These days, it’s not unusual for wrestlers to reach out beyond the ring and become film stars, but back in the 1950s, masked wrestler El Santo was the first to really transcend his original career and become something of a legend. For almost a quarter of a decade, El Santo would be the star of 52 movies, as well as featuring in his own comic books – all this while keeping his wrestling career going.
El Santo – real name Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta – began his wrestling career either in 1934 or 1935 (the records are vague), but only adopted the El Santo (‘the saint’) persona in 1942, aged 24. He would become an immediate success, quickly developing his own style of wrestling and forming a rivalry with fellow masked luchador Blue Demon, who he would go on to make several films with. As his career took off, El Santo quickly became more than just another masked wrestler. As we worked his way through various championships, El Santo took on the role of folk hero in Mexico, the scripted artifice of wrestling blurring with the reality of Mexican life, where he was seen as a symbol of truth and justice (no wonder he was sometimes renamed ‘Superman’ in export versions of his films). Mixing fiction and reality further, El Santo never appeared without his mask – not even at private functions. He would even travel alone, so that no one who worked with him would see his face as he had to unmask at customs.
As a pop culture icon, it was inevitable that El Santo would cross over into films and comic books. The Santo comic, in various forms, ran from 1952 to 1987, and saw Santo revamped as a real-life superhero. The comic books, like the films that began a few years later, would see Santo battling both criminals and supernatural monsters.
The Santo film series began in 1958, with El Santo playing a supporting role in a couple of lacklustre crime films. His career really took off in 1961, when he starred in Santo Contra Los Zombis. This was the first film to feature him as an exaggerated version of himself, a superhero who takes time out from the wrestling day job to battle all many of outlandish threats – over the years, Santo would fight Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, assorted vampires, mummies, witches, aliens and mad scientists, as well as slightly more lacklustre opponents like secret agents and crime syndicates. At the time, few of these films made it out of Mexico – only four were dubbed in English for release in the United States – and although a few horror journalists would mention the films as curios, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that English-speaking audiences really began to pay attention to the films.
El Santo retired, both as a wrestler and a film star, in 1982, just as this new audience was discovering his work. In 1984, he appeared on chat show Contrapunto, where he unexpected unmasked for the first time. One week later, on February 5th, he died of a heart attack. His son, El Hijo del Santo, has continued his father’s legacy, wearing the same silver mask in the ring – though his film career has been something of a non-starter. A shame – what would be more fun than a new series of El Santo movies?
EL SANTO FILMS (click images to enlarge):
EL SANTO COMICS (click images to enlarge):
EL SANTO WRESTLING IN SANTO VS LAS MUJERES VAMPIRO: