Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
USA/Mexico, 1934. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Ben Hecht, suggested by the book by Edgecumb Pinchon, O.B. Stade. Cinematography by Charles G. Clarke, James Wong Howe. Produced by David O. Selznick. Music by Herbert Stothart. Production Design by Harry Oliver. Costume Design by Dolly Tree. Film Editing by Robert Kern. Academy Awards 1934.
The famed Mexican revolutionary is given a highly fictionalized, often entertaining treatment in this combination of biopic, exploitation and expressionist action film. Wallace Beery is engaging in one of his biggest roles as the man who was orphaned as a child when the country’s cold-blooded aristocrats killed his parents and set him on the path of vengeance. Growing up a lawless bandit who easily turned a gun on any oligarch looking to keep the common man down, Pancho Villa’s tactics are eventually brought into line by future president Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall), who puts Villa at the forefront of an army that saves Mexico from its oppressors. The two men don’t see eye to eye for long and Villa is banished by Madero from the country until the politician’s trouble with “General Pascal” (played by Joseph Schildkraut, likely based on Pascual Orozco) sees him overthrown and the country in need of saving by Villa yet again. It’s possible that Howard Hawks, who was fired from the picture after an off-camera incident involving Lee Tracy’s being arrested during filming in Mexico (and replaced by Stuart Erwin), was upset that Scarface made gangster violence glamorous and here doubles down on his effort to show his anti-hero in a negative light. Having Beery and his preening mug play the lead character makes Villa adorable and is an uncomfortable blend with Ben Hecht’s vicious screenplay, which emphasizes a display of the abuses that come with any kind of power; Hecht doesn’t always make Villa’s most violent acts redeemable or even logical (and is shockingly honest about his polygamy) and yet there’s also a jokey familiarity we are meant to have with the character when he pulls off the odd bit of screwball antics (like a running joke about wanting to be depicted as a bull and not a pigeon). The film features a shocking level of violence for a movie made within view of the Hayes Code, women shot in the stomach, dead bodies dragged into a courtroom, a man who is covered in honey and fed to fiery ants, all of this is included in this raging experience that eventually goes on a bit too long and has an uneven tone between cartoonish comedy and violent drama. None of the cast is actually Latino and seeing actors in brownface won’t be easy for modern-day audiences to take (at the time, ironically, Villa’s widow said it was her favourite portrayal of her late husband), but some members of the roster turn in admirable performances, particularly Fay Wray as a glamorous society woman who tries but fails to remain on Villa’s side of things.