These were, respectively, his wrestling debut as “El Santo,” the date of the first issue of the comic book bearing his name and image, and the month when his first movies went into production. Each of these was a crucial step in his path towards immortality as both a Mexican national icon, and as an international cult figure.
In 1934, the 17-year-old Guzmán parlayed his athletic prowess into a career as a luchador in the nascent Mexican wrestling industry. But after 7 years of journeyman labor under a variety of personas (including “Rudy” Guzmán and El Hombre Rojo), he had achieved neither fame nor fortune. In early 1942, offered a choice of 3 new names by a lucha impresario, Guzmán chose “El Santo,” an identity he’d retain for the rest of his life.
In 1952, Guzmán – now one of the top wrestlers in Mexico – faced two more important decisions. The first was to license his ring persona to publisher José G. Cruz for a comic book, which began publication that September. Cruz used the fotomontaje format, combining photographic images with drawn artwork, to create superhero “El Santo,” whose outré adventures were soon selling nearly 900,000 copies each month in Mexico and Latin America.
Wrestling had just debuted on Mexican television, and the additional exposure gave the formerly niche sport a much wider audience. The film industry took notice: four feature films about luchadores were made in 1952 alone. One of these was El Enmascarado de Plata, loosely based on Cruz’s new comic book. Produced as a multi-chapter serial, it was only shown this way in U.S. cinemas, while in Mexico it was exhibited as two long-ish features.
However, Guzmán turned down the opportunity to star in the movie, telling sports magazine Punch, “it did not suit my economic interests” to appear, although it “pained me to not do it.” The hero’s role went instead to another masked wrestler, El Médico Asesino; a secondary villain character named “El Enmascarado de Plata” was hurriedly written into the script to justify the film’s title.
As it developed, the wrestling-film genre failed to take off at that time, justifying Guzmán’s dubious attitude. While over the next few years masked heroes did appear in Mexican cinema, the true lucha libre films – featuring actual wrestlers using their real-life ring identities rather than playing “fictional” characters — were yet to be made. However, in 1958 Guzmán received another offer to appear in motion pictures, and this time he accepted. His ring stardom and his comic book success had made him famous in certain circles, but appearing in films would change Guzmán’s life – and Mexican popular culture — forever.
According to actor Joaquín Cordero, El Santo was considering retiring from the ring – it had been, after all, nearly 25 years since his debut – and thought appearing in films might be a lucrative alternative (as it developed, Rodolfo Guzmán wouldn’t retire from wrestling until 1982, and then only reluctantly, after suffering two heart attacks in the ring!). Sometime in late November or early December 1958, El Santo, fellow wrestlers Fernando Osés and Mario Texas, Cordero, director Joselito Rodríguez (who’d directed the masked-wrestler film Huracán Ramírez in 1952), and producer-actor Enrique Zambrano flew to Cuba to make two movies with El Santo.
Cerebro del mal and Contrabando blanco (later Hombres infernales) were shot back-to-back in Havana’s Biltmore Studios and on location, with a cast and crew largely drawn from the small Cuban motion picture industry. Filming took a relatively short period of time: El Santo was back wrestling in Mexico by 21 December, just missing the arrival of Fidel Castro in the Cuban capital on 8 January 1959.
Santo’s first two films occupy a space between the early lucha films of 1952 and the classic lucha pictures of the 1960s featuring Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras, etc. Aside from El Enmascarado de Plata, the 1952 pictures were “regular” movies (a comedy, a sports drama, a crime film) which just happened to focus on professional wrestling. Santo’s Cuban films dispense with the lucha milieu: Santo (and, in the first movie, Fernando Osés as “El Incógnito,” coincidentally one of Rodolfo Guzmán’s pre-Santo ring monikers) are masked heroes fighting crime, period.
Santo is never called “Santo” in Cerebro del mal or Hombres infernales. His character has practically no dialogue, and is not identified as a professional wrestler. Cast as an agent of the police who battles a mad doctor and drug smugglers, he’s employed mostly in action scenes utilizing his wrestling talents. It wouldn’t be until his first Mexican-made film (Santo contra los zombies, 1961) that the Santo mythos began to form, depicting him as a real-life, famous professional wrestler who’s also a noted crime-fighter. As time went by, the filmic Santo became a more well-rounded character with a secret laboratory, various girlfriends, a sidekick, a sense of humour, etc. His films would also become increasingly more fantasy-oriented, pitting him not only against criminals, but also against vampires, witches, aliens, and so on. He starred in 50 feature films between 1958 and 1981.
Santo’s film career eventually made him a major celebrity in his homeland, in Latin America, and around the world, and his iconic image is still instantly recognizable nearly 40 years after his death.
However, it all started with his Cuban films. Had Guzmán demurred a second time, history would have been different, and who’d want to contemplate a world without Santo movies?
Dr. David Wilt is a film historian & lecturer. He has written and contributed to numerous books on popular culture including Hard Boiled in Hollywood, The Mexican Filmography: 1916-2001, Mondo Macabro, and The Ten Cent War. He created “The Films of El Santo” website in December 1996 (davewiltfilms.net).