Old Gringo (1989)

R | 119 mins | Drama | 6 October 1989

Director:

Luis Puenzo

Producer:

Lois Bonfiglio

Cinematographer:

Félix Monti

Production Designers:

Stuart Wurtzel, Bruno Rubeo

Production Company:

Fonda Films
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HISTORY

End credits include the following “Special Thanks” to: “Ferrocarriles Nacionales De Mexico and the Mexican railroad workers, Jose Hernandez and the Mariachi Sol de Mexico, Marcos Loya, the authorities and citizens of the city of Zacatecas, and the states of Hildalgo, Mexico and Durango.” The picture is dedicated “In loving memory of Tessa Davies,” who was discovered bludgeoned to death on 1 Jun 1988, at age forty-seven, just a few months after her work as set decorator on Old Gringo concluded, according to Davies’ 3 Jun 1988 LAT obituary.
       The film begins with the following voice-over narration by character “Harriet Winslow”: “He told me I would forget the desert, and what they had fought for, but how could I not remember? It was where my life began, this land where death is not the end, but only the beginning. The story began before I knew it was a story, hearing his voice before I knew who he was.” Harriet Winslow’s narration continues throughout the film, and concludes the picture with the following: “He told me I would forget, but how could I not remember the young general who wanted to change the world, the old writer who wanted to bid it farewell? I am the one who will live to remember them both.”
       Referring to the picture by the Spanish title of the 1985 Carlos Fuentes novel upon which it was based, Gringo Viejo, a 4 Jun 1983 Screen International news item announced that Jane Fonda’s production company, named Jayne Development Corporation at the time, had negotiated a production deal with Columbia Pictures, and Gringo ... More Less

