“Action!” por Tracy Mathewson

En el Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, No. 4, March 1917, pp. 43-47 y 142, Tracy Mathewson narra su experiencia de filmar una verdadera batalla en suelo mexicano al seguir con la expedición punitiva la búsqueda de Pancho Villa.

La transcripción del relato al español está en el libro de Aurelio de los Reyes Con Villa en México: Testimonios de camarógrafos norteamericanos en la revolución (UNAM, 1992), pp. 216-220 y corresponde al documento núm. 92. Tomo de esa obra la ficha de Tracy Mathewson (p. 380):

William Fox y Tracy Mathewson durane la Expedición Punitiva (Foto: Library of Congress)

Al parecer llegó a la frontera mexicana en 1913, en donde estuvo hasta 1917. Ignoro para qué empresa trabajaba durante los primeros años. En 1916 retrató las consecuencias del ataque de Villa a Columbus para el Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial y acompañó a la expedición punitiva comandada por Pershing. Más tarde fue el camarógrafo oficial que retrató el viaje del príncipe de Gales a Canadá en 1920. Escribió su experiencia mexicana en un artículo titulado Action publicado por Photoplay en marzo de 1917

Las ilustraciones de Grant R. Reynard adornan el siguiente relato de Tracy Mathewson:

Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, March 1917, pp. 43

A thrilling story of a life’s ambition realized, told by a lens chronicler of border warfare



By Tracy Mathewson

Illustrations by Grant R. Reynard

For three years I chased up and down the border trying to get a moving picture of a real fight.

I lugged my heavy pack of equipment through alkali and cactus, across rivers and mountain ranges, in pursuit of “action,” which is a by-word with the “movies” no less than with the army.

And I always missed them! I was at Norias just six hours after that gallant little band of eight cavalrymen and five citizens had held off and finally whipped a band of eighty-five Mexican bandits. I arrived in a cloud of dust at the old illegal ferry at Progeso, where Lieutenant Henry was wounded and Corporal Whelman was killed. I galloped into Los Indios just two hours after the treacherous attack on the little outpost of cavalrymen. It was at Los Indios, you may recall, that Private Kraft added a brilliant paragraph to the army’s history and with it gave his life.

I got into Columbus the night after Pancho Villa and his renegades raided that town. I went in with the First Punitive Expedition under General Pershing, actually joining the army for the chance to get some real “action.” I was allowed to go no further that Casas Grandes with my camera and, of course, the expedition put off all its fighting until I had returned.

While I was turning the crank on the peace conference at the international bridge one Sunday – you remember, of course, those meetings of Scott and Funston with Minister of War Obregon – there came word of the raids at Boquillas and Glenn Springs. I suffered all the tortures of a desert hike to reach there and join the Second Punitive Expedition, commanded by Colonel Sibley of the Fourteenth and Major Langhorne of the Eighth cavalry. As soon as I saw Major Langhorne and talked with him I felt that I was really on the heels of real “action.” There’s a real soldier for you.

I stuck with him. One morning two squads left camp on two hot trails. Lieutenant Cramer and a squad from Troop B followed one of the trails, another squad took the second. I went with the second and we just galloped until the trail grew ice cold, then we dragged back to headquarters, my equipment straps cutting deep into my shoulders. Funny I never do notice the weight of my equipment when I start out. But coming back…

Well, that evening it weighed a ton. Just as we reached camp Lieutenant Cramer and his men returned tired and dusty but beatifically happy. Ahead of them were two carts loaded with the loot taken by the Mexicans at Glenn Springs. On top of each cart sat an American trooper driving. Instead of his own jaunty campaign hat, each driver wore a Mexican sombrero. In the carts were the owners of the sombreros – wounded Mexican bandits. One of them had seven holes drilled through him.

Trailing each cart were three Mexican horses, bearing gaudy saddles and scabbards from which the operating ends of powerful 30-30s protruded. In the middle of the procession was a little herd of American cavalry horses ridden off by the Mexicans at Glenn Springs.

Picturesque, you bet. And I turned the reel on them.

But as I turned my heart was as heavy as my equipment.

I missed real “action.”

I was so disheartened that my gloom began to be traditional, I guess, in every American camp and outpost along the border.

“We may have war yet,” said an artillery captain, “if we can only persuade Mathewson to leave the border.”

Suck was my luck. I had about given up hope of ever getting in on a really true fight with my camera. Then one night came a telegram from one of my soldier friends and hope, that is supposed to spring eternal, did a double, back flip-flop once more in my breast.

“Chico Canoa and a big band have broken loose in Big Bend country,” said the wire. “Killed rancher and wife and driving off horses toward Carranza lines. We start after them in an hour. Get automobile and join detachment at mouth of Dead Man’s Canyon just over Rim Rock. There at daylight. Looks like action this time.”

Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, March 1917, pp. 45

Ten minutes later I had my equipment piled into a big motor and Bill Klondike, the greatest driver that ever held the flying wheels down into the trackless sand, had settled down to a night’s drive. We burned up the desert miles, keeping the great dipper and its sentry, the North Star, to our backs, I hoping and praying that nothing would happen to the motor to prevent the fulfillment of my engagement with the troopers. Bill Klondike was busy seeing that nothing did happen.

All night long we rode. Our headlights were thrown on bunches of cattle, huddled together for warmth. We ran around long-eared burros, who were always too interested in their midnight frolics to turn out for us. We spec by abandoned ranch houses. Occasionally, from under full-bloomed Spanish bayonet plants, a big-eyed, long-eared jack rabbit would scurry and fly across the desert – probably to gossip with the gophers and prairie-dogs about the thing he had seen flash by with eyes like two suns.

We were driving still when the dawn came. As the sun reached high enough to take the chill out of the air we topped the Rim Rock. Far across the mesa we could see the little group of cavalrymen as they reached the mouth of the canyon. There is never any chance of mistaking them.

Within an hour the morning breeze brought us the appetizing scent of the breakfast “chow” and shortly afterward we were at mess with them. Then came the order to take up the swift march. I said goodbye to Bill Klondike, who reluctantly started back on the hundred-mile trip. Then I straddled a cavalry mount and wheeled into line with the troopers.

It developed that we were on the hottest sort of trail after a pack of the most desperate bandits that ever rustled cattle along the border. The march led over some wonderful mountain trails. Mile after mile we went in single file, looking down into depths so steep that cattle looked like tiny sotol weeds. It was the most beautiful country I had ever seen. But I did not sacrifice an inch of celluloid. I was saving it all for “action.”

At noon we made a brief stop for chow and then pressed on. Just after sunset we reached a spot where the charred sticks of a fire and other signs told us that the bandits had camped a short time before. We used their fire to heat a gulp of coffee all around.

Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, March 1917, pp. 46

There was no chance to rest. But none thought of rest. Even the big cavalry horses seemed eager to push forward. Somehow, whenever I see one of these splendid beasts my hand always itches for the crank.

At daylight we neared Ojo Chavez and caught our first sight of the bandits. About fifty of them were camped in a little clump of cottonwoods. All the horses and cattle they had stolen on recent raids were corralled nearby.

“They’re going to stay there a while,” said the officer who had sent me the telegram. “We are going to rest here all day. We advance tonight and we’ll attack in the morning. Get to your blankets and try to sleep. You’ll need it before you’re through.”

There was no sleep for me. All day we lay on top of an unnamed barren mountain in the blistering sun. The wind lifted great clouds of dust that settled on our lips, which swelled and cracked open. Eyes smarted and burned but never for a moment failed to watch the bandit camp. But it wasn’t this suffering that caused me to keep wakeful; I had suffered before in campaigns. This time, though, I seemed so near to the realization of my hopes. I just kept going over my equipment a score of times, to be sure, that nothing would be overlooked. I was tempted to start ahead and select my position. Perhaps my friend, the officer, noticed this.

“Matty, if you don’t take a siesta I’ll put you under guard,” he said. “You are my only worry. It’s a moral certainty that action is waiting us below and the only chance against it is your jinks.”

This was unkind. But each hour made the situation more tense.

At last the sun dropped behind the western range. The eagles ceased to fly over us. Little night creatures came out of their holes, looked curiously at us and scampered away. Night came.

We were called before the commanding officer. “We will divide into two squads,” said he. “The first squad will work its way around to the right of those cottonwoods and wait for dawn. The bugler probably will sound charge as soon as it is light enough to shoot. The other outfit will work down the side of this mountain and take its position in the arroyo and wait for the bugle.

“We shall be able to surprise them, probably, and clean up in the first rush. One unit will be left behind to watch our horses and cut off any chance of retreat. Wait for the bugle to sound ‘charge’!”

The officers prepared to leave. As we left him, the commanding officer beckoned me to him. “Mathewson, if we don’t wipe out this band,” he said, “you steal the nearest horse and ride for your life. Because it will be your fault.” The he told me that I would accompany the second squad, bound for the arroyo.

The second squad started down the mountain about ten. Most of the trip was made on our hands and knees. I carried my camera myself and I gave it the care that would have embarrassed a keg of dynamite. Two troopers had been assigned to help me with my tripod and other equipment. For four hours we scrambled down that mountain-side, cut by rocks until our clothes were in shreds. The cactus and Spanish bayonet jabbed at us from the dark.

