Villa might have been a bandit and his horse might have been as fast
as polished steel, as the song would have it, but he was also an actor,
sort of a reality TV star of his day. The stage was the Mexican Revolution,
and the show centered on Villa’s band of guerilla fighters waging
war against soldiers of the Mexican government.
That Villa would be the first revolutionary to put his revolution
on the silver screen isn’t surprising when you learn that Pancho Villa
wasn’t his real name. He was born Doroteo Arango and borrowed
the name of a local bandit when he was young cattle rustler. At some
point he must have decided that Pancho Villa looked better in the
headlines and on the screen than his given name.
In 1914, Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation
of New York that essentially sold the movie rights of the revolution
to Mutual for $25,000 and a share of the profits. Even before the
movie deal, still photographs of Villa and his Constitutionalist soldiers
riding out of the hills of Chihuahua had already made him a symbol
and icon of the revolution.
In addition to the movie company’s equipment, the media contingent
included two photographers who acquired a rail car and turned it into
a rolling darkroom that they simply hitched to trains on their way
to battle sites. Journalist John Reed covered Villa’s insurgency for
the New York World newspaper and Metropolitan magazine. His 1914 book,
“Insurgent Mexico,” is a highly-regarded account of the revolution.
Actual filming of the revolution was a little more demanding than
either Villa or the movie company expected. Villa’s army was essentially
put on a production schedule that called for all battles to be fought
between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The cameras were rolling when Villa and
his men rode into Ojinaga but chief cameraman L.M. Burrud was not
ready and Villa’s men had to wait around for a director to call “Action!”
before the assault could begin.
For his part,
Villa proved to be a temperamental star. He fretted that his soldiers
were getting more movie exposure than he was, and the revolutionary
just didn’t think that was fair. The result was by all accounts
a terrible movie.
Harry Aitken, head of Mutual, complained that the final version
showed way too much of Pancho Villa strutting his stuff for the
cameras and not nearly enough actual warfare. Aitken went to Mexico
personally to deliver his review of the movie and Villa’s role in
it. The movie was a stinker, he told Villa, but he offered him another
chance, a remake. Villa happily agreed and promised the studio a
much better war the second time around.
Villa went on to commit what agents and publicists today would call
public relations blunders. He did not react well when the United
States chose to back the Carranza government in Mexico. He murdered,
pillaged and plundered and his victims included Americans. Part
of his motive in Villa’s murderous tantrum appears to have been
a rip off by an arms dealer who, in an act of wonderful irony, sold
Villa blank movie ammunition; Pancho Villa clearly expected real
The Texas-Mexico border country was thrown into a state of panic
as Villa was rumored to be striking this place or that place any
given time. Racial tensions flared, making the situation worse.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent General Black Jack Pershing into
Mexico in an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Villa. Eventually,
Villa set aside his weapons in exchange for a Mexican estate in
1920. He was assassinated in 1923.
As for the filmed version of the revolution, the second take apparently
wasn’t any better than the first one. Legendary director D.W. Griffith
got hold of the footage but he couldn’t do much with it either.
The movie was released briefly but moviegoers stayed away in droves.
Had he lived, Pancho Villa would have learned that, yes, war is
hell but show business can be downright brutal.