La venganza de Pancho Villa (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa): A lost and found border film*
Gregorio C. Rocha
On January 5, 1914, Frank N. Thayer, representing Mutual Film Corporation and General Pancho Villa, head of the Constitutionalist army in the Mexican revolution, gathered in the office of attorney Gunther Lessing in El Paso, Texas, to sign a contract.
In it, Pancho Villa agreed to give exclusive rights to Mutual to film the triumphant campaign of his army on its way down to Mexico City. As a result of this contract, the film The Life of General Villa was made, becoming perhaps, one of the first biographical films ever made and “…one of the oddest episodes in film history”, according to film historian Kevin Brownlow.1
The Life of General Villa opened its commercial run in the Lyric Theater in New York, in May, 1914 and afterwards, once World War I had started, the film was apparently junked by the same company that produced it, becoming another lost film, but quite a legendary one.
After an exhaustive two-year search, digging in the film archives in Amsterdam, London, New York, and Mexico City, while looking for film materials for my documentary The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa, I stumbled into one of the most precious treasures a film researcher may aspire to find: dozens of nitrate film reels from the 1920’s, lobby posters, photographs, film artifacts, glass slides and memorabilia, which had been sitting in the basement of the house of the Padilla family in El Paso, Texas, since the late 1930’s.
The amazing find followed an earlier one: while visiting the Special Collections in the library of the University of Texas at El Paso, a set of photographs was put in front of me. To my surprise, the photographs showed many unknown scenes from The Life of General Villa, showing Raoul Walsh, Teddy Sampson and other players hired by Mutual Film Corporation. Since this film was the ultimate goal of my quest, my pulse accelerated with the belief that I was getting close to it, if there was a surviving print. Along with the photographs, there were copies of exhibition leaflets announcing the film La venganza de Pancho Villa, (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa), a title of which I had never heard before. Since the leaflet was dated 1937, my first thought was that they were announcing a talkie film, but small letters at the bottom of the page read: “We will soon count with sound equipment!” Then, I was positive that they were referring to a silent film, but there was only one film made about Pancho Villa in the silent era, The Life of General Villa. Where and what was this new “lost” film? It happened to be very near, in the vault of the library, nested in a metal container, since 1985, when it was donated to UTEP ( University of Texas at El Paso).
La venganza de Pancho Villa had been slowly decaying in its container. When we opened up the lid, a strong smell of nitrocellulose filled the air. We pulled seven reels out of the container. While examining the positive print, multiple glue splices showed that the film had been cut from different sources – both fictional and documentary – and using different brands of film, namely Eastman Kodak, Pathé and Agfa. At first glance, it was possible to date most of the strips of film as being 1916 nitrate film stock. All seven reels showed melting of the emulsion in the section proximate to the core, for which it was possible to foresee that at least one third of the film was irretrievably lost. At first glance too it was possible to see in some of the frames the image of Raoul Walsh playing the young Pancho Villa, and fascinating bilingual English-Spanish inter-titles, telling a somewhat obscure story about Pancho Villa. My conclusion was that I had found not the lost, but another lost film about Pancho Villa.
Subsequently, with the help of the Institute of Oral History, I came to meet the Padilla family, former owners of La venganza de Pancho Villa, who welcomed me in their home, allowed me in their basement to open those rusty cans filled with film treasures, investigate in their documents, and shared with me the story of their ancestors.
Between 1920 and 1936, Mr. Félix Padilla, an empresario from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, traveled extensively with his son Edmundo throughout Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, exhibiting silent films that he rented or purchased from film distributors based in Mexico City and Los Angeles. Félix and Edmundo Padilla toured in a pick-up truck, carrying with them 35mm films, a portable film projector, a manual phonograph, lobby posters and several 78rpm records, which they used to add music to the projections. In the afternoons, Mr. Padilla would traverse the center of each town, announcing the day’s program, using a megaphone. Screenings usually took place in the local theater, where Mr. Padilla shared the profits on a 50-50% basis with the owner. Occasionally, when movie theaters were not available, Mr. Padilla would set a huge white canvas in the main plaza and the screening would take place in the open air, with the assistants bringing their own chairs.
