What better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo that to look at the most famous luchador enmascarado (Masked Mexican wrestler) of all time, El Santo?
Born as Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta in 1917 and started wrestling sometime in the 1930s. He actually went through several names before he adopted the name we all know and love: Rudy Guzmán, El Hombre Rojo (the Red Man), El Demonio Negro (The Black Demon) and El Murcielago II (The Bat II). But this string of names came to an end in 1942, when his manager convinced him to join a new team of rudos (brawling, tough guy wrestlers, who sometimes act as villains) he was putting together. Rodolfo was offered a choice of three names: El Santo (The Saint), El Diablo (The Devil) or El Angel (The Angel). This team gave him both his name and trademark silver mask, as they were to wear silver costumes. The choice was allegedly due to the popularity of the Saint and the striking image of The Man in the Iron Mask. That July, “El Santo” was introduced to the world. He went on to form a tag team called La Pareja Atómica (The Atomic Pair) with the legendary Gory Guerrero (father of many famous pro wrestlers, including Eddie Guerrero).
The 1950’s were an incredibly important decade for El Santo. In 1952, he battled (and defeated) the Blue Demon and his tag team partner, the Black Shadow (who Santo unmasked). This led to a long-running feud between the saint and the demon, which was carried over in certain degrees when the two made the leap to feature films, with some portraying the two as enemies and others depicting them as partners.
Sometime in the early 50’s (the exact date isn’t known), he worked out El Santo a deal with publisher José G. Cruz that resulted in the creation of a long-running comic book. Instead of being hand-drawn, these comics used staged, live action pictures of El Santo (originally played by the actual luchador and later replaced with other actors). Foreshadowing the films to come, the man in the silver mask battled a variety of criminals and monsters in addition to his wrestling career. In fact, the comics eventually ignored the wrestling aspect entirely in order to show El Santo as a full-time super hero (unlike the films). And although I’ve only seen one of his movies, I’m pretty sure none of them had Santo praying to get help from Virgin Mary like he did in the comics. After he parted company with Cruz due to payment disputes, a bodybuilder was hired to be the new El Santo, complete with a “S” now on the mask. Not only was he billed as the “new…modernized Santo,” but pictures of the new mask (and/or new Santo) were inserted over the original in reprints of older stories!
The massive success of these prompted the film industry to get involved. In 1952, a movie called El Enmascarado de Plata (The Man in the Silver Mask) was made with the intent that El Santo would star in it. However, he opted not to and the film had to feature a villain wearing a silver mask in order to justify the title (as the replacement wrestler wore a white mask).
In 1958, wrestler/actor Fernando Osés convinced Santo to appear in two movies, Cerebro del Mal (Evil Brain) and Hombres Infernales (Infernal Men). However, Santo appeared as a mostly mute, non-wrestling sidekick to the films’ protagonist rather than the wrestling super hero role he was famous for in his other films. The portrayal of El Santo we all know and love made its cinematic debut in 1961’s Santo contra los zombies (Santo vs. the Zombies), which is known as Invasion of the Zombies in the USA. He eventually became a técnico (a highly skilled wrestler, usually a “good guy,”), a role that would define his career (both in wrestling and film). This spawned a film career that spanned over 50 films. It did not matter that his lines were always dubbed over by another Mexican actor, El Santo’s films were wildly popular. His time as a movie star lasted until 1982, the same year that he retired from wrestling (after reuniting La Pareja Atómica and-of course-winning his final match) due to health conditions. In 1984, he stunned viewers when he exposed his face during a talk show appearance. Be it in public appearances, wrestling matches or in his films, he had never removed his mask before. He died of a heart attack while appearing in a comedy skit that same year, and was buried in his famed silver mask.
His legacy is carried on by his son (one of his eleven children), Jorge Guzmán Rodríguez, who wrestles as “El Hijo del Santo” (The Son of Santo) and has appeared in several films (starring sometimes as himself and sometimes as his father).
Although many of his films have since gotten DVD releases in North America, the following four are the only ones (to date) that feature English-dubbed soundtracks:
Invasion of the Zombies
Samson in the Wax Museum
Samson vs. the Vampire Women
Masked Man Strikes Again (aka Santo Strikes Again in Canada)
The first three were dubbed by K. Gordon Murray who presumably changed the luchador’s name to “Samson” in an attempt to make the film seem less “foreign.” Until the age of DVD, those four movies were the only legal way for English-speaking fans to see El Santo in action.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Happy Cinco de Mayo!