Directed by Herbert Kline and narrated by Burgess Meredith, “The Forgotten Village” was Steinbeck’s first direct engagement with the art of film. The project was born out of Steinbeck’s desire to break away from Hollywood productions and produce an authentic portrait of Mexican culture. Featuring the real inhabitants of a rural hamlet in the mountains of Santiago in Mexico, this ethnographic cross between a documentary and a fictional film deals with the basic conflict between the deep-rooted indigenous culture and the sweeping tide of modernization. At stake are the lives of several of the village children, who quickly become the victims of a typhoid epidemic. Both the curandera and the village schoolteacher fight to bring the children back from the brink of death, and the villagers are forced to choose a side in a conflict that is larger than themselves. It is a dramatization of a clash that is familiar to cultures throughout the world, and there is a quality of undeniable realism that manifests itself as protagonist Juan Diego teeters between the beliefs and customs of two different worlds.
Steinbeck did not write the script for the movie ahead of time. Rather, he arrived at the filming location and let the story unfold through his interactions with the villagers. Biographer Jackson Benson noted that Steinbeck’s previous experiences with the needless destitution of the migrant camps shaped his portrayal of life in the impoverished village – a community that truly seemed to have been left behind by the developed world.
Despite Steinbeck’s sensitivity to their suffering, the public response to the film was largely negative. It was called “indecent” by the New York State Board of Censors, who banned the movie for its controversial childbirth scene. Steinbeck answered with outrage. He was frustrated that his snapshot of humanity was so quickly dehumanized by audiences. It was later released for general viewing and was better-received by critics, but it will always be a film that elicits a variety of reactions from viewers.
Decide for yourself!