Starring Pancho Villa As Himself is a superb movie starring Antonio Banderas as the great Mexican revolutionary from the start of the last century. It’s based on an incredible true story, spanning the world of early movies, PR, media manipulation, and international politics.
In about 1912, Pancho Villa approached the great director D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company, offering them the exclusive right to film his revolution in return for cash which he could use to buy guns. Griffith himself was busy with other productions (he shot a staggering 72 films in 1912!), so he sent a junior director, Frank Thayer. Thayer and his crew became the first war cameramen, getting right into the thick of the action and capturing real footage of battles. However, the film, Life of Villa, was a dud. Real footage of men fighting just wasn’t as exciting as the staged battle sequences that Griffith was making for films like Birth of a Nation. So in 1914, Mutual Film Corporation (who had bought Biograph the previous year) sent Thayer back to make a second film, The Life of General Villa, interspersing real-life battle sequences with staged back story, starring Pancho Villa as himself, and the young actor Raoul Walsh as Villa in his early days. (Walsh, of course, later achieved fame as a director, with over 130 films to his name.)
The Life of General Villa was, believe it or not, the first feature-length movie. Thayer convinced the studios and distributors that to tell the story would take an hour, and he simply couldn’t do his subject justice in two reels (24 minutes).
The motives behind making this movie were complex: it wasn’t just about trying to make a good film. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had business interests in Mexico, and had a vested interest in seeing Villa’s revolution fail. He was using his media empire to turn American public opinion against Villa. The fledgling motion picture wanted to prove that movies were more influential than newspapers, and decided to use Villa as a test case to see if they could sway opinion in the opposite direction. And the rivalry between Hearst and everyone else meant that there were a lot of people who quite liked the idea of seeing Hearst lose a lot of money.
So The Life of General Villa wasn’t just a film. It was a weapon in a new type of propaganda war. Movies won. This led, in turn, to Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda movies for the Third Reich, live news reporting from Vietnam, and ultimately the embedded journalists in the Gulf who bring us our daily dose of gung-ho jingoism.
The most incredible sequence is where Villa agrees a contract with the movie company for the second film. He has to agree not to fight battles at night, because the cameras wouldn’t be able to film them. He has to give the film crew 24 hours notice of any engagements, and he agrees to restage any battle that they can’t film. And later, he has to replan an attack to suit the movie, because otherwise they’d be shooting into the sun. Literally, the war is being run at the convenience of the people filming it.
This is a fascinating film from a historical point of view, and a gripping film in its own right. Banderas delivers a top-notch performance, and the cinematography is stunning.