End credits include the following “Special Thanks” to: “Ferrocarriles Nacionales De Mexico and the Mexican railroad workers, Jose Hernandez and the Mariachi Sol de Mexico, Marcos Loya, the authorities and citizens of the city of Zacatecas, and the states of Hildalgo, Mexico and Durango.” The picture is dedicated “In loving memory of Tessa Davies,” who was discovered bludgeoned to death on 1 Jun 1988, at age forty-seven, just a few months after her work as set decorator on Old Gringo concluded, according to Davies’ 3 Jun 1988 LAT obituary.
       The film begins with the following voice-over narration by character “Harriet Winslow”: “He told me I would forget the desert, and what they had fought for, but how could I not remember? It was where my life began, this land where death is not the end, but only the beginning. The story began before I knew it was a story, hearing his voice before I knew who he was.” Harriet Winslow’s narration continues throughout the film, and concludes the picture with the following: “He told me I would forget, but how could I not remember the young general who wanted to change the world, the old writer who wanted to bid it farewell? I am the one who will live to remember them both.”
       Referring to the picture by the Spanish title of the 1985 Carlos Fuentes novel upon which it was based, Gringo Viejo, a 4 Jun 1983 Screen International news item announced that Jane Fonda’s production company, named Jayne Development Corporation at the time, had negotiated a production deal with Columbia Pictures, and Gringo Viejo was planned as their first release. A 22 May 1989 DV article added that Fonda had acquired film rights to El Gringo Viejo in 1980, before its publication. Gregory Peck had subsequently tried to secure the screen rights, himself, unaware that Fonda controlled the property. In a 24 Apr 1988 LAT article, Fonda explained that she met Fuentes in the late-1970s through her then husband, Tom Hayden. When she mentioned her desire to make a film about the U.S. and Mexico, Fuentes told her about his unpublished manuscript, titled Frontiers, and they “almost immediately” began adapting it into a film as Old Gringo, with the role of Harriet Winslow written for Fonda; however, neither Fonda nor Fuentes are credited as screenwriters. The picture marked Fuentes’ first U.S. film adaptation.
       The 24 Apr 1988 LAT noted that playwright Luis Valdez worked on an early version of the script, but Fonda and her partner at Fonda Films, (formerly known as Jayne Development), producer Lois Bonfiglio, were unsatisfied with the results. In turn, they contacted Argentinian screenwriter-director Luis Puenzo in the wake of his successful 1985 picture, The Official Story, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. To research the script, Puenzo traveled to Mexico, following the fictionalized journey of journalist Ambrose Bierce, as described in El Gringo Viejo. Puenzo pretended to be a reporter, interviewed locals, and reviewed archival photographs of the Mexican Revolution, before returning to Argentina to finish a 130-page shooting script with his writing partner, Aida Bortnik.
       The project remained in limbo for several years, but on 21 Oct 1987, a L.B. Press-Telegram article announced that actor Paul Newman had declined the role of “Ambrose Bierce/Bitter” and had been replaced by Burt Lancaster. Rehearsals were scheduled to begin late Nov 1987 in Mexico, with principal photography following soon after. The 28 Oct 1987 HR announced a fourteen-week shooting schedule was set to begin Jan 1988, with an undisclosed budget approximated in the range of $20 million. Other contemporary sources, including the 24 Apr 1988 and 1 Oct 1989 LAT, listed the film’s cost at $24 million and $25 million, respectively.
       As of 10 Nov 1987, Puenzo was back in Mexico, securing locations and casting Mexican actors, according to that day’s HR. Jimmy Smits, who had become popular at the time for his recurring role on the television drama L.A. Law (NBC, 1986 – 1994), was cast in the role of “Arroyo,” and Lancaster was still listed as Fonda’s co-star. However, an 8 Jan 1988 HR item announced that Lancaster had been replaced that day by Gregory Peck, and principal photography was planned for a start date of 18 Jan 1988. A 17 Jun 1988 LAT article explained that Lancaster was removed from the cast because Columbia was unwilling to pay the high insurance rates resulting from the actor’s heart condition, even though he had previously cleared a medical examination. In response, Lancaster filed a $1.5 million breach of contract lawsuit against the studio, the outcome of which remains undetermined. According to the 22 May 1989 DV, Fonda offered to use her share in Old Gringo as a guarantee for Lancaster’s insurance, just as she and Katharine Hepburn did for Henry Fonda during production for On Golden Pond (1982, see entry).
