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"When they go to the movies, you give them what they want. They give you what you want. What you want is something you have never needed more in your life…their approval."—Frank Thayer
Based in reality, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself tells the story of a film that was made about legendary rebel Pancho Villa. It is an entertaining film, proving once again that HBO has the budget and willingness to do something that few television studios have been able to do before.
Facts of the Case
In 1914, revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) offered to let a film company film his battles for a lump sum in gold and a percentage of the profits. Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey), a young film executive, was sent down to Mexico to broker the deal and lead the film crew. The first film they made was a financial disaster in the United States, but Frank Thayer was able to convince the studio to let him make an hour-long feature (the longest and most expensive to date) telling the story of Pancho Villa's life.
This begins an awkward relationship between the idealistic young executive and the charismatic rebel. Frank Thayer made a name for himself on what may be some of the most dangerous movie sets in history, and Pancho Villa gained support from the American public through the story that was told. While the film that was the result of this relationship has been lost, this new film has arrived to retell a story that has nearly been lost.
There is a lot to like about And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. There are a couple of standout performances. Banderas gives a standout performance as Pancho Villa, delivering exactly what the script demands of him. Because Villa is a folk legend, there is a wide range of stories about him, which means that Banderas's performance must be both consistent and varied. His character is always surprising, but it is clear that he is always driven by his passion for the revolution and the Mexican people. It is sometimes difficult to nail down what he is really like, but I think that mostly comes from the fact that he is such a public figure, and the Pancho Villa that leads the rebels into battle is very different from the Pancho Villa that shrewdly plans his next move behind the scenes.
The role of Frank Thayer is one of Eion Bailey's first major roles, and he carries it well. Through much of the film, we see the revolution through his eyes, but his character is much more than that. This is a coming of age story, and we get to see him grow from being an idealistic but timid manager to standing up against Pancho Villa in heated arguments. It's a great role, and I expect we may be seeing more from Bailey in the future. [Editor's Note: Some may recognize Bailey from a memorable first-season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he was the leader of the hyena-possessed teens in "The Pack."]
The rest of the cast is not quite as good. Most of the other major names have so little screen time that they do not stand out, with the exception of the always-impressive Michael McKean, who is very funny as the director that is called in to create the second film. The most disappointing performance comes from Alan Arkin, who was cast as a tough machine-gunning soldier of fortune but gives us his usual wisecracking performance. These supporting roles are further damaged by the weakness of the script, which tosses out tired old lines like candy.
The most interesting aspect of the story is the way that facts were twisted in order to make the second film. Thayer is driven by the desire to tell Villa's story, but he realizes that some facts and information will have to be embellished or even changed completely in order for the film to be a success. As the revolution reaches its height, Villa does increasingly horrible things in order to be successful, but the film crew is there in order to paint his actions in a good light. In the end, the American audience is not interested in the facts. The American viewers want a hero they can root for and a clear battle between good and evil. The reality of the Mexican revolution is not like that at all, but that is what the makers of the film are forced to edit in. As a result, the final film product is completely separated from the reality that Thayer and his crew have actually witnessed. This whole aspect of And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is slightly weakened at the end when a character in the film bluntly states this, but it is still moving and fascinating.
Unfortunately, this strength is also the film's biggest weakness. While I watched And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, I found myself wondering how close this film is to demonstrating the truth. Just as the film that was produced in 1914 gave the audience what they wanted to see, the moral ambiguity and questioning of American media involvement is exactly what the current audience wants to see in a film about the Mexican revolution. Pancho Villa has become a legend in Mexico, often compared to Robin Hood in the film. Because he has become such a legend, though, it's hard to believe all of the stories about him. Where was the information from this film found? Pancho Villa's name was erased from historical records in Mexico, so how can we know this much detail about his life?
The film has a couple other minor problems. HBO seems to get really excited about their freedom to have strong content and language in their television programming. They just seem to get carried away a bit. The steady stream of profanity and several gratuitous breast shots seem to be in the film because they can be, not because they are needed in any way. There is also the obligatory romance between Thayer and an actress that slows down the story too much. The only place the strong content does work is in the well-filmed and brutal battle scenes of the Mexican revolution. They pack a solid punch, which was necessary in order to uncover how terrible this situation really was.
From the technical quality of the disc, it's hard to believe that this film was produced for television. It has a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer, with accurate colors, a good black level and plenty of sharpness. There are no digital or film flaws. It's not quite reference quality, but it's pretty close. The sound is also great. The English 5.1 track has active surrounds, good bass levels, and clear dialogue. There is also an English 2.0 track, as well as French and Spanish dubs. HBO has also included English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The main special feature on the disc is a commentary track with writer and executive producer Larry Gelbart. It is an interesting track, but once again demonstrates the problems with the accuracy of the script. He often gives great details about Pancho Villa's life, but they are details that I find it hard to believe that anyone could know. He doesn't discuss the sources past the book that the film was based on, so it is impossible to unravel fact from fiction. Still, it is a pleasant track to listen to.
There is also a brief featurette, but it is that usual fluffy studio crap that doesn't have anything useful or interesting to say.
In the end, the minor problems and historical questions that the film raises are not enough to destroy the impact of And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. It may not be as impartial as HBO would like you to believe, but it is an interesting analysis of fictional accounts of history. Fans of war movies and history may want to go for a purchase; others will probably be quite pleased with a rental.
Larry Gelbart is ordered to bring his sources to the bench for further analysis. Everyone else is free to go.
Since writing this review, I have received a letter from Joshua D. Maurer, who did the historical research for the film. As I requested, he has approached the bench and has satisfied me that this research was both accurate and thorough. With this in mind, I feel the need to amend my original review. My problems with the ideas in the film remain. I still believe that a film accusing another film of being too subjective needs to display more ideological objectivity. A film this focused on the American involvement in foreign internal military affairs would not have been made this way several years ago, and HBO did not spend enough screen time displaying the facts and too much time making their own statement about the films of Frank Thayer. However, my accusations regarding the factual accuracy of the film were ungrounded, so you can go watch this film with the comfort that, indeed, this is a precise if skewed look at an odd little piece of movie history.
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