Uncovering the Truth Behind the Myth of Pancho Villa, Movie Star

Cine Silente Mexicano is in debt with Mike Dash and his blog, A Blast from the Past where this essay was first published.

Uncovering the Truth Behind the Myth of Pancho Villa, the Actor

Mike Dash

The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself fighting several contending rebel forces—most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa–and the three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion and (north of the Rio Grande, at least) its unusual film deals. Specifically, it is remembered for the contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this agreement, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold.

Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.
Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.

Even at this early date, there was nothing especially surprising about Pancho Villa (or anyone else) inking a deal that allowed cameras access to the areas that they controlled. Newsreels were a coming force. Cinema was growing rapidly in popularity; attendance at nickelodeons had doubled since 1908, and an estimated 49 million tickets were sold each week in the U.S. by 1914. Those customers expected to see some news alongside the melodramas and comedy shorts that were the staples of early cinema. And there were obvious advantages in controlling the way in which the newsreel men chose to portray the Revolution, particularly for Villa, whose main bases were close to the U.S. border.

What made Villa’s contract so odd, though, was its terms, or at least the terms it was said to have contained. Here’s how the agreement he reached with the Mutual Film Company is usually described:

In 1914, a Hollywood motion picture company signed a contract with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in which he agreed to fight his revolution according to the studio’s scenario in return for $25,000. The Hollywood crew went down to Mexico and joined Villa’s guerrilla force. The director told Pancho Villa where and how to fight his battles. The cameraman, since he could only shoot in daylight, made Pancho Villa start fighting every day at 9:00 a.m. and stop at 4:00 p.m.—sometimes forcing Villa to cease his real warring until the cameras could be moved to a new angle.

It sounds outlandish—not to say impractical. But the story quickly became common currency, and indeed, the tale of Pancho Villa’s brief Hollywood career has been turned into a movie of its own. [Rocha] Accounts sometimes include elaborations; it is said that Villa agreed that no other film company would be permitted to send representatives to the battlefield, and that, if the cameraman did not secure the shots he needed, the División del Norte would re-enact its battles later. And while the idea that there was a strict ban on fighting outside daylight hours is always mentioned [De los Reyes p. 113] in these secondary accounts, that prohibition is sometimes extended; in another, semi-fictional, re-imagining, recounted by Leslie Bethel, Villa tells Raoul Walsh, the early Hollywood director: “Don’t worry, Don Raúl. If you say the light at four in the morning is not right for your little machine, well, no problem. The executions will take place at six. But no later. Afterward we march and fight. Understand?” [Bethell p. 459] Whatever the variations in accounts of Pancho’s film deal, though, it ends the same way. There’s always this sting in the tale:

When the completed film was brought back to Hollywood, it was found too unbelievable to be released—and most of it had to be reshot on the studio lot.

Today’s post is an attempt to uncover the truth about this little-known incident–and, as it turns out, it’s a story that is well worth telling, not least because, researching it, I found that tale of Villa and his movie contract informs the broader question how just how accurate other early newsreels were. So this is also a post about the borderlands where truth meets fiction, and the problematic lure of the entertaining story. Finally, it deals in passing with the odd way that fictions can become real, if they are rooted in the truth and enough people believe them.

We should begin by noting that the Mexican Revolution was an early example of a 20th-century “media war”: a conflict in which opposing generals duked it out not only on the battlefield, but also in the newspapers and in cinema “scenarios.” At stake were the hearts and minds of the government and people of the United States—who could, if they wished, intervene decisively on one side or another. Because of this, the Revolution saw propaganda evolve from the crude publication of rival “official” claims into more subtle attempts to control the views of the journalists and cameramen who flooded into Mexico. Most of them were inexperienced, monoglot Americans, and almost all were as interested in making a name for themselves as they were in untangling the half-baked policies and shifting allegiances that distinguished the Federales from the Villistas from the Zapatistas. The result was a rich stew of truth, falsity and reconstruction.

There was plenty of bias: A contemporary cartoon from the New York Times. Read more: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2012/11/uncovering-the-truth-behind-the-myth-of-pancho-villa-movie-star/#ixzz2ntby007o Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
There was plenty of bias: A contemporary cartoon from the New York Times.

There was plenty of bias, most of it in the form of prejudice against Mexican “greasers.” There were conflicts of interest as well. Several American media owners had extensive commercial interests in Mexico; William Randolph Hearst, who controlled vast tracts in northern Mexico, wasted no time in pressing for U.S. intervention when Villa plundered his estates, appropriating 60,000 head of cattle. [De Orellana pp. 17, 80] And there was eagerness to file ticket-selling, circulation-boosting sensation, too; Villa himself was frequently portrayed as “a monster of brutality and cruelty,” particularly later in the war, when he crossed the border and raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico.