       The filming start date on 18 Jan 1988, at five sound stages at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, Mexico, was confirmed by a 9 Feb 1988 HR brief, which noted that Mexican reporters were dismayed by the closed set and the production’s high security. Since the film was expected to infuse approximately $8 million into the Mexican economy, special concessions were made to Columbia by government officials, who wanted to encourage future foreign productions in Mexico. In response to their outrage, Mexican press outlets published a series of antagonistic reports about Old Gringo during principal photography. According to a 14 Feb 1988 LAT news item, the Heraldo de Mexico reported a “strained relationship” between Fonda and Puenzo, due to the director’s “unfamiliarity with Mexican culture,” but Columbia executives insisted the news was fictionalized. The 24 Apr 1988 LAT noted that a headline in Mexico City’s El Universal falsely announced that the production had been shut down when Gregory Peck sustained injuries from falling off his horse at the Venta De Cruz hacienda in Nopaltepec, fifty-seven miles northeast of Mexico City. Although the film’s unit publicist, Judy Arthur, countered the claim, newspapers responded by printing a photograph of Peck atop his horse, reporting that the actor was now “well and still working on the film.”
       According to LAT, production started at Venta De Cruz mid-Jan 1988, the same time shooting began at Churubusco. A Club Med resort near the Teotihuacan Aztec pyramids, thirty miles away from Venta De Cruz, served as base lodging for filmmakers, including Fonda, who reportedly jogged around the ancient monuments every morning. Venta De Cruz was once a flourishing 17th-century hacienda, and its ruins were reconstructed “in detail” for the film. The neighboring farmland, which formerly produced alcoholic pulque from maguey cacti, suffered soil depletion and was abandoned due to the vanishing market for pulque, so local farmers were eager to work as background actors for the equivalent of $8 per day in Mexican pesos. Out of the 1,000 Mexicans who applied for acting work, 250 were hired and “used daily,” but an additional 500 construction workers and 150 crewmembers were also employed.
       Production notes in AMPAS library files stated that the locomotive featured in the picture was an actual train, sourced from a Mexican museum, which was refurbished with custom-made components. Locations outside Venta De Cruz included an 18th-century fortress called Hacienda Santa María Regla in Huasca, Hidalgo, which was used to depict Pancho Villa’s headquarters. Churubusco sound stages housed the 9,000 square foot set of the hacienda Venta De Cruz interior, as well as a 42 x 197 foot backdrop of the desert. The scenes portraying the town of Chihuahua and its 1913 New Year’s Eve celebrations were filmed in Zacatecas, where Puenzo “discovered” a thirteen-year-old boy named Samuel Valdez and cast him as “Pedrito.” The fifteen-week shoot concluded at the end of Apr 1988, in the mountains of Mapimí, Durango.
       Despite the film’s anticipated Christmas 1988 release, few reports of post-production surfaced over the next several months, until a 6 Sep 1988 HR news item announced that “Mexican technicians” were displeased by Puenzo’s recent decision to edit the picture at Sono Film in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On 24 Oct 1988, HR stated that the Christmas 1988 release was “officially abandoned” in favor of a fall 1989 opening. An 11 May 1989 Hollywood Drama-Logue news item reported that after an extended post-production schedule and test marketing period, Old Gringo was set to make its world premiere 23 May 1989, during the closing night ceremonies of the Cannes Film Festival. There, Peck was honored with a “special homage” hosted by Yves Montand, and Fonda was scheduled to give the prized Palme d’Or presentation, according to the 22 May 1989 DV.
       Three months later, a 27 Aug 1989 LAT brief announced that the film premiered in Buenos Aires the previous weekend, and was scheduled to open throughout Argentina on 31 Aug 1989. Although a Mexican release date was set for Mid-Sep 1989, Fonda and Puenzo had recently attended a screening at Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional to “smooth the still-ruffled feathers of those… who resented the selection of Argentina’s Puenzo to direct a movie about their country.”
       As the film approached its 6 Oct 1989 domestic release at over 200 theaters, a 4 Oct 1989 LAT article reported that exhibitors and members of Latino communities were distressed by Columbia’s refusal to provide subtitled prints, even though the picture was widely distributed with subtitles throughout Mexico and Latin America. Producer Lois Bonfiglio stated that subtitled prints would not be approved by Columbia unless early box-office returns convinced the studio a wider release was warranted. However, the film had been nationally advertised in both Spanish and English, leading the chairman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Armando Duron, to issue a public statement, objecting to Columbia’s approach. In his declaration, Duron noted Puenzo’s complaints that had recently surfaced at a Buenos Aires screening; the director contended that Columbia “tampered” with his script and final cut of the picture to excise “a crucial Latin point of view.” Futhermore, Duron questioned if a dialogue between Mexicans and Americans could be stimulated by the film, when Spanish-speakers were denied the opportunity to view it in their own language. Several Latino newspapers also criticized Old Gringo for propagating negative Mexican stereotypes, as noted in the 8 Oct 1989 LAT, and the 5 Oct 1989 Los Angeles, CA, premiere at AMPAS’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater was picketed by protestors, according to the 9 Oct 1989 DV. However, civil rights activist Cesar Chavez wrote a letter to the LAT, published 4 Nov 1989, defending Fonda as a “tireless champion of the underdog,” and noted that the film’s story was written by a Mexican. An 8 Oct 1989 LAT article, written by Mexican professor and politician Jorge G. Castañeda, pointed out that the picture was a “box-office success” in Mexico. He argued that those who were most adamantly opposed to the film were “Mexico’s right-wing, nationalistic keepers of faith,” and that the controversial depictions of sex and violence were not “a stereotype, but a reality.” Various contemporary sources also maintained that Old Gringo premieres were used as fundraisers for Latino and civil liberties organizations, including the 5 Oct 1989 New York City premiere, which benefitted the Robert Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, according to a 25 Jun 1989 DV brief.
