Judge Mike Rubino rages! Judge Mike Rubino lusts! Judge Mike Rubino reviews Villa Rides!
Villa rages! Villa lusts! Villa kills!
Villa Rides is a competent Western epic made in classic Hollywood style: forget the truth, let's have fun! With a solid cast, a script by Sam Peckinpah, and some pretty exciting battle sequences, this Mexican history-lite flick is an entertaining diversion.
Facts of the Case
A gringo-pilot gunrunner (Robert Mitchum, Man with the Gun) gets caught in the middle of a Mexican revolution. After being rescued by Pancho Villa (Yul Brynner, The Magnificent Seven) and his cohort Rodolfo (Charles Bronson, Death Wish), the aviator reluctantly agrees to help keep the government of Mexico in the hands of the people.
It's easy to understand why Villa Rides got lost in the shuffle and is only now making its appearance on DVD. It is one of those classic Hollywood epics, born in between the craze of Westerns and historical films of the '60s. It's not the best of the bunch by any means, but it is entertaining, I'll give it that.
Poncho Villa, like so many South American revolutionaries, is a complicated character that can be equally admired and despised for his actions. Here, Brynner makes him look intelligent, caring, and bold. He marches through the hills with his band of freedom fighters, plotting out traps, marrying scads of women, and doing his best to uphold democracy. Of course, he's also pillaging, plundering, and murdering, but this movie is fine with skipping that for the most part. Instead we are treated to a favorable version of Poncho, much of which is seen through the eyes of the American outsider.
Robert Mitchum shows up at the beginning of the film trying to deliver guns for the Colorados (i.e. the bad guys). But, after these red-flaggers raid the nearby town that Mitchum is staying in, he begins to see how evil these people are. Viewing the first half of the film through the eyes of The Gringo (he does have a name, it's Lee Arnold) is an effective way to introduce the audience to a historical character they probably know nothing about. Of course, if you just go by this film's representation of him, you'd think Villa to be on par with George Washington. Mitchum is clearly phoning in a performance here, and his motivation and evolution as a character becomes extremely muddled. One moment he cares about the Mexican people, another he cares just about money. He's like a wishy-washy Han Solo mixed with Mark Walberg's character in the remake of Planet of the Apes ("Just get me outta here!"). But once the point of view moves away from Mitchum, things start to get interesting.
The movie has three large battle sequences, all expertly shot and choreographed. The first is the raid in the small village, where the Colorados are chased out by Villa. The second is an awesome railroad ambush, featuring Mitchum dropping dynamite from his plane onto the soldiers below. Finally, there is the climactic battle between the revolutionaries and the Colorados. It's all a lot of fun, and probably the main reason to watch the film. It's especially cool to watch the massive amounts of people on horseback navigate the battlefield amidst explosions and gunfire—if they were to do something like this nowadays, you can be sure it would all be CGI.
Good battle scenes don't make an epic movie great, however, they merely add to the spectacle of the experience. Sadly, the big-picture storylines involving political intrigue, civil war, and propaganda are glossed over, ignored, and rewritten for the sake of a good film. This makes Villa Rides feel like a shallow lark rather than the weighty history lesson that it aspires to be. The acting is a tad hit or miss as well. Brynner is his usual commanding self, although his mustache and wig look a little strange. Bronson, however, is fantastic as the loose-cannon Rodolfo. He's Poncho's duel-wielding right-hand man who isn't afraid to dirty his hands, or kill three guys with one bullet. Strangely, no one seems to care about consistent accents. Some people will have deep Mexican accents, others will have American accents, and the rare few sound like aristocratic Brits.
This is the first time Villa Rides has been available on DVD. The film does appear to have been restored some, and the picture quality is fairly good (although there are the few instances where the reel-change marks show). The sound, while in mono, is fairly clean and crisp. The film does have a pretty melodramatic score, but that sort of thing was in vogue at the time. Sadly, this is a strictly bare-boned release with no special features, trailers, or anything of the sort.
Villa Rides is a Western epic that was previously lost to film history. While it isn't a perfect movie by any means, it is a fun one filled with some good one-liners, quality action, and high production values. Its subject matter, while somewhat based in history, is far too familiar and generic for it to stand out from the sea of other epics and Westerns made around the same time.
This is certainly worth renting if you enjoy classic Westerns with familiar faces. Just don't go in expecting anything deeper than a few thrills and Yul Brynner in a wig.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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