50 years ago in Mexico: Tale of an iguana

Puerto Vallarta still oozes old-world charm. Photo by PV Tourism Board.A half-century ago a movie called Night of the Iguana was being filmed in the little Mexican village of Puerto Vallarta – and the project was going horribly wrong. It was running weeks behind schedule, mainly due to bickering between members of the cast and their take-me-alongs. Some wouldn't even speak to each other.

Carlos Munguia, Puerto Vallarta’s official historian before he died several years ago, was a local consultant to the movie's famous director, John Huston. “Old wounds from past romances were festering (on the set).” Mungia recalled in an interview.

Some examples: Scowling at Richard Burton, one of the stars of the movie, was actress Elizabeth Taylor, his lover who'd shown up to keep an eye on the notoriously philandering Burton. Taylor was said to be furious that Burton had brought his pr man Michael Wilding (one of Taylor's ex-husbands) along. And Ava Gardner, another of the film's top stars, was less than happy that co-star Deborah Kerr had shown up with her husband Peter Vietel (who at one time had been “an item” with Gardner).

. 'Iguana' stars Richard Burton and Sue Lyon on a bus in Puerto Vallarta. Photo by PV Tourism Board.Still another guy in the cast was said to be a jilted partner of a guy in the camera crew. 

According to Munguia, Huston took these and other warring ex-lovers aside and gave them loaded, silver-plated pistols. “Now,” he said, “you can either shoot each other or shoot the film.”

He made his point. The production got back on schedule.

But it wasn't the movie that drew hundreds of reporters from around the world to this tiny fishing village. It was the sizzling off-screen romance of Burton and Taylor, both larger-than-life figures – and both married to other people at the time – that made this movie worth so much ink and air time.

Between snippets of the couple cavorting around town, the media sweetened its coverage with shots of the city’s sundrenched beaches and the old-world charm of its cobbled lanes and colonial architecture. The town got millions of dollars worth of free publicity, and it hasn’t been the same since.

Luxury hotels dot the beaches of Puerto Vallarta. Photo by Bob Schulman.Fast forward to today, and Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most popular resorts, hosting millions of visitors a year in a seemingly endless line of high-rise hotels lining the beaches of an immense, crescent-shaped bay. Together with its neighboring marketing partner, the 192-mile-long Riviera Nayarit, the area is now one of the largest resort destinations in the world.

What about the movie? Was it a hit? Released in 1964, Night of the Iguana turned out to be a blockbuster, coming in as the 10th highest grossing film that year. It scored nominations for four academy awards, one of which took an Oscar.

What did an iguana lizard have to do with the film? Shortly before the final scene,  “T. Lawrence Shannon” (the rum-soaked, defrocked priest played by Burton) frees a six-foot-long iguana being held for the stewpot in a run-down hotel owned by the widowed “Maxine Faulk” (Ava Gardner's character).

The long-tormented Shannon explains (in a metaphor for himself) to Faulk why he did it: “I just cut loose one of God’s creatures at the end of his rope … so (the lizard) could be free from panic and scamper home safe and free. An act of grace, Maxine.”

.  'Wookie' statues are a big hit with visitors. Photo by PV Tourism Board.Shannon and Faulk free themselves in the last scene when they decide to couple up at the hotel and look out for each other.

More info: Visit the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board at www.visitpuertovallarta.com.

Cover image courtesy of the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board.

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