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

No such compromises seem to have occurred in practice, and the Mutual contract seems to have outlived its usefulness for both parties within weeks. But what followed suggests other ways in which the facts on the ground were subsumed by the demands of the cinema: As early as the end of February, Mutual switched its attentions from shooting documentary footage to creating a fictional movie about Villa that would incorporate stock shots obtained by the newsreel men. The production of this movie, The Life of General Villa, probably explains how those rumors that Mutual’s newsreel footage “had to be reshot in the studio lot” got started. It premiered in New York in May 1914 and turned out to be a typical melodrama of the period. Villa was given an “acceptable” background for a hero—in real life he and his family had been sharecroppers, but in the Life they were middle-class farmers—and the drama revolved around his quest for revenge on a pair of Federales who had raped his sister, which bore at least some semblance to real events in Villa’s life. [De Orellana pp. 61-62, 71] The point was that it also came closer to conforming to what its target audience demanded from a movie: close ups, action and a story.

Contemporary sources make it easy to understand why Mutual had this sudden change of heart. Villa had kept his side of the bargain; the company’s cameramen had secured the promised exclusive footage of the Battle of Ojinaga. But when the results of these initial efforts reached New York on January 22, they proved disappointing. The footage was no more dramatic than that filmed earlier in the war without the benefit of any contract. As The Moving Picture World reported on January 24:

The pictures do not portray a battle; they show among other things the conditions in and around Ojinaga after the battle which was fought in and about the town…. There was a good view of the police station of Ojinaga and the little Plaza of the stricken town…. Other things shown on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande were the train of captured guns and ammunition wagons, the review of the ‘army’ before General Villa, the captured Federal prisoners, the wretched refugees on their way to the American side.

American film-maker L. M. Burrud poses for a publicity shot showing him “filming in action.”
American film-maker L. M. Burrud poses for a publicity shot showing him “filming in action.”

The Mutual contract, in short, had merely served to highlight the limitations of the early filmmakers. Previously, newsreel cameramen had fallen explained their inability to secure sensational action footage by citing specific local difficulties, not least the problem of gaining access to the battlefield. At Ojinaga, granted the best possible conditions to shoot and the active support of one of the commanders, they had failed again, and the reason is obvious. For all Mutual’s boasts, contemporary movie cameras were heavy, clumsy things that could be operated only by setting them up on a tripod and hand cranking the film. Using them anywhere near a real battle would be suicidal. A publicity still purporting to show rival filmmaker L.M. Burrud “filming in action,” protected by two Indian bodyguards armed with rifles and stripped to their loincloths, was as fraudulent as much of the moving footage brought out of Mexico. The only “action” that could safely be obtained consisted of long shots of artillery bombardments and the mass maneuvering of men on distant horizons.

Newsreel men and their bosses in the United States responded to this problem in various ways. Pressure to deliver “hot” footage remained as high as ever, which meant there were really only two possible solutions. Tracy Matthewson, representing Hearst-Vitagraph with an American “punitive expedition” sent to punish Villa’s border raids two years later, returned home to find that publicists had concocted a thrilling tale describing how he had found himself in the middle of a battle, and bravely

turned the handle and began the greatest picture ever filmed.

One of my tripod bearers smiled at my shouting, and as he smiled, he clutched his hands to his abdomen and fell forward, kicking…. “Action,” I cried. “This is what I’ve wanted. Give ‘em hell boys. Wipe out the blinkety blank dashed greasers!

… Then somewhere out of that tangle of guns a bullet cuts its way. “Za-zing!” 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 coiled the precious film. Stretching and glistening in the sun, it fell and died. [De Orellana p. 84]

This “dog ate my homework” excuse could be used only once, however, so for the most part newsmen supplied an altogether neater solution of their own; for most a trip to Mexico meant contenting themselves with creating their own dramatic footage to meet the insatiable demand of audiences at home. Which is to say they carefully “reconstructed” action scenes that they or someone else had witnessed—if they were moderately scrupulous—or simply made scenarios up from scratch, if they were not.

While the practice of faking footage was widespread throughout the Mexican war, and many of the pioneer filmmakers were remarkably open about it in their memoirs, little mention was made of it at the time. Indeed, those who flocked to the cinema to see newsreels of the Mexican war (which the evidence suggests were among the most popular films of the period) were encouraged to believe they were seeing the real thing—the film companies competed vigorously to advertise their latest reels as unprecedentedly realistic. To take only one example, Frank Jones’s early War with Huerta was billed in Moving Picture World as “positively the greatest MEXICAN WAR PICTURE ever made…. Do you realize that it is not a Posed Picture, but taken on the FIELD OF ACTION?” [The Moving Picture World, 30 May 1914]

The reality of the situation was exposed a few months later by Jones’s rival Fritz Arno Wagner, who traveled to Mexico for Pathé and later enjoyed a distinguished film career in Europe:

I have seen four big battles. On each occasion I was threatened with arrest from the Federal general if I took any pictures. He also threatened on one occasion when he saw me turning the crank to smash the camera. He would have done so, too, but for the fact that the rebels came pretty close just then and he had to take it on the run to save his hide. [The Moving Picture World, 18 July 1914]

A tiny handful of cameramen were luckier, and, given precisely the right circumstances, could obtain useful action footage. Another newsreel man who filmed the early stages of the revolution told the film historian Robert Wagner that

street fighting is the easiest to film, for if you can get to a good location on a side street, you have the protection of all the intervening buildings from artillery and rifle fire, while you occasionally get the chance to shoot a few feet of swell film. I got some great stuff in Mexico City, a few days before [Díaz’s immediate successor as President, Francisco] Madero was killed. One fellow, not twenty feet from my camera, had his head shot off.

Even then, however, the resultant footage—although suitably dramatic—never made it to the screen. “The darn censors would never let us show the picture in the United States,” the newsreel man said. “What do you suppose they sent us to war for?” [De Orellana p. 22]

The best solution, as more than one film unit discovered, was to wait for the fighting to die down and then enlist any nearby soldiers to produce a lively but sanitized “reconstruction.” There were sometimes hidden dangers in this, too—one cameraman, who persuaded a group of soldiers to “fight” some invading Americans, only narrowly escaped with his life when the Mexicans realized they were being portrayed as cowards being soundly thrashed by the upstanding Yankees. Feeling “that the honor of their nation was being besmirched,” the historian Margarita De Orellana says, “[they] decided to change the story and defend themselves, firing off a volley of bullets. A real fight then ensued.” [De Orellana p. 69]

A still from Victor Milner’s wildly successful reconstruction of the US Marines’ assault on the post office at Vera Cruz, April 1914
A still from Victor Milner’s wildly successful reconstruction of the US Marines’ assault on the post office at Vera Cruz, April 1914.

Thankfully, there were safer ways of completing an assignment. Victor Milner, a cameraman attached to the U.S. Marine force sent to occupy the Mexican port of Vera Cruz early in the war for reasons too complicated to recount in detail here, made it ashore to discover that the troops had already secured their objectives. Soon afterward, however, he had the luck to run into a friend who, in civilian life, had been “in the public relations business and was anxious to get some good publicity for the Navy and Marines.”

He got together with the local commanders and they staged the greatest replay of the storming of the Post Office that you can imagine. I am sure it was far better than the real thing… The pictures were a newsreel sensation and were shown as a scoop in all the theaters before any of us got back to the States. To this day, I don’t think anyone in the States was aware that they were a replay, and the shots were staged. [Brownlow, War p. 101]

Sources:

  • Leslie Bethell (ed.). The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Kevin Brownlow. The Parade’s Gone By… Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
  • __________________. The War, the West and the Wilderness. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.
  • James Chapman. War and Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.
  • Aurelio de los Reyes. With Villa in Mexico on Location. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1986.
  • Margarita de Orellana. Filming Pancho: How Hollywood Shaped the Mexican Revolution. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Friedrich Katz. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Zuzana Pick. Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
  • Gregorio Rocha. “And starring Pancho Villa as himself.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 6:1 (Spring 2006).

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