The Milagro Beanfield War

The Milagro Beanfield War
The Milagro Beanfield War

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Redford
Produced by Moctesuma Esparza
Gary Hendler
Charles Mulvehill
Robert Redford
Written by John Nichols
David S. Ward
Starring Rubén Blades
Richard Bradford
Sônia Braga
Julie Carmen
James Gammon
Melanie Griffith
John Heard
Carlos Riquelme
Daniel Stern
Chick Vennera
Christopher Walken
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography Robbie Greenberg
Editing by Dede Allen
Jim Miller
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) March 18, 1988 (1988-03-18)
Running time 117 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $13,825,794

The Milagro Beanfield War is a 1988 American drama film based on the John Nichols novel of the same name, the first book in a trilogy. It was directed by Robert Redford and the screenplay was written by Nichols and David S. Ward. The ensemble cast includes Ruben Blades, Sônia Braga, Julie Carmen, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Daniel Stern, Chick Vennera, and Christopher Walken.

Filmed on location in Truchas, New Mexico, the film is set in the fictional rural town of Milagro, with a population of 426, a predominantly Hispanic and Catholic town, with a largely interrelated population.

The film tells of one man's quixotic struggle as he defends his small beanfield and his community against much larger business and state political interests.



Nearly 500 residents of an agricultural community in the mountains of northern New Mexico face a crisis almost without a stir, until a young, unemployed handy man with a family of four begins to irrigate his father's parched bean field.

State politics and big business interests have agreed in a backroom deal to usurp the lifeblood of the town (water for crops) in order to pave the way for a land buy-out that threatens the way of life of the residents who live in Milagro, and whose families established the town over 300 years ago. Due to the new laws that divert water for use by big businesses only, Joe Mondragon is unable to make a living farming. In a reflection of actual western United States water laws, Mondragon is not allowed to divert water from an irrigation ditch that runs past his property as that water is for property owners with priority.

Frustrated, and unable to find work, Joe visits his father's field. He happens upon a tag that reads "prohibited" covering a valve that diverts water from his fields. He kicks the valve, unknowingly breaking it and letting water flood his fields. He decides to "sleep on it" before repairing the valve.

The rest of the story is an escalation of events between power interests on all sides. It is a story of the struggle between different perspectives, most have their own idea of what is best for Milagro, and all consist of various levels of selfishness.

At the heart, this is a war of competing values and competing definitions of what makes a community rich.




The major theme of the story is the threat of big business interests to a small community. The central character, Joe Mondragon, is tempted with offers of good paying work if he plows under his beanfield.

Activist Ruby Archuletta (Sônia Braga) lays out the calculus of big business takeovers: if we sell out jobs and development happens, land values will rise, but so will taxes, and soon the older community will dry up because the residents will be unable to pay the higher taxes, and as a consequence have to splinter off.

Another theme running throughout the story is sacrifice. The community, caught in the logic of business, has all but given up; many have sold their land already by the start of the story, except one holdout—Joe Mondragon. As the escalation of events brings Joe Mondragon and Amarante Cordova, the oldest member of Milagro, to a precarious gun battle, Amarante is shot and the outsider interests seize the moment to arrest Joe on attempted murder charges.

The movie highlights the theme of the diminishing ideal of community in a world where simple communities are rendered nonviable by the expansion of business interests.

According to an article by Patricia Rodriguez in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Robert Redford was interested in filming part of the Milagro Beanfield War in the Plaza del Cerro of Chimayo, New Mexico, which is argued to be the last surviving fortified Spanish plaza in North America. Some locals responded favorably but many objected to the idea of big business changing the small community which forced Redford to film the movie in Truchas, New Mexico.

Writer John Nichols in his essay, Night of the Living Beanfield: How an Unsuccessful Cult Novel Became an Unsuccessful Cult Film in Only Fourteen Years, Eleven Nervous Breakdowns, and $20 Million, gives a blow-by-blow account of the film project as he saw it.[1]

Magical realism

In addition, film critic Richard Scheib believes The Milagro Beanfield War is "one of the first American films to fall into the Latin American tradition of magical realism. This is a genre that usually involves an earthily naturalistic, often highly romanticized, blend of the supernatural and whimsical."[2] The magic mainly revolves around the character of Amarante Cordova who talks to his dead friend and asks the spirit world for help.


Critical response

The film received mixed reviews from critics. Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, believes the film missed its mark, and wrote, "The screenplay, by David Ward and John Nichols, based on Mr. Nichols's novel, is jammed with underdeveloped, would-be colorful characters, including a philosophical Chicano angel, who face a succession of fearful confrontations with the law that come to nothing. The narrative is a veritable fiesta of anticlimaxes, from the time the sun sets at the beginning of the film until it sets, yet again, behind the closing credits."[3]

Roger Ebert also gave the film a mixed review and had problems with the film's context, writing, "The result is a wonderful fable, but the problem is, some of the people in the story know it's a fable and others do not. This causes an uncertainty that runs all through the film, making it hard to weigh some scenes against others. There are characters who seem to belong in an angry documentary - like Devine, who wants to turn Milagro into a plush New Mexico resort town. And then there are characters who seem to come from a more fanciful time, like Mondragon, whose original rebellion is more impulsive than studied."[4]

Yet, critic Richard Scheib liked the film's direction and the characters portrayed. He wrote. "Redford arrays a colorfully earthy ensemble of characters. The plot falls into place with lazy, deceptive ease. Redford places it up against a gently barbed level of social commentary, although this is something that comes surprisingly light-heartedly. There’s an enchantment to the film – at times it is a more successful version of the folklore fable that Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow (1968) tried to be but failed."[5]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 59% of critics gave the film a positive rating, based on twenty-seven reviews.[6]

The film was screened out of competition at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.[7]


  • Academy Awards: Oscar; Best Music, Original Score, Dave Grusin; 1989.
  • Political Film Society: PFS Award; Democracy; 1989.
  • Golden Globes: Golden Globe; Best Original Score - Motion Picture, Dave Grusin; 1989.
  • Political Film Society: PFS Award; Exposé; 1989.


Veteran jazz pianist and composer Dave Grusin contributed the film's original music. A formal soundtrack album has never been released, although tracks from the score were included as a bonus suite on Grusin's 1989 album, "Migration."


  1. ^ Nichols, John. Dancing on the Stones: Selected Essays, University of New Mexico Press, 2000, pages 133-153, trade paperback, 248 pages. ISBN 0826321836.
  2. ^ Scheib, Richard. Scheib's film review archived at The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent. The New York Times, film review, March 18, 1988.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, April 1, 1988. Last accessed: January 24, 2008.
  5. ^ Scheib, Richard, ibid.
  6. ^ The Milagro Beanfield War at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: November 28, 2009.
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Milagro Beanfield War". Retrieved 2009-07-31. 

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