The tension between the history and the culture of the West and film portrayals of those aspects is real. Friction can include the distance between the lived experience of the past and the interpretation of an earlier period by a later generation. The use of an era, a culture, groups of people and/or an individual by a filmmaker for a contemporary political, social and economic purpose can also be problematic.
Yet what if a figure from the historical Old West era actively sought to film himself and thus was both documented and mythologized at the same time? The opportunity for an Old West figure to do so, from our current perspective, would have been narrow. It was not until approximately 1910 that the making of motion pictures began to solidify as an industry (at that time actors began to receive screen credit) while conversely the Old West as era (1865 – 1914) is generally viewed as ending with World War One (1914-1918). Would a historical Western figure have done this? Yes…and the film starred Pancho Villa.
Francisco Villa – more commonly known as Pancho Villa – was a revolutionary general in the Mexican Revolution which began in 1910 and lasted two decades. This writer considers the Western region of North America as extending into both Mexico and Canada and for both geographic and cultural reasons considers Villa a relevant figure during the time that the Old West is ending.
The Mexican Revolution was an armed uprising initially against the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Pancho Villa was dramatic in the conflict – he robbed and seized trains and he appropriated the lands of haciendas to distribute to peasants and soldiers.
The Life of General Villa was a 1914 silent film that starred Villa himself and was made by the American company, the Mutual Film Corporation. Villa took part in the film to raise funds for his efforts in the Mexican Revolution – he received a $25,000 advance and was guaranteed 50% of the film’s profits. In return, the film company could capture his daylight battles in Mexico and Villa agreed to re-enact them if needed. In flashback scenes to Villa’s youth, he was played by future Western director Raoul Walsh. The original film is considered lost though publicity stills and unedited pieces do exist.
Pancho Villa retired to an estate in 1920 but did attempt to move back into Mexican politics by 1923. He would be assassinated in 1923 at age 45 – Villa and several others were shot as he rode in his car.
In a case of “holding a mirror up to a mirror”, a television film was made in 2003 dramatizing the original dramatization of Pancho Villa. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself was an HBO production that starred Antonio Banderas as Villa. At the time of its production, it was cited as the most expensive television film ever made with claims of a budget exceeding $30 million. Banderas was nominated for a 2004 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television. Here is trailer for that 2003 film:
Both the original film and the later one with Banderas offer us a chance to reflect upon an amazing intersection of Old West and the newly-born 20th century that in movie parlance, could only ever be a “limited engagement.”
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)