The first two films offer over-the-top genre kicks; the third one is more serious and journalistic. All three are essentially dire warnings about the mortal dangers creeping up from the south.

The same could be said of 2015’s Desierto and 2018’s Icebox — except with those two, the warnings are about cruel border patrollers, not violent drug gangs. Director Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto tracks a group of migrant workers, chased through the desert by a self-styled patriot. Icebox, meanwhile, is very of-the-moment, with its tale of an unaccompanied preteen imprisoned in a featureless border facility. In neither film do the Americans come off well.

The issues haven’t changed that much between Border Patrol and Icebox. Filmmakers are still telling stories about the bad dudes who make money off the needy and the authorities who try to stop them… and also about the many, many folks who get caught in the middle.

But the emphasis keeps shifting from era to era and — lately — from movie to movie. Each new picture in this strangely persistent cinematic sub-genre asks one big, loaded question: Which side are you on?