Finally we reached the arroyo. I twisted a piece of handkerchief around a long gash on my salary hand before we began the agonizing crawl once more. Closer and closer we crept to the bandit camp and then the commander of our outfit passed the whisper back to halt where we were.

I rested my camera and snuggled down into a cactus bed.

The first gray streaks of dawn began to smear across the sky. I could distinguish the bulky form of Sergeant Noyes just ahead of me. Then I made out the ugly figure of a horned toad between the two of us. It seemed almost light enough to shoot, although I was content to wait.

Yet that wait was a heart-breaker. There I was on the edge of real “action” at last. Also, I was on the firing line for the first time. I tried to imagine which I cherished most, my life or the picture.

“Sh-h-h!” hissed Sergeant Noyes.

I had quite unconsciously been praying. Praying and watching the funny little horned toad between Sergeant Noyes and myself.

Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, March 1917, pp. 47

“Where’s that bugle?” whispered someone querulously.

“Sh-h-h-!” hissed Sergeant Noyes.

The sun began to cut through the clouds. It was almost light enough for pictures. I licked my lips and prayed and looked at the horned toad. The horned toad seemed smaller. The sun rose higher.

“Where’s that bugle?” demanded a whisper behind me.

“Please God,” I prayed, “let me get this picture and don’t let me get shot. And don’t let any of these boys I have ridden and suffered with get shot. But please God, let me get this picture.”

Sergeant Noyes’ big hand went out slowly and closed over the horned toad. He tucked it in his breast pocket solemnly.

“Where’s that bugle?” insisted the voice in back of me.

“Sh-h-h!” Noyes hissed again.

“Please God, let me get this picture,” I mumbled. “Oh, God, just let me get some real action. Some real action. God…”

The bugle!

Clear and sweet came the call.


Out over the edge of the arroyo we scrambled. I jumped over with my camera and tripod. I jammed the steel claws into the sand and rocks just as the rifles began to spit.

“Please God, let me get it,” I cried. “Please God…”

Then I turned the handle and began the greatest picture ever filmed.

“Give ‘em hell boys!” I shouted, and all the oaths I had ever learned came back to me.

One of the tripod bearers smiled at my shouting and as he smiled he clutched his hands to his abdomen and fell forward, kicking.

I snatched up my camera – how feathery light it was – and went forward with our rifles.

I timed my cursing to the turn of the handle and it was very smooth.

“Action” I cried. “This is what I’ve wanted. Give ‘em hell, boys. Wipe out the blinkety, blank, dashed greasers!”

All the oaths that men use were at my tongue’s end.

I was in the midst of it. I learned the whistle of a bullet. They tore up little jets of sand all around me. All the time I turned the crank.

One greaser made a rush for my camera. As he swung his gun, someone shot over my shoulder. The greaser threw his hands high over his head and fell on his face.

“It’s action!” I shouted.

“Next time let go that handle and duck,” called Sergeant Noyes, as he passed me. “I was lucky to get him. They think that thing is a machine gun, I guess.”

“To hell with them!” I cried. “Let ‘em come and die in front of my camera. It’s action!”

To my left I heard more cursing. Big Schwartz, the greatest football player of his regiment, was holding his big right foot up. McDonald, his Bunkie, was slapping on a first aid bandage where a Mexican soft nose bullet had torn its way.

“That ends me,” wailed Schwartz. “Now that asterisk, blank Fourteenth will cop the championship! Who’s going to punt for us?”

ilustración de Grant T. Reynard. Photoplay Magazine, Volume XI, March 1917, pp. 43

McDonald began to weep.

“Get out of here, you little runt,” yelled Schwartz. “Go in there and get those blanket spicks.”

To the right the bandits tried to make a stand. Noyes and a little squad threw themselves forward. I went along, still cursing joyously.

Right on the edge of the melee, I set up the camera again. I turned the crank gleefully.

Then in the finder I saw Sergeant Noyes fall to the ground with a big hole torn in his forehead. Slowly from the bosom of his shirt crawled the little horned toad and blinked in the sun.

Our boys drove them back into a draw. My camera was set up in the thick of it. It was the finish of the reel. From the first charge to the last stand I had recorded the greatest motion picture ever taken.

“Action!” I cried, as our boys cut them down.

Then somewhere out of that tangle of guns a bullet cut its way.


I heard it whistle. The splinters cut my face as it hit the camera. It ripped the side open and smashed the little wooden magazine.

I sprang crazily to stop it with my hands. But out of the box uncoiled the precious film. Stretching and glistening in the sun, it fell and died. I stood and watched it dumbly.

Sometime later, they found me sprawled face downward under the tripod. They thought I had been killed, until they heard me sob. And then they knew it was only that my heart was broken.