For 5 cents and 10 cents (children and adults respectively), the people from places like Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; Gomez Palacio, Durango; Coyote, Coahuila; or Deming, New Mexico, could enjoy the exhibition of American short comedies, followed by silent Mexican melodramas, such as En la hacienda, by Ernesto Vollrath, 1922.
In the early 1930´s, when the family had already moved to El Paso, Texas, Félix and Edmundo decided to create their own version of the life of Pancho Villa in film, cutting and re-editing fragments from films they had in their collection. By doing this, they unknowingly became the first Mexican-American filmmakers. Edmundo Padilla´s fascination with Pancho Villa probably began when, as a child, he witnessed the Mexican revolution:
“…At midnight you could listen the gunfire. The shout of “Viva Villa!” would unleash yelling and thundering all around. Sometimes the revolutionaries would take the town, but at other times they would be defeated. I also became aware of the executions that took place in the municipal cemetery, where federal soldiers would fire their rifles against the revolutionaries standing in front of a wall. I also got to see Pancho Villa in person, when one time he arrived in his own car pulling a wagon loaded with corn and beans. He personally distributed the goods with the poor people who arrived carrying baskets.”2
The Padilla´s fascination with Pancho Villa rivaled their fascination for the moving image. As a result of the first assemblage of appropriated footage, they came up with a compilation film which was exhibited under different titles, depending on the version. El reinado del terror (The Reign of Terror) was the first release of the film. It is possible that Félix and Edmundo Padilla began their project out of the remaining few reels of the legendary The Life of General Villa.
One fact that may prove the hypothesis that The Life of General Villa was the basis for the Padilla film is provided by the stills which were used for the lobby cards in advertising their film. These are in fact images from The Life of General Villa. By carefully examining those photographs, it is possible to see the “Eastman Kodak Nitrate Film” brand printed in the borders, which suggests that they are frame enlargements, rather than “stills” taken during production. In the same interview recorded by Magdalena Padilla in 1976, Mr. Edmundo Padilla remembered that:
“The film of Pancho Villa was about the Mexican Revolution. There were many scenes shot in real battlefields. My father brought that film to the U.S. and exhibited it in many places here, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas, always in small towns. He would bring his projector, rented the theaters and went for a percentage, including schools. The film of Villa was about when Villa was young, how he was pushed into the revolution, his first accomplishments after he was a bandit and then when he became a general. People loved this film, especially Mexican people.”3
This statement from Mr. Padilla clearly references the story line of The Life of General Villa. Though Félix Padilla claimed it as his film and never mentioned the sources from which he gathered the scenes for El reinado del terror, it is possible to establish now, that in addition to The Life of General Villa, they also drew from other sources, mainly from the 20-episode serial Liberty, a Daughter of the U.S.A. directed by Jacques Jaccard, and produced by Universal Film Manufacturing Co. in 1916. Most likely, Félix had purchased several episodes of Liberty at a low price, after it had lost its commercial value. This episodic film, released in August, 1916, showed a “patriotic” response to the attack of Villista forces on the town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 8th, that same year. This attack, which resulted in the complete destruction of the center of the town, caused several American civilian and military casualties, and marked a downturn in Pancho Villa´s image in North American public opinion. The response of the American government, led by President Woodrow Wilson, was the immediate invasion of Mexican territory with an army of 15,000 soldiers under the command of General John Pershing, in pursuit of Pancho Villa. The attack to Columbus and the resulting “Punitive Expedition” set both countries on the brink of war and exacerbated nationalist feelings on both sides of the border.
For Mexicans, Pancho Villa´s dimensions as a hero grew as the sole man able to defy the imperialist power by attacking U.S. continental territory. On the North American silver screen, however, Pancho Villa´s image once compared to that of Napoleon or Robin Hood in The Life of General Villa, shifted to that of the worst of villains, becoming Public Enemy number one. In an advertisement published in August, 1916, by Moving Picture World, Liberty was announced as: “A great love story; scenes laid along the Mexican border; with enough of the military atmosphere in each episode to stampede your audiences into bursts of patriotic feeling and appreciation.”
