|In this country we tell kids that if you study hard and stay away from the bad things in life bust your rear end and finish college you can be anything you want... anything. It's a wonderful feeling to think that just anyone in this country can come up through the ranks and as long as they set their mind to it they can be what they choose to be, from Computer Programmer, to Writer, to even the President of the United States. It's a beautiful idea, and would be even more beautiful if it wasn't full of more bull than a steak house hamburger. Take me for example... I studied hard, graduated with a more than respectable GPA and went west, young man, to break bread in a new land. So far the closest thing to writing I've done is this... writing reviews for internet junkies... and I tell you, I've made exactly zero dollars and zero cents, which is only marginally less than what I make at my day job. I think that if the lie hadn't been told I wouldn't be so disillusioned by where I've ended up, because, let me tell you, it's about as comfortable as an itch on the bottom of your foot when you're wearing fully laced up boots, word is bond!
In other parts of the world they don't socialize this hope into kids and they grow up doing the best they can and some succeed and some fail... and still others more than succeed, they exceed. Take Francisco "Pancho" Villa for example. He was born into squalor in rural Mexico and had every bit of the future that a sapling on a designated lumber forest can hope for. Villa exceeded every expectation and became a famous and infamous man, a documentary film star and a well known hero to some, and villain to others. Seventy-Five years after his death he's even portrayed in a made-for-cable drama starring Antonio Banderas! Not too shabby!
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is the story of Mutual Films' contracts with Villa to film documentaries about his guerrilla warfare and ultimately a long-format film about his life (both actual and fictionalized). What we get is an interesting introspection into the world of silent films, and the directing process that made them (somewhat similar to the depictions in Shadow of the Vampire), and an interesting film filled with docu-bio-drama and action. It's also what amounts to a film guilty of the very glittery sensationalism that it purports to condemn. (One more thing... it gives those of us who dislike even mentioning D. W. Griffith's name without spitting afterward more reason to hate him!)
Villa, as most of you know, did walk a fine line between hero and villain, and walked an even finer line between freedom fighter and mercenary. It was this second attribute that prompted his offer to movie companies (then in New York) to film him and his "adventures" for the price of $25,000 in gold and 20% of the gross. Pretty shrewd for a gunslinger without an agent, I would say, especially since 25k back in 1912 must be the equivalent of Arnold's pre-politics price tag.... heck, I'd take it today! Once the bait is taken, Frank Thayer of Mutual Films (Eion Bailey) travels to Texas to watch the war transpire across the Rio Grande before actually taking Camera Crews into the fray itself. The legendary status of Villa is shown by the misconceptions and rumors Thayer brought with him to the meeting. Alan Arkin as Villa's gritty mercenary Sam Drebbin sets Thayer straight and translates Villa's broken English. The occasional substitution of Arkin's dialogue for Villa's subtitles is a bit ill advised, though, and one can't help but wish for both.
The camera crew is immediately thrust into the nightmare of warfare and bullets and blood fly all about them in the creation of the real-life film known as Life of Villa (1912). Here director Bruce Beresford (Double Jeopardy) shines in his depiction of war as a horror, not as a glamorized set piece. In fact this film is good at showing how unglamorous the entire affair really was, even down to the stark and dirty role of Villa himself. With an actor like Banderas, whom the ladies love, it's applause worthy to see that he's covered in grit, a push broom mustache and a sombrero the size of an '86 Buick.
The sad thing is that the studio sees the dailies and considers Villa to be more humorous and clown-like than anything else. This is a surprise considering the intended over-acting of that era in films, but the strife does lead to a second movie being made, this time as a biography featuring a cast of (all lily white American blonde and blue) family members, a double as the young Villa, and starring Pancho Villa as himself.
It's at this point that the saga of Pancho Villa begins taking strange turns and we see with wide-eyed shock the vast and dark chasm in reality between an actor playing a desperate Revolutionary and an actual Desperate revolutionary! Those who won't join him in battle might face the barrel of a gun (albeit loaded with blanks). The filming itself is a testament to the Braveheart-like battles counting down bloody victories. Meanwhile, outside the Film-within-the-film we see some excellent battle effects but overly triumphant music swells even when presumably innocent people are biting the dust. The end result is the 1914 film The Life of General Villa, "lost to posterity."
One great thing about And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is the way that it seems to balance the heroic adventures of the man, without ever forgetting that he was no angel. There are several times that you feel great about rooting for Pancho as he fights for freedom, and others in which Pancho can make you sick to your stomach. In one scene he forces a dallying priest to become not just a Father but a father to his illegitimate child, and other times that he and his men raid, pillage and murder, not for military advancement but for fun and profit. There's quite a lot to be said about both sides, and both stories are told, but when in doubt Beresford puts a little more weight on the heroic side of the balance.
This isn't a movie about D.W. Griffith, but he's in there. Colm Feore plays the role with the required sliminess and charm at the same time. I have to applaud the film makers here because they did make sure to salt in enough moments of Griffith's deplorable racism to get the point across that he's no Guy Smiley, but didn't get of on some side track to detract from the purpose of the movie. Let's hope a certain congregation of politic worms are eating at D.W. Griffith's guts and soul in hell right now. Similarly it would be hard to tell just about any story contemporary to these events without Yellow Journalism. The Character of William Randolph Hearst comes smiling onto the screen and into the headlines in his anti-Villa crusade.
The Big shame about And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is that the biting satire that is shadowed toward the middle fizzles by the end, and the movie becomes, before our eyes, the very sort of sanitized sentimentality that it purports to be exposing about those prior films. Like Pearcy's Lanterns on the Levee, writer Larry Gelbart (the same guy who helped bring M*A*S*H to the small screen so successfully) seems painfully unconscious that his film is becoming what it does its best not to be. Such scenes as Thayer staring with wide, wet eyes at the screen as he hand-cranks the projector to show The Life of General Villa to a group of Mexican villagers otherwise ignorant of Villa's escapades shows just how sanitized the years made Pancho's memory, and just how quickly the film changed its mind.
There is some great acting here as well as great character development. Banderas himself does a superb job in the title role adding more depth to the already faceted character that Pancho is shown as. He goes from speaking only broken English to being near fluent. Bailey also handles his part well but adds just a little too much icing to the acting cake. Anthony Stewart Head (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and those charming Taster's Choice commercials) is also excellent in what amounts to a cameo as a British land owner. Jim Broadbent (from Moulin Rouge and a million other things) is great and stoic as Harry Aitken the studio head. Arkin is great as usual and is absolutely not the Arkin you would expect to see. Here he plays a full on mercenary warrior who would have looked at home in Predator 3. Michael McKean as director William Christy Cabanne is hilarious in his self assured nature turned abject fear at the plans of Villa.
Aside from the fact that the film loses its apparent intent toward the end and becomes an overly sentimental and sparkly piece of Movie-Lore, there are some excellent moments here, mainly supplied by Banderas as Villa. It's clear that the main thing Villa wants is greatness and to be remembered after he's gone. Perhaps in the face of all the good and bad portrayed in this film that might seem a little selfish... however isn't that pretty much what we all want, no matter what nation you hail from? He also shows his desire for self-portrayal in the realm of reality alone, not in some Hollywood (or New York) time capsule, but it turns out that he too wants to be shown in his best light. Villa manipulates the studios much the same way that the studios manipulate him. And, for all its flaws, it's great to watch.
Three Stars for And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. It's a good movie that shows old movie making well, along with some interesting and dignified history. Unfortunately it also falls victim to the same self-righteous grandiose polishing that it tried to show old movies as having. There is also some brief (but wonderful) nudity and enough F-Bombs to have won any revolution. It's not for the kids, and it's not for the impatient, but it is a fun and informative watchable movie that tells a real "once upon a time in Mexico" story! Gotta love that HBO with their free-publicity tie-ins... Antonio's own new theatrical release called Once Upon A Time In Mexico will be released the following Friday 9/12/03. Coincidence? I think not!