Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Viva Villa! has been sitting on my DVR since last February. I’ve just never quite gotten around to it. I go through periods of recording films and periods of burning through as many of them as I can. At the moment, I’m more or less engaged in both. Movies that are more difficult to locate keep showing up on cable, which means I continually need to make room for them. There was a certain logic in knocking out something that had been sitting around for a good 15 months.
There are a couple of giant problems lurking in the heart of Viva Villa! I’m not sure the film can really be understood fully without addressing these two glaring problems. The first is one that I often complain about on this blog. Viva Villa! is much more than simply a warts-removed biography of Pancho Villa. It is an almost entirely whole cloth fabrication that bears resemblance to the man only on the surface. The film claims, for instance, that Pancho Villa spent time as Mexico’s putative president. Names are changed, as are a ton of verifiable facts.
But this problem, normally one I’d happily condemn a film for falling prey to when it’s this egregious, is small potatoes when it comes to what this film wants to be. This is ostensibly a biography of the great Mexican revolutionary leader. But is it serious? Is it a comedy? Are we supposed to sympathize with Villa? Viva Villa! has no idea what it wants to be, which leaves us with something of a confused muddle by the end of the picture.
We start with Pancho Villa as a child watching his father get whipped to death for standing up to the wicked, wicked landowners who have stolen his land. From this point, Pancho grows up to become a bandit, but a bandit who has a touch of Robin Hood in him. He goes after the wealthy landowners and does so with a social conscience toward protecting the poor peons. When we first see the adult Villa (Wallace Beery), he is retaliating for the deaths of six peons executed for minor crimes. In fact, this scene gave me great hope for this film. Villa brings in the dead bodies of the peons into the courtroom and has them act as a jury accusing the men who killed them, and he declares that he will kill the wealthy two-for-one for each peon unjustly slain.
We get a little bit of Villa’s personality here. He’s a bully and something of a lecher, since every time he sees a beautiful woman, he marries her, implying a string of wives across Mexico. It’s also early on that we encounter Jonny Sykes (Stuart Erwin), an American newspaper reporter who is sending stories to his paper about Villa’s exploits. Jonny is basically kidnapped by Villa to act as his press agent.
The story turns on Villa encountering Don Felipe de Castillo (Donald Cook), a wealthy landowner who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the peons. Castillo introduces Villa to people who will become important, or that we’re supposed to think are important. The first is Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall), a man of the people who wants to reform all of Mexico to be friendlier to the peasants. The second is General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut), in charge of Madero’s military arm. The third is Castillo’s sister Teresa (Fay Wray), who is put forward as something like a romantic interest for Villa despite that never really coming to fruition.
Essentially, Villa becomes part of Madero’s army and helps enact a coup. Then, Villa is sent away while General Pascal works against Madero to take over the country for himself, which brings Villa out of retirement—and makes him a criminal since he was exiled because of his inability to function in civilized society. And so Villa comes back to Mexico and raises his peon army, taking over the country (which never really happened).
The only other person really worth mentioning here is Villa’s right hand man Sierra (Leo Carrillo), who is always with Villa no matter what. Sierra’s defining character trait is physical vanity. The man can’t walk past a mirror without looking at himself.
As mentioned above, the biggest problem here is that Viva Villa! has no idea what kind of a movie it is. Pancho Villa is presented as an uncouth thug, but one we’re supposed to like. This is not a comedy, but there is a running joke about one of Villa’s wives demanding that he be home by 9:00 every night and another about him wanting an artist to draw bulls instead of pigeons. It wants to be biography, but it’s completely incorrect historically. Ultimately, I’m confused by it rather than enchanted by it.
The cast can’t even be bothered with consistent accents., Wallace Beery does his best to sound like a stereotypical Mexican, but almost no one else does. It just comes across as weird.
So, final analysis, Beery is having fun in the role, but the rest of this is confused and confusing.
Why to watch Viva Villa!: Wallace Beery has a lot of fun with this role.
Why not to watch: It’s as accurate to the life of Pancho Villa as it is to the life of Bob Vila.