Tulsa TV Memories

"And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself"
A Film Review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Much like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," HBO’s new cable film "And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself" navigates the narrow border between fiction and fact.

Back in 1914, before Hollywood had stolen the title of Movie Capital of the World from Fort Lee, NJ, director D.W. Griffith of "The Birth of a Nation" fame and Mutual Films undertook a project that was actually conceived by the legendary Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa. General Villa, strapped for cash in his war with Mexico's dictatorial president, Victoriano Huerta and squeezed by an American corporate arms embargo fueled by William Randolph Hearst, makes the U.S. movie people an offer they can't refuse: unrestricted access to shoot film of Villa's forces in actual combat with Mexican Federales. All Pancho wants is 25 grand in gold against 20% of the profits of the world's first combat documentary. Is this the first sign Pancho Villa may have been better at publicity than socialism?

Movie camera

Antonio Banderas is in the title role and almost plays HIMSELF, it seems, in this really big production number from HBO Films. Much of it is great fun, and superbly macho, as only Bruce Beresford could direct machismo. (When I think "Beresford," my brain just naturally slips into its "Breaker Morant" mode: "Shoot straight, you lousy bastards!") Of course, "Breaker" is quintessential macho Aussie. And this new turn on "Pancho" is, without doubt, quintessential macho Tex-Mex. Sam Peckinpah would be eating his heart out.

But "And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself" is not brought off with the aplomb of "Straw Dogs" or even "The Wild Bunch" for that matter. Larry Gelbart’s script is almost totally driven by plot with little time for characterization. Even though the larger-than-life personality and ego of Pancho Villa would seem to be enough, there is not an inkling of what made this legend tick. One less battle scene might have been replaced with more about the why of what Pancho and others do in this well-mounted production.

Battle scene

The film even lapses into a bit of heavy-handedness with some irony on the side. The deaths of a boy put to soldiering and a mourning wife tend to bring down what’s been, so far, a subtly lighthearted romp of early 20th century rightwing/leftwing politics and revolution. A short sermon in the final reel about D.W. Griffith’s quasi-documentary taking its turn at making Truth the first casualty of war gets lost in the funning and gunning that Banderas and Company have been, heretofore, employed for entertaining the HBO troops.

How can we ever forget that, although Butch and Sundance shot up a lot Texas and Mexican real estate in that memorable and musical 1969 film, when it came time for them to "bite the dust," George Roy Hill froze the frame and kept his film Romantic. With such a title, "And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself" starts out down that trail, but changes horses in the middle of the Rio Grande.

Gary Chew can be reached via email at garychew@comcast.net.

More about the movie, plus a trailer at this HBO link.

Copyright © 2003, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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