|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.
What with two shoots (Thayer’s and Cabanne’s), the plot is intricate enough even without the flashback structure: the movie begins in 1923, with Thayer receiving a medal from Mexico nine years after he trekked there for the first time to meet Villa. Sometimes it’s hard to follow. For example, we meet Benton early on, at the Rio Grande, where he stands on the Texas side of the river, along with others, watching Villa’s troops wage battle against the Federales, and introduces the charismatic general as “the bloody Robin Hood of Mexico.” When Villa has Benton murdered, we hear about it, yet the movie offers no explanation until much later. There’s another flaw, though a small one. Gelbart is careful to provide us with the facts about Villa that Thayer isn’t quite ready to assimilate – he doesn’t register Villa’s ruthless side until he sees him shoot a woman in cold blood who responds with anger to her husband’s execution at his hands. But the picture throws in a scene where the American-turned-revolutionary John Reed (Matt Day, taking the role Warren Beatty played in his own 1981 Reds) justifies the woman’s killing to Thayer. It’s as though Gelbart (not Thayer) can’t reconcile Villa’s heroism with this arbitrary homicide.
|Antonio Banderas and Eion Bailey in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003).|
The movie’s real subject is the ways in which movies and reality overlap and the ways in which they’re distinct from each other. Gelbart and Beresford are hardly the first filmmakers to take on this theme, but it’s a great one. There’s a funny moment when Thayer suggests that Villa attack the Federales from the west rather than from the east (in the Battle of Torreón) so that the images will be more effective on camera, and though Villa is taken aback at the young man’s audacity, he agrees, proclaiming, “We kill them your way!” But eventually he realizes that he can only win against his adversaries by assaulting them at night, even though his decision violates his contract with Mutual. The fiery explosions as the revolutionaries blow up a church stocked with ammunition are dazzling. Perhaps Thayer can’t get them on film, but Beresford and his photographer, Peter James, can. The movie looks marvelous throughout, especially when the early, pictorial Mexican lighting passes into a blue-tinted look – like the beginning scenes in New Jersey, only with a darker, smoky filter.
Villa plays himself in Thayer’s film, and we see him in one set-up as a distinguished older man. Banderas looks wonderful in a white linen suit with graying hair; he’s both theatrical and a little stiff, since, stunning as he is in person, he’s unaccustomed to acting before a camera. (Only an actor as good as Banderas could play a bad actor so convincingly.) But the movie Thayer comes up with is panned by the critics: they aren’t impressed with the real Villa, who comes across, in Thayer’s words, as a starstruck cowboy. Walsh’s version is a lot more successful. Audiences gasp, though, at the realism of the Battle of Torreón as Thayer has shot it, which includes footage of the death of Villa’s mistress. The most startling scene involves two adolescent brothers whom Thayer has hired to work on the movie. When Villa’s men go into battle, he recruits the boys to fight as “heroes of the revolution”; appalled, Frank objects. Villa’s compromise is to split them up, sending the one who runs faster, Anastacio (Omar Éspino), and leaving the other one, Abraham (Cosmo Alberto), behind to work on editing Frank’s picture. And it’s in the editing room that he comes across footage of Anastacio’s death at Torreón.
Gelbart, who wrote the M*A*S*H TV series and most of Tootsie, as well as Sly Fox, the hilarious Broadway update of Volpone, was one of our best comic talents, and And Starring Pancho Villa, his final project, deserved a bigger splash than it got. (He died in 2009.) It’s an ingenious take on a Pirandellian comedy and perhaps it may yet find the audience it deserves.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.