On January 7, 1914, The New York Times led with the story that the Mutual Film Company had signed a contract with Pancho Villa to make a movie. It was supposed to be a spectacle like nothing before it. In the end, several newsreels of the Pancho Villa were released as well as a feature film of the story of Pancho Villa. But all was not what it was purported to be.
The contract, which many believed didn’t exist, called for making war based on what the camera needed to capture the scenes. The notion was created that Pancho Villa agreed to wage war in the daylight and if the film wasn’t up to par at the end of any battle, Villa would stage reenactments of the battles for the film crews.
Although the film company promised realistic war for its audiences there was more fiction that reality.
The filming started on January 11, 1914 during the battle of Ojinaga, close to Cd. Juárez and it’s sister city, El Paso, Texas. The war footage revolutionized how audiences understood war. It was also the first time that film crews were officially embedded into military units during military operations. Unless individuals had been in war, the savagery and horrendous injurious were things neither understood nor discussed. Even for spectators watching from El Paso rooftops, the battles and the injuries lacked the goriness of reality as wounds appeared small from a distance. As the wounded crossed into the U.S. makeshift medical facilities, their damaged bodies weren’t severe enough to keep them in México, thus the savagery of war seemed not so bad to the El Paso spectators. The truly wounded were just too severely hurt to make their way towards medical treatments.
The Pancho Villa films took the glamour of war away from the audiences and introduced them to the savagery of men fighting men.
Reality does not translate to film easily. War is not film material because true war both horrifies audiences and bores them to death. Neatly organized battle lines with perfect focal points are untenable on the battlefield without creative licenses.
Although the Mutual Film Company promised “realistic” and “authentic” war what it delivered was small doses of reality with full helpings of the fiction of staged battle scenes filmed over various takes to make a packaged video that audiences would appreciate.
The “amazing” film contract, as the Mutual Film Company labeled it, was a legend to many until an authentic copy was found in México years later.
The contract was signed in El Paso, Texas, the ringside seat to a Revolution, as David Dorado Romo titled his 2005 book. Not only was El Paso offering a glimpse into warfare from the safety of the United States, but it played a part in exposing the horrors of wars to audiences via film.
But the Pancho Villa film did not just introduce warfare to Americans, it perpetuated the myth of being Mexican that still dominates the American narrative about México today.
Pancho Villa and his Villistas were performers for Mutual. They performed for the American audiences creating false narratives about Mexicans. They perpetuated the Mexican identity of “machos” and “bandits” that plays in American film to this day. Villa’s film contract perpetuated myths of Mexicanisms around machismo and banditry rolled into one. It created the caricature of a Mexican perpetuated around the notion that Mexicans are lawless, bandits and machos who torment their women while romantically avenging them for crimes committed on them, The reality is different.
The Mutual Film Company not only restaged battle scenes, but it created a makeover of Pancho Villa including a general’s uniform that Villa was contractually obligated to not allow himself to be filmed in. Villa, the film general dressed differently from Villa, the revolutionary hero fighting for his piece of México. The film also brought about the use of American actors to play Mexicans for the benefit of American audiences. Raoul Walsh sat in for Villa’s younger self and even played Villa during some of the recreations of the battle scenes. Nora “Teddy” Sampson and Irene Hunt, both from New York, played Villa’s sisters in the fictionalized recounting of Villa’s reason for becoming a bandit as the result of the rape of his sister. Other Americans played key roles in the film.
The Life of General Villa was shown to film goers on May 1914. There were seven reels in Mutual’s film vault with only two containing “actual battle scenes.” Today, the footage is presumed to be lost with only a few fragments known to exist.
In 2003, Antonio Banderas played Pancho Villa in an HBO trope around the creation of the Life of General Villa. Like Villa’s originally staged films, the Banderas film is an interpretation of a self-serving player in the original drama of the Mutual Film contract with Pancho Villa. The HBO film is loosely based on Raoul Walsh’s autobiography; Each Man in His Time.
Much of what is known about Pancho Villa today is mostly legend interspersed with fictionalized narratives exploiting revisionist histories with nuggets of reality. It makes one wonder if Pancho Villa is the one having the last laugh about a film many thought impossible and that created a narrative that remains part of today’s U.S.-México border dramas.