Saturday, May 25, 2024

#2,957. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) - 2000s Made for Television


The improbability of events depicted in this film is the surest indication that they actually did occur”.

In January of 1914, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was battling the forces of President Victoriano Huerta, announced that he was willing to work with any American film company that would produce a movie about his cause.

Needing money to fund his revolution, and hoping to negate the bad press he had been receiving from the news outlets run by William Randolph Hearst, Villa met with Frank N. Thayer of the Mutual Film Studio, which was run by Harry E. Aitkin and legendary director D.W. Griffith.

From the partnership between Villa and Mutual, the full-length movie The Life of General Villa was born. Combining staged scenes (directed by Christy Cabanne and starring Raoul Walsh as a young Villa) and footage of actual battles between Villa’s forces and those of the Government, The Life of General Villa premiered in New York City in May of 1914, and turned the tide of public opinion in Villa’s favor.

Directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Larry Gelbart (who also executive produced), the 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a spirited telling of this very unusual story, and is one of the best films about the silent movie industry that I’ve ever seen.

As And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself kicks off, Aitkin (played by Jim Broadbent) and Griffith (Colm Feore) have decided to send Aitkin’s assistant (and nephew) Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) to Mexico to meet with the legendary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas). After paying Villa $25,000 in gold and promising him 20% of the profits, Thayer and his crew set to work filming a battle the very next day.

Unfortunately, this initial footage, which is turned into a short film, is murky and fails to make an impact. When Villa also runs into some trouble for executing a British landowner (who accused Villa of stealing his cattle), another film project is put into motion, a full-length drama / documentary titled The Life of General Villa.

It’s everyone’s hope that this new film will be a success, but will Villa and Thayer survive long enough to finish both the movie and the revolution?

The cast is impressive. Joining those mentioned above, Michael McKean plays director Christy Cabanne and Kyle Chandler is Raoul Walsh, both of whom traveled to Mexico with actress Teddy Sampson (Alexa Davalos) to shoot the dramatized moments of Villa’s early life. Also strong (and at times damn funny) in support is Alan Arkin as Sam Dreben, a Jewish American mercenary hired by Villa to help his cause; and Matt Day appears in a few scenes as John Reed, the journalist whose socialist leanings formed the basis of Warren Beatty’s award-winning movie Reds. As the Mutual executives, Broadbent and Feore are memorable, as is Bailey, whose Thayer develops a genuine friendship with Villa.

That said, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is, without a doubt, the Antonio Banderas show! Delivering what might be his greatest performance, Banderas is boisterous, amusing, and sometimes frightening as Villa, who, despite his out-of-control ego, truly wants to free his people from government tyranny, a government supported, in large part, by wealthy Americans (Villa reveals at one point that the real source of William Randolph Hearst’s animosity towards him is that the millionaire publisher owns some eight million acres of Mexico, a country rich in oil).

Under director Beresford’s keen eye, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself moves at a brisk pace, with battle sequences that are exciting and bloody (the sight of Thayer and his team capturing footage of the action while simultaneously putting themselves in harm’s way is nerve-racking and funny at the same time). Yet the film’s most appealing aspect is not only that it’s cast of characters is based on real people (even Alan Arkin’s Dreben), but also real events. According to writer Larry Gelbart, a good deal of the film’s scenes actually happened; an early moment, where Villa confronts a Catholic priest who impregnated a teenage girl, is something, per Gelbart in his DVD commentary, Villa did.

Along with being a smooth, entertaining western / war film, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself also functions as an informative biopic of a famous military leader, and an expose of the earliest days of the motion picture industry. The fact that it approaches greatness on all counts is a true marvel.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

No comments: