War movies tend to fall into recognizable subgenres. They often end up focused on particular types of warfare, such as submarine warfare, like Das Boot, or air combat, like Top Gun. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is about information warfare, and to a certain extent it is an exercise in information warfare.
Larry Gelbartís screenplay is based on the story of Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey), who in 1914 traveled to Mexico to make a movie about Pancho Villa, with Villaís cooperation. Thayer worked for Mutual Films, which paid Villa in gold for permission to send a crew to film his troops in action. Thayer makes contact with Villa (Antonio Banderas), gives him the gold, and comes back with what may have been the first combat footage ever shot with a motion picture camera.
But to Thayerís chagrin, the movie meets with a chilly reception from critics and public alike. Apparently real war doesnít make for good cinema. The lighting isnít the best, night actions are unfilmable, and the action is too confusing and hard to follow. So he decides to try again. This time, Mutual Films negotiates a contract with Villa that allows them more creative control. Villa is to appear as himself in the movie, reading lines written by Mutual, and battles will be fought only under favorable lighting conditions. (In other words no more night actions.) Mutual also provides Villaís men with cannon, and with Confederate uniforms. (To make them look better.) Once again Villa takes their gold, and the cannon too, but he continues to fight where and when he pleases.
Thayerís movie, titled ďThe Life of General VillaĒ, presents a heavily fictionalized version of events, and ends with Villa being made President of Mexico. When Villa complains of this, Thayer points out that audiences expect sympathetic heros, and argues that the favorable publicity will help Villaís cause. (Gelbart is on shaky historical ground here. His screenplay has Thayer inventing the fiction that Villa became a bandit because his mother was murdered and his sister was raped by a wealthy landowner. That particular myth probably originated with Villa himself.) Fiction turns out to be more popular than fact. The Life of General Villa is a hit with audiences, and Pancho Villa comes to be seen as a heroic figure by many Americans.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is actually on shaky historical ground in quite a few places, and the blame largely belongs to Gelbart and Director Bruce Beresford for inserting their politics into the movie. The real Villa never espoused any ideology, but Gelbart and Beresford seem to make him out to be a Socialist. They also canít resist commenting on current events, and imply several times that US opposition to Villa was driven entirely by a desire for Mexican oil. Late in the film, a character expresses the opinion that Thayerís movie changed US public opinion, and thus forestalled a US invasion of Mexico. Apparently Gelbart and Beresford have never heard of Villaís incursion into US territory in 1916 or the punitive expedition led by General Pershing. Or perhaps, like Thayer, they feel that audiences expect sympathetic heros.
Although the movie often sugarcoats Villa, it does at times show his violent nature. In fact, the best moments of Pancho Villa revolve around Thayerís naivete and willingness to excuse nearly anything Villa does. At one point, Thayer tells Villa that his enemies are circulating a story that Villa has murdered a prominent local rancher. (Which in fact, Villa has done.) The movies most chilling moment shows the American socialist John Reed rationalizing Villaís cold blooded murder of a grieving widow, and the viewer is left to wonder how seriously Reedís explanation for this atrocity is meant to be taken.
Beresfordís battle scenes mostly look pretty good, but they are marred by some transparently phoney cinematic devices. Whenever Mexican Federales are machine gunned off the wall of a fort, they always stand up and pitch forward so the camera can get a good shot of them falling to the ground. And the pyrotechnics in this movie are way overblown. Hand grenades produce nearly as much flame as a flamethrower, and artillery rounds look like a full blown napalm strike when they go off. But then as Thayer himself discovered, real war isnít always very cinematic, and a good director has to spice things up.
There is some very good acting in this movie. Antonio Banderas delivers a fine performance as Pancho Villa, combining intelligence, bravado, and tightly coiled menace. Alan Arkin does a delightful turn as a wisecracking soldier of fortune who carries a pair of pliers for collecting gold teeth from the dead. Colm Feore (The Lord Marshal from The Chronicles of Riddick) shows presence, charisma, and style as legendary director D W Griffith.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself shouldnít be taken as an accurate portrayal of Pancho Villa, but it is a good portrayal of how the media takes sides in war, and how people in the media can blind themselves to the complexities of their subject, and the flaws of the side they support. Itís too bad that Gelbart and Beresford sometimes fall prey to the same syndrome. Today no copy can be found of Thayerís movie The Life of General Villa. But one suspects that Thayerís movie and Beresfordís probably had several things in common. Both were entertaining, technically well made, and reflected the politics of most people in the movie business at the time they were made. And both of them took quite a few liberties with the facts.