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TV Preview: How Pancho Villa manipulated Mexico's revolution for the movies

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

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

That pronouncement appears at the start of HBO's "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself," the story of how Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa used a North American movie company -- and vice versa -- to spread his fame and win American acceptance for his cause.

 
 

"And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself"

When: 9:30 tonight on HBO.
Starring: Antonio Banderas.

   
 
 

Written by master satirist Larry Gelbart (TV's "M*A*S*H," "Barbarians at the Gate") and directed by Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy"), the film is less comedic than its title suggests. Absurd, yes, but it's grounded in reality.

Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) offers exclusive rights to film his fight against forces loyal to Mexican President Victoriano Huerta in exchange for $25,000 in gold and 20 percent of the film's profits.

Mutual Films sends young production assistant Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) to strike a deal with "the Robin Hood of Mexico" and film his troops at work. It's a chaotic scene; one cameraman loses control of his bladder.

The footage doesn't play well back in America, where it's laughed off the screen. Thayer realizes that to get the footage he needs, the film company needs more control. Villa agrees to go into battle only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the light is best for the film crew. An experienced director is brought in, along with actors who portray young Pancho Villa, his mother and his sister. His mother is played by a blond actress, much to Villa's amusement.

The Mexican rebel even agrees to change his angle of attack in one battle so the cameras won't be shooting into the sun.

"Pancho Villa" has its light moments and certainly has good humor about the insanity of the proceedings, but it's rooted in reality. The film is not over the top or slapsticky, and it touches on serious topics: Villa's willingness to send boys into battle, his vicious, cruel streak and the evergreen notion that truth is the first casualty of war.

During a July news conference for the film in Hollywood, star Antonio Banderas said he didn't judge the real-life Villa but had tried to understand him.

"This is a man that committed acts that are beyond human, sometimes," Banderas said. "At the same time, in the context of Mexico, poor people ... saw him as a liberator, somebody who set them free."

Banderas said Villa saw himself not as presidential material but as a warrior.

"This was a totally uneducated man, and yet he was compared to Napoleon in terms of his battle tactics," Gelbart said. "It was his idea to have the battle filmed. He wanted to raise some money to buy arms, but he was [aware] of the fact that more people would probably see him in a film than could read about him in the newspaper. He was that bright."

No substantial footage from the actual film "The Life of General Villa" exists today, but the unedited footage from the battles was used as research in making HBO's movie.

Gelbart said comparisons between "reality" TV and filming Villa's war are valid.

"Prior to this battle, which was photographed by an American film company, the only battle images we had were still photos," Gelbart said. "This is the confluence of two revolutions, really: Mexican revolution and the revolution, the evolution, of motion pictures. ... In the film, one of the characters says that 'the experience has taught us that the lens is mightier than the sword.' And that's really sort of the basis for the picture."

Fairly or unfairly, Gelbart also compared the Villa film to American involvement overseas.

"If you notice in Afghanistan, the guerrilla fighters were dressed in U.S. fatigues, much as portions of Villa's army were dressed in surplus Confederate army uniforms, which the motion picture company asked for," Gelbart said. "There's a great deal of blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality, and Pancho Villa was very interested in the camera and the angles. He became a movie buff, in a sense, and the movie people started to talk about tactics. This movie's almost a trailer for 2003."

Gelbart said the war in Iraq did not force any changes to the "Pancho Villa" film.

"They followed our script perfectly," he said. "We didn't have to change a thing."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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