A comparison of two epic biopics about Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata made 50 years apart reveals how little Hollywood’s attitudes towards Mexico have changed
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself
2003, HBO (USA)
112 minutes (English)
1952, Twentieth Century Fox
113 minutes (English)
By Eugene Carey
YOU MIGHT expect cinematic portraits of the two towering figures of the Mexican Revolution made 50 years apart to reflect changing attitudes in the US movie establishment towards the country’s turbulent southern neighbour, but these two epic bio-pics are so similar that one comes away rubbing one’s eyes over just how striking has been the lack of cultural movement over the years.
Viva Zapata! confirmed Marlon Brando’s ascent to superstardom following A Streetcar Named Desire (by the same director) as the sultry and moody young actor teamed up with another giant in the industry, Anthony Quinn as Zapata’s brother Eufemio Zapata and the only “real” Mexican in a starring role in this film. One wonders whether that is why he was awarded an Oscar for this role
Beyond bringing a Mexican to the screen in this way, Kazan’s great merit was to have recruited John Steinbeck as the scriptwriter, achieving a tempo and ambience that is characteristic both of the author but also of the landscape he is familiar with. There is surprisingly little action in this movie, which explores the motives and moods of the peasant leader Emiliano Zapata and his ultimate betrayal at the hands of men with less integrity. The winding paths and hills given to his Morelos are used to good effect to conjur up the man’s unconquerable prowess, and Steinbeck employs Eufemio as a device with which to meditate on the abuse of power and corruptibility, central themes in Mexican political history.
Kazan’s other impressive contribution was to have employed original source material on which to steer Joseph MacDonald cinematography and establish a visual style, in this case the celebrated Agustin Casasola photographs from the period. The result is such a stunning evocation of a wild, untameable Mexico in which the interior scenes seem to play out weakly and life is conducted out there, under the sky.
And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself features Antonio Banderas as the larger-than-life revolutionary initially more well known than his southern contemporary but subsequently marginalised by official Mexican history and excluded from the panteón of national heroes following his assassination until interest in him in the United States made this unviable.
It is a clever, well constructed made-for-television movie based on the real story of how the canny Villa allowed a Hollywood crew to film him and his army at the height of the revolutionary warfare against the nationalist forces of Huerta to raise funds for guns and ammunition. The filmmakers thereby captured a unique, albeit partly fictionalised documentary record, which was released in the US to popular acclaim.
The film (sadly since lost) and others made about the commander of the celebrated División del Norte turned public opinion in favour of the reckless revolutionary viewed with suspicion and hostility in Washington, as well as establishing a new direction in the use of film and the interaction of the big studios with politics. It was the most expensive movie yet made, the first feature-length movie and the first movie to feature footage from a live battlefield.
Although And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself is made to entertain, not inform, and there is not the slightest resemblance between Banderas and Villa, the actor does a reasonably good job of exploring the light and dark sides of this complex caudillo, famed both for his charismatic leadership as for his cruelty.
But both films take serious historical liberties in order to shape the story to fit the audience, although Viva Zapata! does make some effort through its depiction of both Madero and Huerta to engage with the complex political infighting that shaped the revolutionary period. However, Zapata was not illiterate and never became president of Mexico – he was, however, politically astute and, despite Brando’s iconic status the young actor was lost in his efforts to depict Zapata playing politics as a fumbling yokel. Villa is portrayed as reckless, almost foolhardy and often cruel – yet his military genius, his dislike of egotism, his willingness to take advice, and his own insistence that he was not a coldblooded murderer seriously undermine this impression.
In both movies the US antipathy towards revolution and ideological politics more generally is also very evident. Both Villa and Zapata are depicted in a similar way as exotic yet simple gun-toting Robin Hoods with bravado, bandoliers and the casual attitude towards life born of a peasant’s hardy existence. Both Brando and Banderas are used to substitute the notion of the intellectual revolutionary with the man of the people – ideological revolutionary goals versus the very human objective of compassion and a thirst for justice. In And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself it is Villa’s inner demons that undermine his claims to be representing the poor, and in Viva Zapata! it is corruption once power has been attained that threatens the pure and largely democratic ideals of the peasant rebellion
Yet there were also significant differences between these two men as individuals and both held strong convictions that were both objectively anti-capitalist and grew increasingly sophisticated over time as did, at least in the case of Villa, their ability to employ such modern techniques as propaganda to further their cause. It was land reform that joined them – Villa’s first contact with Zapata was through a letter in which he announced to the leader of the southern army his intention to redistribute land in Chihuahua – but also a hatred of corruption among the powerful, militarism and clericalism.
Villa’s early life is shrouded in mystery but it is known that he was a sharecropper without land who worked the fields of a hacendado whom he would later shoot in the foot, forcing him to become a fugitive in the mountains of Durango. He only later paired up with known outlaws, and made recurrent efforts to live a normal life as a miner, mason’s hand, and meat seller, and became interested in notions of democracy at an early age. Zapata, although mestizo, was much more indigenous than the casting of Brando could ever allow for, a fluent Nahuatl speaker with a close, organic relationship with the community in and around the village of Anenecuilco. He was also somewhat middle-class, in local terms successful, and something of a dandy – a challenge to the notion of the poor, downwardly mobile Indian.
Villa was ardently practical in his commitment to the redistribution of wealth and land reform. His Bank of Chihuahua financed agrarian reform and urban co-operatives, he recreated the ejido communal landholdings and he was an early national populist, linking his political acts to a stout if crude defence of Mexican sovereignty. Zapata has been closely associated with the ideas of the anarcho-syndicalists and Magónistas that dominated Mexico’s liberal party, and it was his dissatisfaction with Madero’s lukewarm stance on land reform and desire for radical redistribution that led to the rupture in their relationship and sowed the seeds for Zapata’s Plan de Ayala, a radical manifesto in which he denounced Madero for betraying the revolution that would have a significant influence on the Mexican Constitution of 1917.
Both movies also avoid or at least diminish the US role in Mexico’s revolution, beyond that of filmmakers and a hardy mercenary. Admittedly, this might at first sight have less of an obvious place in any biographical exploration of Zapata beyond the fact that both Madero and Magón – the greatest influences upon the man – spent time in the US and it was from there that Mexico’s Revolution was planned, and that Huerta was in league with the American ambassador in Mexico City.
Where And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself scores over its earlier counterpart is its willingness to allow criticism of the US, or at least the behaviour of Americans, on to the screen, although it is the British landholder William Benton who is portrayed here as the arrogant imperialist and there are only passing references to the growing and hungry US presence in northern Mexico at that time. It is also notable how little or no mention is made of Villa’s anger at the interventionist stance of Woodrow Wilson and the latter’s support for Carranza, which ultimately led to the destructive raid in 1916 on Columbus in New Mexico and the punitive expedition into northern Mexico thereafter under Pershing.
Lastly, other than Anthony Quinn, it is striking how few Mexican actors appear in both these films, something that speaks volumes about how difficult it has been – and remains – for Latinos to achieve a representation that accurately reflects the community’s demographic and cultural influence.