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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Pancho Villa

by Clay Coppedge

Pancho Villa might have been a bandit and his horse might have been as fast as polished steel, as the song would have it, but he was also an actor, sort of a reality TV star of his day. The stage was the Mexican Revolution, and the show centered on Villa’s band of guerilla fighters waging war against soldiers of the Mexican government.

That Villa would be the first revolutionary to put his revolution on the silver screen isn’t surprising when you learn that Pancho Villa wasn’t his real name. He was born Doroteo Arango and borrowed the name of a local bandit when he was young cattle rustler. At some point he must have decided that Pancho Villa looked better in the headlines and on the screen than his given name.

In 1914, Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation of New York that essentially sold the movie rights of the revolution to Mutual for $25,000 and a share of the profits. Even before the movie deal, still photographs of Villa and his Constitutionalist soldiers riding out of the hills of Chihuahua had already made him a symbol and icon of the revolution.

In addition to the movie company’s equipment, the media contingent included two photographers who acquired a rail car and turned it into a rolling darkroom that they simply hitched to trains on their way to battle sites. Journalist John Reed covered Villa’s insurgency for the New York World newspaper and Metropolitan magazine. His 1914 book, “Insurgent Mexico,” is a highly-regarded account of the revolution.
Actual filming of the revolution was a little more demanding than either Villa or the movie company expected. Villa’s army was essentially put on a production schedule that called for all battles to be fought between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The cameras were rolling when Villa and his men rode into Ojinaga but chief cameraman L.M. Burrud was not ready and Villa’s men had to wait around for a director to call “Action!” before the assault could begin.
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For his part, Villa proved to be a temperamental star. He fretted that his soldiers were getting more movie exposure than he was, and the revolutionary just didn’t think that was fair. The result was by all accounts a terrible movie.

Harry Aitken, head of Mutual, complained that the final version showed way too much of Pancho Villa strutting his stuff for the cameras and not nearly enough actual warfare. Aitken went to Mexico personally to deliver his review of the movie and Villa’s role in it. The movie was a stinker, he told Villa, but he offered him another chance, a remake. Villa happily agreed and promised the studio a much better war the second time around.

Villa went on to commit what agents and publicists today would call public relations blunders. He did not react well when the United States chose to back the Carranza government in Mexico. He murdered, pillaged and plundered and his victims included Americans. Part of his motive in Villa’s murderous tantrum appears to have been a rip off by an arms dealer who, in an act of wonderful irony, sold Villa blank movie ammunition; Pancho Villa clearly expected real bullets.

The Texas-Mexico border country was thrown into a state of panic as Villa was rumored to be striking this place or that place any given time. Racial tensions flared, making the situation worse. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent General Black Jack Pershing into Mexico in an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Villa. Eventually, Villa set aside his weapons in exchange for a Mexican estate in 1920. He was assassinated in 1923.

As for the filmed version of the revolution, the second take apparently wasn’t any better than the first one. Legendary director D.W. Griffith got hold of the footage but he couldn’t do much with it either. The movie was released briefly but moviegoers stayed away in droves. Had he lived, Pancho Villa would have learned that, yes, war is hell but show business can be downright brutal.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
April 15 , 2010 Column

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