In Liberty, a Daughter of the U.S.A., the actress Mary Walcamp plays the young heroine Liberty, who is kidnapped by an evil character named Pancho Lopez, a Mexican bandit who demands ransom to finance his revolution. While doing this, Pancho Lopez invades Discovery, destroys the town, and kills most the inhabitants. Major Rutledge, played by Jack Holt, heads an army of Texas Rangers into Mexico to rescue Liberty and to get rid of Pancho Lopez and his band.
Though Liberty seemed to be an innocent American episodic melodrama, nowadays, it offers a very interesting reading from an ideological point of view. On one side, it represents an excellent example of female protagonists finding a Utopian space to develop as the “New Woman”4, but Liberty may also be considered as the ultimate greaser film due to its profound and furious anti-Mexican content, perhaps not surpassed by any other American film of the period. Liberty also offers ground for the study of the symbolic representations of gender, race and politics in early American melodramas. This same kind of analysis could be applied to Patria, a “war readiness” serial also related to the American paranoia regarding Mexico as well as Japan, produced a year later by William R. Hearst.5
Padilla´s strategy in including this episodic film in his project, was to eliminate most of the scenes where Liberty appeared, bringing Pancho Lopez into the foreground as protagonist of the story. When creating new inter-titles in Spanish and English to convey his desired meaning, Padilla re-named the characters and places that Universal´s screenwriters invented in order to avoid any direct offense to Mexican sensibilities, using their real names. Thus, “Pancho Lopez” became Pancho Villa and “Discovery” became Columbus. But, in the few scenes where Liberty appears, she became “La güera Amalia” (the “blonde Amalia”). With nationalist fervor, a common attitude in Mexican border-landers in order to exercise cultural resistance, Mr. Padilla transformed the original anti-Mexican intention of Liberty into a dubious glorification of Pancho Villa, in spite of the original portrayal of him as a merciless murderer.
With all this, Padilla released another version, or more precisely, another episode of the film: Pancho Villa en Columbus, which he probably exhibited to the same audiences. Mr. Mariano de la Torre, grandson of Mr. Félix Padilla, witnessed some of the screenings when, as a child, he was hired as phonograph operator:
“I was cranking the phonograph and when the attack on Columbus appeared on the screen, my grandfather would cue me to crank it with more impetus, making the crowd go wild. They would yell: ´Viva Villa! Mueran los gringos!´”6
It is important to remember that during the Depression, when the Padillas were screening their films, intolerance towards Mexican immigrants was high and racial segregation was the norm in the border area. However, the Padillas edited their film to be appreciated by both Anglo and Mexican audiences. Due to the use of bilingual inter-titles and to the interpretive ambiguity, the film could have had different readings and therefore satisfy audiences from both cultures.
Pancho Villa en Columbus was an open-structured film. When Mr. Félix Padilla passed away in 1936, Edmundo followed up the family tradition and he came up with the definitive version of the film, La Venganza de Pancho Villa. Edmundo added historical value to the film by incorporating documentary scenes borrowed from Historia de la Revolución Mexicana, a Mexican compilation documentary made by Mr. Julio Lamadrid in 1928. From it, Edmundo drew sequences showing the “real” Pancho Villa and different events of the Mexican revolution such as the Battle of Celaya, which might be an example of his method: he would start the sequence showing a Mexican newsreel of the actual event, and suddenly, would cut to an action-packed fake battle, filled with hundreds of extras, from one of the episodes of Liberty.
While trying to arrive to a coherent cinematic discourse on the life of Pancho Villa from this extremely contradictory materials, Edmundo Padilla found it necessary to film additional sequences that would later be inter-cut within his assemblage of appropriated footage. These include the opening sequence, now lost, when the mother makes a fatal confession to the young Pancho Villa; the abduction and subjugation of his father by federal soldiers, which sparks the rage of Pancho Villa, and his own assassination, recreated with friends and relatives in the outskirts of El Paso in 1930.
