June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
One of the most remarkable historically based films in recent years, HBO’s And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself , first aired last September and attracted a large viewership despite a puzzling lack of coverage from the mainstream press. Recently released on videotape and DVD, the film should gain even wider acceptance through word of mouth.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is based on a true story so improbable that it doesn’t seem possible Hollywood could have ignored it for so long. In 1914 the former Doroteo Arango, a mestizo of Spanish and Indian blood by then known as Pancho Villa, was contacted by the Mutual Film Company and D. W. Griffith with an unusual offer. Villa wanted money to finance his Division del Morte army in its revolution against the despotic Mexican government of President Victoriano Huerta. Mutual would get exclusive rights to live battle footage and to close-ups of General Villa himself in action; in return Villa would get 20 percent of the revenues from all films using the footage that Mutual produced.
Griffith and Mutual jumped at the opportunity, dispatching a camera crew and an aspiring young filmmaker named Raoul Walsh to northern Mexico with a bag full of gold (Villa was rumored to have shot at someone who approached him with paper money). Shortly thereafter, the Mexicans received a shipment of 5,000 facsimile Confederate Army uniforms. Griffith wanted his Mexican extras to look presentable for American audiences.
Possibly for the first time in history, a motion-picture camera was used to film men dying in battle. The Mutual Film Company was as oblivious of this as it seemed to be of the fact that by financing the revolution, it was indirectly responsible for the deaths it was recording. At first the company planned to run the footage in newsreels, but Villa gave it such good material that it decided to splice fact and fiction into a feature titled The Life of General Villa , with Raoul Walsh stepping in for Villa in close-ups. The result was, apparently, melodramatic in the extreme. The film was hugely popular and garnered much sympathy for the Mexican revolutionaries until, in 1916, Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa went from hero to scoundrel in the American press, and Gen. John Pershing led a futile punitive expedition into Mexico in pursuit of him. He was assassinated in 1923. No one knows what became of The Life of General Villa .
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is full of the color, sweep, and historical resonance that were once a staple of Hollywood feature films but are now to be found mostly on cable television, where big productions like John Milius’s The Rough Riders can, through repeated showings, find audiences for themselves. Directed by the Australian veteran Bruce Beresford (whose films include Breaker Morant , Tender Mercies , Driving Miss Daisy , and Black Robe ) and written by Larry Gelbart (who developed “M*A*S*H” for television), And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself shows surprising fidelity to the known historical record, much of it taken from Friedrich Katz’s massive 1998 biography of Villa and Raoul Walsh’s 1974 autobiography, Each Man in His Own Time .
The superb cast includes Alan Arkin as Sam Drebben, a machine-gun expert known in real life as “The Fighting Jew,” Colm Feore as D. W. Griffith, Matt Day as the journalist John Reed, Jim Broadbent as the film producer Harry Aitken, Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., as the fabulously wealthy landowner Don Luis Terrazas, and Eion Bailey as the film’s narrator, Frank Thayer, a real-life American businessman rewritten as a movie-company executive.
The film, though, is sustained by the fire and force of Antonio Banderas. He plays Villa as a peasant visionary, a shrewd, charismatic monster molded by poverty and hardship and toughened by oppression and bigotry. He’s illiterate but savvier than Hollywood when it comes to comprehending the power of cinema. He rides into battle with one eye on the enemy and the other on the camera; between battles he rages alternately at the fear the film will depict him as a mindless brute and the fear that it will depict him sentimentally.
Banderas’s is the first full-blooded film portrait of Mexico’s most famous rebel since Villa’s own.