One of the most important and influential figures of the early years of Mexican sound films, director Fernando De Fuentes began his career in the film industry with the job of subtitling foreign movies for a chain of theaters, taking advantage of his knowledge of English. While having studied in the U.S. gave him good job opportunities, he decided to pursue a career in the young Mexican movie industry after the introduction of sound films, and his first job would be as assistant director in Mexico's first successful sound movie: "Santa". A year later, De Fuentes would find himself making his debut as a director with "El Anónimo", a typical melodrama (sadly now lost) that only found moderate success; however, his second movie, "El Prisionero Trece", would be the one that would show the magnitude of his rising talent, marking the beginning of what is now known as his "Revolution trilogy".
In "El Prisionero Trece", Alfredo Del Diestro plays Julián Carrasco, a soldier whose alcoholism has turned into a violent man. Unwilling to keep living this way, his wife Marta (Adela Sequeyro) leaves him and takes their son with her. Years go by, the Revolution starts, and Carrasco is now a Colonel in charge of arresting revolutionaries and spies. One night, his troops manage to arrest 13 members of the revolution, and the governor orders their execution; however, the family of one of them is very rich, and asks Carrasco for his freedom in exchange of a big sum of money. At first he is not convinced of this, but his good friend Zertuche (Luis G. Barreiro) convinces Carrasco to accept the offer. Knowing that the governor demanded thirteen executions, Carrasco orders the release of the thirteenth prisoner and the capture of a look-alike to replace him, but this proves to be a cruel and shocking surprise to the violent Colonel as the man chosen to replace the prisoner 13 is none other than his son Juan (Arturo Campoamor).
The movie was written by Fernando De Fuentes himself, with the collaboration of Miguel Ruiz, although judging by their future works, it's obvious that De Fuentes was the mind behind the script, as it sets some of the themes he would explore later in his next Revolution movies. As in a classic tragedy, the plot unfolds nicely as De Fuentes slowly puts all the elements of the story in their right place. While the movie is essentially a melodrama about sins from the past returning to haunt a character, De Fuentes uses this story to show his ideas about the government's actions during the Mexican Revolution, portraying in a very realist fashion the fears and paranoia of the urban populations in the years of the Revolution, as well as the fragility of morality in extreme circumstances such as a civil war.
Like many of the young Mexican directors of 30s, the greatest influence than De Fuentes received in those years was without a doubt the work of Russian director Sergei M. Eisenstein, who started visiting Mexico in 1930. However, De Fuentes also carried a big influence from the American style of film-making thanks to his work subtitling films, so his personal style developed from the mixture of both schools. The remarkable way De Fuentes uses montage and his fluid camera-work are direct results of those influences, and De Fuentes makes great use of Ross Fisher's (another important figure in early Mexican cinema) cinematography to tell his story. While a master of visual narrative, De Fuentes understood quickly that sound in films meant more than just being able to listen the dialogs, and so he was one of the first Mexican directors to use sound to build up suspense and enhance the atmosphere of the movie.
The cast is really effective, with those on the two main roles delivering excellent performances. In the role of Colonel Julián Carrasco, Chilean actor Alfredo del Diestro demonstrates an amazing talent that extends to more than an excellent domain of the Mexican accent, as his performance is simply breathtaking (he would also appear in De Fuentes' "El Compadre Mendoza", the role of his lifetime). Equally as good is Luis G. Barreiro as Zertuche, perfectly portraying the malicious man who serves as Carrasco's Mephistopheles in this tale. The rest of the cast is very good, with Adela Sequeyro (who later would become a director) being excellent as Carrasco's wife, and Arturo Campoamor delivering a very natural performance as his son Juan. De Fuentes' regular collaborator Antonio R. Frausto appears in a minor, but memorable role as one of the arrested revolutionaries.
One of the most notable aspects of "El Prisionero Trece" (and De Fuentes' Revolution trilogy in general), is the harsh criticism it makes to the war as a whole. While later it became common to portray the Mexican Revolution in an idealized way, De Fuentes movies avoids the romanticism and offers a crude, realistic vision of a country at war. This stance gave problems to De Fuentes as the government wasn't too happy about the movie's premise (as it showed the revolutionaries as willing to offer bribes to corrupt enemy officers in exchange of pardon) and demanded changes done to the epilogue, making it look like a cop out ending. On a different matter, a constant problem with this an other early Mexican films is the fact that due to the low budgets, most of the extras weren't trained actors, making their performances really bad in comparison to the rest of the cast.
As the first movie in the Revolution Trilogy, "El Prisionero Trece" is an excellent film to start discovering the works from the early Mexican cinema. It offers not only the first great work by a legend of film-making, but also an interesting point of view about the Revolution that few dared (and still few dare) to present. Powerful and brutal, "El Prisionero Trece" is definitely a hard film to forget, and it was only the beginning.