|Antonio Banderas, Matt Day, Carl Dillard and Eion Bailey in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003).|
The HBO movie And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a satirical comedy that the writer, Larry Gelbart, built up from an oddball historical footnote: in 1914 Pancho Villa invited Mutual Films to send their star director, D.W. Griffith, to Mexico to film the revolution. In his tabloids, William Randolph Hearst was editorializing fervently against Villa’s uprising, so Villa hoped that he could counter his bad press by going Hollywood – or at least Fort Lee, New Jersey, which in 1914 was where American movies were being made. I have no idea how faithful Gelbart is to the facts (a prefatory note tells us, “The improbability of events depicted in this film is the surest indication that they actually did occur”), but he landed on an irresistible subject and the movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, is terrific. In it, Antonio Banderas gives a sly and exuberant performance as Villa – it’s an ideal role for him – and the talented young actor Eion Bailey (who later played a major role in Band of Brothers and recurring roles on ER and Ray Donovan) is Frank Thayer, whom Harry Aitken (Jim Broadbent), the head of Mutual, sends down instead because Griffith’s too busy. The movie is shaped as Thayer’s coming of age: he falls in love with the revolution, becomes Villa’s buddy and romanticizes him, and then he has to acknowledge the more unpleasant truths about him. He even gets the girl – the actress Teddy Sampson (Alexa Davalos), who appears in the movie he makes about Villa. Dramatically, Gelbart and Beresford need Thayer to filter Villa’s actions, which are complicated and sometimes contradictory. But though Bailey is very good and his story is interesting in its own right, it’s Banderas’s Villa who mesmerizes the camera and claims ownership of the movie. Beresford shores up the two leading men with a colorful supporting cast: Broadbent, Michael McKean as William Christy Cabanne, who takes over from Thayer and makes a commercial seven-reeler about Villa, and Kyle Chandler as Raoul Walsh, who stars in it; Saul Rubinek as Villa’s American liaison; Colm Feore as Griffith; Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head as William Benton, a rich Englishman whose Mexican ranch Villa bleeds of its cattle (and then shoots Benton when he objects); and especially Alan Arkin as Sam Drebben, a Bronx-Jewish mobster who goes to battle with Villa. Arkin’s performance, gruff and robust and hilarious, ranks with the blistering comic work he did in the seventies in movies like Hearts of the West, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The In-Laws.