Much was exaggerated. The Literary Digest noted, with a jaundiced eye:

“Battles” innumerable have been fought, scores of armies have been annihilated, wiped out, blown up, massacred and wholly destroyed according to the glowing reports of commanders on either side, but the supply of cannon fodder does not appear to have diminished appreciably…. Never was there a war in which more gunpowder went off with less harm to the opposing forces.
[Literary Digest, 16 May 1914; Katz p. 323]

What is certain is that fierce competition for “news” produced a situation ripe for exploitation. All three of the principal leaders of the period—Villa, Zapata and the Federal generalissimo Victoriano Huerta—sold access and eventually themselves to U.S. newsmen, trading inconvenience for the chance to position themselves as worthy recipients of foreign aid.

Pancho Villa (seated, in the presidential chair) and Emiliano Zapata (seated, right, behind sombrero) in the national palace in Mexico City, November 1914. Read more: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2012/11/uncovering-the-truth-behind-the-myth-of-pancho-villa-movie-star/#ixzz2ntcmdAgQ Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
Pancho Villa (seated, in the presidential chair) and Emiliano Zapata (seated, right, behind sombrero) in the national palace in Mexico City, November 1914.

Huerta got things off and running, compelling the cameramen who filmed his campaigns to screen their footage for him so he could censor it. [De Orellana pp. 22-24] But Villa was the one who maximized his opportunities. The upshot, four years into the war, was the rebel general’s acceptance of the Mutual Film contract.

The New York Times broke the news on January 7, 1914:

Pancho Villa, General in Command of the Constitutionalist Army in Northern Mexico, will in future carry on his warfare against President Huerta as a full partner in a moving-picture venture with [Mutual’s] Harry E. Aitken…. The business of Gen. Villa will be to provide moving picture thrillers in any way that is consistent with his plans to depose and drive Huerta out of Mexico, and the business of Mr. Aitken, the other partner, will be to distribute the resulting films throughout the peaceable sections of Mexico and to the United States and Canada.

Pancho Villa wearing the special general’s uniform provided for him by Mutual Films.
Pancho Villa wearing the special general’s uniform provided for him by Mutual Films.

Nothing in this first report suggests that the contract was anything more than a broad agreement guaranteeing privileged access for Mutual’s cameramen. A few weeks later, though, came word of the Battle of Ojinaga, a northern town defended by a force of 5,000 Federales, and for the first time there were hints that the contract included special clauses. Several newspapers reported that Villa had captured Ojinaga only after a short delay while Mutual’s cameramen moved into position.  [De Orellana pp. 47-48]

The rebel was certainly willing to accommodate Mutual in unusual ways. The New York Times reported that, at the film company’s request, he had replaced  his casual battle dress with a custom-made comic opera general’s uniform to make him look more imposing. The uniform remained the property of Mutual, and Villa was forbidden to wear it in front of any other cameramen. [New York Times, 14 February 1914] There is also decent evidence that elements of the División del Norte were pressed into service to stage re-enactments for the cameras. Raoul Walsh recalled Villa gamely doing take after take of a scene “of him coming towards the camera. We’d set up at the head of the street, and he’d hit that horse with a whip and his spurs and go by at ninety miles an hour. I don’t know how many times we said ‘Despacio, despacio,‘—Slow, señor, please!’ [Brownlow, War pp. 101-102]

But the contract between the rebel leader and Mutual Films proves to have been a good deal less proscriptive than popularly supposed. The only surviving copy, unearthed in a Mexico City archive by Villa’s biographer Friedrich Katz, lacks all the eye-opening clauses that have made it famous: “There was absolutely no mention of reenactment of battle scenes or of Villa providing good lighting,” Katz explained. “What the contract did specify was that the Mutual Film Company was granted exclusive rights to film Villa’s troops in battle, and that Villa would receive 20% of all revenues that the films produced.” [Katz p. 325]

A contemporary newspaper speculates on the likely consequences of the appearance of newsreel cameras at the front. New York Times, 11 January 1914.
A contemporary newspaper speculates on the likely consequences of the appearance of newsreel cameras at the front. New York Times, 11 January 1914.

The notion of a contract that called for war to be fought Hollywood-style, in short, is myth–though they did not stop The New York Times from hazarding, on January 8, 1914, that “if Villa wants to be a good business partner… he will have to make a great effort so that the cameramen can carry out their work successfully. He will have to make sure that the interesting attacks take place when the light is good and the killings are in good focus. This might interfere with military operations that, in theory, have other objectives.” [New York Times, 8 January 1914]  A Spanish-language newspaper, similarly, condemned Villa for “speculating with the blood of Mexicans.” [De Orellana p. 46]

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