       Despite the film’s controversy, and generally positive reviews which commended Peck’s performance, the picture did not fare well at the box office. According to a 29 Oct 1989 LAT article, Old Gringo was listed with a final budget of $26 million, but grossed just $2.3 million in its first three weeks of release.
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BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
22 May 1989.
---
Daily Variety
23 May 1989
p. 2, 10.
Daily Variety
25 Jun 1989.
---
Daily Variety
9 Oct 1989.
---
Hollywood Drama-Logue
11 May 1989
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Oct 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Nov 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jan 1988.
---
Hollywood Reporter
9 Feb 1988.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Sep 1988.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Oct 1988
p. 18.
Hollywood Reporter
25 May 1989
p. 4, 15.
L.B. Press-Telegram
21 Oct 1987.
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Feb 1988
Calendar p. 15.
Los Angeles Times
24 Apr 1988
Section L, p. 20, 22, 27.
Los Angeles Times
3 Jun 1988.
---
Los Angeles Times
17 Jun 1988
Calendar, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
27 Aug 1989
Calendar, p. 41.
Los Angeles Times
1 Oct 1989
Calendar, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times
4 Oct 1989
Section G, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
6 Oct 1989
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
8 Oct 1989
Section G, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times
8 Oct 1989
Section N, p. 34.
Los Angeles Times
29 Oct 1989
Section O, pp. 31-32.
Los Angeles Times
4 Nov 1989
Section F, p. 2.
New York Times
6 Oct 1989
p. 8.
Screen International
4 Jun 1983.
---
Variety
24 May 1989
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Columbia Pictures presents
A Fonda Films production
A Luis Puenzo film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Addl cam op
1st asst cam
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
2d asst cam
2d asst cam
Chief lighting tech
Best boy/Dolly grip
2d unit cam
2d unit cam
Still photog
Lenses and cam by
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
Art dept coord
Asst to prod des
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Dec buyer
Set des
Set des
Scenic artist
Scenic artist
Scenic artist
Scenic artist
Sketch artist
Prop master
Prop master
Asst prop master
Prop buyer
Const coord
Const coord
COSTUMES
Cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Asst cost des
Men's cost supv
Supv tailor
Ward asst
Women's cost supv
Women`s cost
Supv seamstress
MUSIC
Mus ed
Musicologist
Scoring mixer
SOUND
Prod sd mixer
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Foley ed
Foley ed
Supv ADR ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Sd eng
Cable person
Re-rec mixer
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff head
Spec eff head
Spec eff head
Spec eff head
Titles and opt eff by
Title des by
DANCE
Choreog
MAKEUP
Makeup
Makeup
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Wig maker
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Scr supv
2d unit supv
Scr translator
Loc mgr
Asst loc mgr
Asst loc mgr
Livestock coord
Wrangler
Prod auditor
Asst prod auditor
Transportation supv
Transportation capt
Transportation capt
Prod coord
Asst prod coord
Prod coord--Los Angeles
Prod coord--Mexico
Casting assoc--Los Angeles
Casting--Mexico
Extras coord
Pub relations
Unit pub
Asst to Ms. Fonda
Asst to Ms. Bonfiglio
Asst to Ms. Bonfiglio
Asst to Mr. Puenzo
Asst to 2d unit supv
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Government supv
Subtitles translator
American Humane Society
Prod services and equip
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunt double for Ms. Fonda
Stunt double for Mr. Peck
Stunt double for Mr. Smits
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
Stunt player
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Gringo Viejo by Carlos Fuentes (New York, 1985).
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Gringo Viejo
Release Date:
6 October 1989
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles premiere: 5 October 1989 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater
New York premiere: 5 October 1989
Los Angeles and New York openings: 6 October 1989
Production Date:
18 January--late April 1988 in Mexico
Copyright Claimant:
Empyrean Film Enterprises
Copyright Date:
29 September 1989
Copyright Number:
PA432150
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo in selected theatres
Color
Duration(in mins):
119
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
29043
SYNOPSIS