Some sequences which he did not modify and we see for the first time in a silent film in La venganza de Pancho Villa, represent some polemical historical events that shaped the United States and Mexico´s hazardous border in that era: The attack on Columbus, New Mexico; the Santa Isabel incident where 16 American engineers were slaughtered; and the little known event of the Battle of Ojos Azules, when Pershing´s expedition unsuccessfully confronted Villista soldiers.
But perhaps the best example of Padilla´s method is an amazingly edited denunciation of the 1914 American invasion of Veracruz, where he inter-cuts scenes from Birth of a Nation, 1914; naval battle newsreels from World War I; Liberty, 1916 and The Life of General Villa, 1914; to contest American representations of the other, of the enemy, in this case the Mexicans.
Perhaps acting not only as a metaphor, the title The Vengeance of Pancho Villa, suggests Padilla´s unstated intention: La venganza de Pancho Villa is a revenge against cultural stereotypes imposed by early American cinema.
La venganza de Pancho Villa may now be considered as a film maudit, a precursor of what may be called Border Cinema, not only due to the geographical location of its practitioners, but in its attempt to freely cross, back and forth, the dividing lines set between political and non-politically correctness; fact and fiction, Anglo and Mexican cosmogony, Gringo and Greaser stereotypes, but most of all, because of its intended – and at times successful – transformation of meaning.
It is stated in Mr. Padilla´s logbook that La Venganza de Pancho Villa made $1280.00 pesos from September, 1936 to May, 1937. This figure represents the paid admission of at least 12,000 spectators, considering a 10-cent admittance fee.7
The Padillas´ leaflets of La Venganza de Pancho Villa suggest that it had its last run in October, 1937. Small letters at the bottom of the leaflet, read: “We will soon have sound equipment and films!” But Empresas Padilla never made the leap to the sound era.
1 Kevin Brownlow explored the participation of cameraman Charles Rosher and his relationship to Pancho Villa in The War, the West and the Wilderness, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1978.
2 From an interview with Mr. Edmundo Padilla, recorded by Magdalena Arias. Institute of Oral History, UTEP. El Paso, Texas, 1976.
3 According to Moving Picture World, it is possible to establish the following figures: In 1914, four feature films with Mexican villains were released. The figure rises to nine in 1915, and twenty in 1916, after the Columbus incident. Between 1914 and 1920, at least seventy nine greaser feature films were released.
4 From an interview with Mr. Mariano de la Torre, recorded by Gregorio Rocha in El Paso, TX. June, 2001.
5 There is an excellent study of the role of women in early American films in Benjamin Singer´s Melodrama and Modernity. Indiana University Press. 2001.
6 It is important to mention that William Randolph Hearst owned enormous tract of land and large numbers of cattle in the state of Chihuahua. By 1917, when Patria was released, Pancho Villa had already seized Hearst´s cattle and distributed it among the peons. The contents of Patria were so offensive to Mexico, that President Woodrow Wilson ordered Hearst´s film company to remove all signs in the film that referred directly to Mexico. Ever since 1914, Hearst had heralded an American armed intervention in Mexico.
7 Félix and Edmundo Padilla´s notes were written in a logbook, preserved by the Padilla family. This logbook has been a helpful tool in reconstructing the history of the different versions of La Venganza de Pancho Villa.
*This research was possible due to grants from the Fulbright-García Robles Research and Lecturing Program and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, México.
I would like to thank the Library Special Collections Department of the University of Texas at El Paso, The Library of Congress Film Preservation Center, Filmoteca U.N.A.M, in Mexico, and above all, the Padilla family for their generous support in the development of this research.
La Venganza de Pancho Villa. Félix and Edmundo Padilla. Mexico/U.S.A. ca. 1930.
Liberty. 20-episode serial. Jacques Jaccard and Norman McRae. U.S.A. 1916.
The life of General Villa. William C. Cabanne and Raoul Walsh, U.S.A. 1914.
Historia de la Revolución Mexicana. Julio Lamadrid. Mexico, 1928.
*From Journal of Film Preservation 65 12/2002, pp. 24-29. Revue de la Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film.