In a letter to his dear friend Francis Loomis, dated May 16, 1939, Bunau-Varilla told him about the movie “Suez” he had seen, which portrayed the life of Ferdinand de Lesseps and showed his role in the construction of the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was played by Tyrone Power, one of the biggest movie stars of the time, and the film was a highly fictionalized version of reality.
Bunau-Varilla enjoyed watching “Suez”, finding it “interesting and entertaining”, and suggested to his friend that a movie about Panama would prove to be a captivating story for many people. The U.S. diplomat, said the Frenchman, should be one of the main characters. Loomis, of course, was Secretary of State in 1903 and played a key role in giving Bunau-Varilla access to President Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay.
It was thanks to Loomis that the Frenchman was able to visit the White House and ask Roosevelt if he would support a revolution in Panama, as both men would later recount, although with varying versions of what really happened at the meeting. And it was through Loomis that Bunau-Varilla coordinated sending warships to Panama during the revolution to protect the process towards independence.
Just as I narrated in my novel 'I Took Panama', Bunau-Varilla's life was full of spectacular events that today would seem like fiction. But the truth is that the story of this Frenchman is possibly one of the most interesting stories that exists. Bunau-Varilla went from Colombia to Panama to work as an engineer for Ferdinand de Lesseps. Almost two decades later, he became the first ambassador of the Republic of Panama to the United States, with the goal of ensuring that the Panama Canal was completed. What happened in-between is perhaps one of the most captivating and little-known stories of a historical figure worldwide.
For whatever reasons, Bunau-Varilla was obsessed in finding someone to finish the Panama Canal. First he tried to not let France give up and to conclude the project. When that failed, he visited Sergei Witte, the Russian Finance Minister, to try to convince the czar to purchase the assets of the French company and complete the project. And when that didn't work, he turned his attention to the United States to convince them to abandon their old plans to construct the Nicaragua Canal and instead focus on the French canal in Panama. For years, Bunau-Varilla lobbied in the U.S. in favor of Panama, helped to convince the Senate to change their voting intentions (which at the time favored Nicaragua) and then actively supported the Panamanian revolution. His story deserves attention.
I hope that someday a film is shown on the life of Bunau-Varilla. Roosevelt said that the short-statured engineer had 'the look of a duelist'. From that comment and other descriptions, Elijah Wood or Daniel Radcliffe could play the Frenchmen, and a shaved Zach Galifianakis would make a great Roosevelt. I agree with Bunau-Varilla: how interesting to make a movie about a man who for so many years of his life fought to see a project completed that had been long dismissed as a failure, but that ended up changing the history of the world for its geopolitical consequences: the Panama Canal.