In 1913, at a library in Washington, D.C., spinster Harriet Winslow overhears journalist Ambrose Bierce drunkenly accuse his audience, including fellow intellectuals and newspapermen, of hypocrisy. Admitting that his literary quest for truth was compromised by publisher William Randolph Hearst, Bierce tosses his collected works on the ground, and bids his colleagues farewell. Although Harriet does not see his face, she is impressed by Bierce’s audacity, and she later defies her mother’s orders to attend an Arlington National Cemetery memorial for her father, Harrison Winslow. Harriet contends her that her father did not die in a Cuban War battle, but rather disappeared to escape his unhappy marriage. Mrs. Winslow fears her daughter will abandon her, too, but gives Harriet a letter she has been hiding for months: Harriet has been offered the position of governess to the children of Mexican General Miranda. Sometime later, Harriet arrives at her hotel in Chihuahua, Mexico, to learn from an American journalist named Ron that revolutionary Pancho Villa has captured the town. Harriet’s destination, General Miranda’s hacienda, is still governed by the Mexican Federal Police, or “Federales,” but the journalist warns of impending danger and advises her to return home. Harriet remains in Chihuahua for New Year’s celebrations that evening. Meanwhile, revolutionaries led by General Tomas Arroyo plan to exploit her access to Miranda’s hacienda by traveling with her, disguised as Federales. Ambrose Bierce, now an expatriate in Chihuahua, overhears the revolutionaries’ scheme. The young men dismiss him as an old drunk, but he proves his competence by shooting a bullet through the face of a pocket watch, and they agree to introduce ... +


In 1913, at a library in Washington, D.C., spinster Harriet Winslow overhears journalist Ambrose Bierce drunkenly accuse his audience, including fellow intellectuals and newspapermen, of hypocrisy. Admitting that his literary quest for truth was compromised by publisher William Randolph Hearst, Bierce tosses his collected works on the ground, and bids his colleagues farewell. Although Harriet does not see his face, she is impressed by Bierce’s audacity, and she later defies her mother’s orders to attend an Arlington National Cemetery memorial for her father, Harrison Winslow. Harriet contends her that her father did not die in a Cuban War battle, but rather disappeared to escape his unhappy marriage. Mrs. Winslow fears her daughter will abandon her, too, but gives Harriet a letter she has been hiding for months: Harriet has been offered the position of governess to the children of Mexican General Miranda. Sometime later, Harriet arrives at her hotel in Chihuahua, Mexico, to learn from an American journalist named Ron that revolutionary Pancho Villa has captured the town. Harriet’s destination, General Miranda’s hacienda, is still governed by the Mexican Federal Police, or “Federales,” but the journalist warns of impending danger and advises her to return home. Harriet remains in Chihuahua for New Year’s celebrations that evening. Meanwhile, revolutionaries led by General Tomas Arroyo plan to exploit her access to Miranda’s hacienda by traveling with her, disguised as Federales. Ambrose Bierce, now an expatriate in Chihuahua, overhears the revolutionaries’ scheme. The young men dismiss him as an old drunk, but he proves his competence by shooting a bullet through the face of a pocket watch, and they agree to introduce him to their leader, Pancho Villa. The next day, Harriet, is escorted through the desert by Arroyo and his men, unaware of their deception, and finds herself in the middle of a gunfight between revolutionaries and Federales when they reach Miranda’s hacienda. Harriet learns that Miranda and his children have already left, and that her luggage has been stockpiled with weapons. As housemaids distribute knives and guns from Harriet’s cases, Bierce rides into the compound on a white horse, causing the fighting to pause. On command, Bierce asks aloud for Pancho Villa, then ducks away as Arroyo comes out of hiding and initiates a revolutionary battle. Angry insurgents hang one of Miranda’s associates from a tree as they gain control of the hacienda. That night, Harriet begs Arroyo to take her back to Chihuahua, but he refuses. Bierce, now nicknamed “Old Gringo,” chuckles at Harriet’s plight, and she does not recognize him from the Washington library. She later confronts the old man, who says she can call him “Bitter.” When Harriet deplores Bierce for not comforting a dying man, he argues that he is only committed to speaking the truth. Awakening the next morning, Harriet discovers herself in the company of women and children. As the revolutionaries return to the hacienda, Arroyo tests Bierce’s courage by ordering him to stand in front of a firing squad with their Federale captives, but Harriet rushes into Arroyo’s arms to object. Although the guns fire, only the Federales are killed; Bierce is left standing, and Arroyo is reluctant to let go of Harriet. She breaks away and runs to Bierce, who admits appreciation for her passion and kisses her. Sometime later, the American journalist, Ron, arrives at the hacienda and offers to take Harriet away, but she decides to stay on. Alone with Bierce, the journalist recognizes the old man and wants to report his whereabouts, but Bierce asks him to remain mum. Meanwhile, Pancho Villa commands his men to the front, but Arroyo is reluctant to leave the hacienda. Harriet reproaches Arroyo for his murderous revolution, despite its good intensions, and Arroyo admits that the first man he ever killed was his estranged father, a member of the Miranda clan, who impregnated his housemaid mother by raping her. Sometime later, Arroyo uncovers deeds to the hacienda and declares that the documents prove Mexican natives own the land, but Bierce contends that written words are never sacred, particularly when men such as Arroyo are illiterate. However, Arroyo leads his people into the remains of Miranda’s opulent manor for the first time, announcing that wealth now belongs to the working people. At a celebration that evening, Bierce propositions Harriet for what he describes as his last chance to make love, but she is later seduced by Arroyo. As dawn breaks, Bierce finds Arroyo at his mother’s grave, and tells the general that his two sons have died; one committed suicide, and the other “got himself killed.” Arroyo then returns to the hacienda, where he and Harriet make love. In time, Arroyo becomes increasingly disgruntled over his inability to read the hacienda deeds and refuses orders to rejoin the revolution. Meanwhile, Harriet is delighted to discover that “Old Gringo” is Ambrose Bierce. In an attempt to provoke Arroyo, Bierce rides the general’s prized horse, and Arroyo responds by shooting the horse dead. Bierce wonders aloud why the general did not kill him, instead, and follows Arroyo into his quarters. Bierce burns the hacienda deeds, declaring that the papers are meaningless, and commands Arroyo to return to the revolution. Enraged, Arroyo shoots the author, who dies in Harriet’s arms, asking her not to reveal his true identity. The next day, Harriet visits Mexico’s U.S. Consul Saunders to report the murder. In tears, Harriet asks to have the body moved to her father’s empty grave at Arlington National Cemetery, and falsely identifies the dead man as her father, Harrison Winslow. Sometime later, Harriet meets Pancho Villa to appeal for rights to Bierce’s body. He agrees, but forces her to sign a document stating that she witnessed two executions, one marking the death of Bierce, and the other representing the capital punishment of Arroyo. When Villa leaves, Arroyo tells Harriet that he deserves to die because he disobeyed orders. Harriet objects, but Arroyo argues that she will soon forget their love, as well as the purpose of the revolution. Bidding her lover farewell, Harriet claims that Arroyo has changed her life for the better. With Arroyo dead, Harriet leaves town on the back of a cart hauling Bierce’s coffin. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.