This is a movie that I bought on DVD amongst a job lot maybe six or seven years ago and I’m only getting around to watching it today. Shocking. I really wish I hadn’t waited so long.
Aeschylus was right, it seems.
In 1914, the Mutual Film Company responds to a proposition from General Pancho Villa of the Mexican Revolutionary army to be allowed to come and film his troops in action against the forces of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, in exchange for a suitcase full of gold and a percentage of the profits. Studio chief Harry Aitken sends his nephew Frank Thayer to produce the film. The project eventually becomes The Life of General Villa, featuring future director Raoul Walsh as the young Villa, and starring Pancho Villa (as himself).
Almost 90 years later, HBO Films produced this dramatisation of the real events of spring/summer 1914, telling the story through the eyes of Thayer – played by Eoin Bailey – as he falls under Villa’s charismatic thrall, eventually becoming a trusted friend of the general. The film was directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) from a script by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie). Gelbart has form in mining entertainment from war without trivialising is, as a creator and lead writer on the M*A*S*H tv series. Pancho shares a similar intent, although this is front line instead of M*A*S*H’s rear echelon. While it never feels gratuitous, this has a lot more of the horrors of war than his earlier work.
While he is arguably more discreet about it this time, Gelbart continues to use the setting of an historical war to comment on a present-day one. He is clearly unhappy with the way the media not only reports on war, but shapes and influences it. This film was in production during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while the War On Terror had already been raging in Afghanistan for well over a year. It’s not a huge stretch to see Fox News echoing in the overblown and jingoistic reporting of the Hearst Publishing Company for example, while Thayer’s negotiations with Villa over only fighting during daylight hours and agreeing to restage battles that aren’t recorded satisfactorily are vaguely terrifying if applied to the modern age. Realising that all of this is mostly true just makes it even worse.
While this subtext (it is a little too damning to be called satire) adds to the film, Beresford’s picture is strong enough to be enjoyed at face value as a story about the making of both the world’s first war documentary and the first feature-length movie. Bailey does well as Thayer; initially a shy and naive man who becomes much more forceful and strong-willed under Villa’s influence. Australian former soap star Matt Day plays the American socialist journalist Jack Reed; unfortunately the lead character from Warren Beatty’s Reds is a little hard done by in the screen time stakes, reduced to not much more than the vocalisation of Thayer’s conscience. Alan Arkin is a joyously profane presence as Sam Dreben, an aging mercenary from Brooklyn serving as Villa’s machine-gunner. The film wholeheartedly belongs to Antonio Banderas though, as the mercurial General Villa himself.
Villa seems to have been a hard man to get a handle on. Poorly educated yet tactically insightful; humble and loyal to his people but capable of shocking acts of brutality; it was his idea to bring a film crew to the battlefield in order to increase his profile and build his reputation in the States, to counter the mauling he was taking from Hearst and others in the press. In Banderas’ hands he becomes almost a force of nature, simultaneously contemplative and impulsive. It’s easy to see why Thayer is initially so nervous around him: he seems constantly on the verge of shooting someone.
One thing to note about this film: there are no heroes. Nobody comes out of this in a wholly favourable light, and everyone is damaged by the events of the Revolution either physically or mentally, whether it’s Thayer sacrificing his principles for the film, or his local assistant finding something terrible in the footage, or Villa himself carrying out a particularly heinous act of violence. As Jack Reed reminds Thayer at his film’s premiere, “the first casualty of war is truth”. It seems the second is innocence.
Just to finish on a lighter note, here’s some useless trivia for you: This was the second film from 2003 in which Antonio Banderas saved Mexico. The first was the closer of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy, Once Upon A Time In Mexico. There is a scene in Pancho where the general expels a Don from his hacienda and hands over all his property to the poor. The Don is played by legendary Mexican character actor Pedro Armendáriz Jr. In Once Upon A Time, Banderas’ Mariachi rescues El Presidente from a cartel-sponsored military coup (while killing lots of people with a guitar case). El Presidente was played by one Pedro Armendáriz Jr. When that comes up in a pub quiz, you’ll thank me.