Un par de fotografías donde se aprecia al director y actor Romaine Fielding con su staff de la Lubin Manufacturing Company en dos locaciones: Los Ángeles y Nuevo México. Destacan varios actores y técnicos de obvia ascendencia mexicana entre el personal fotografiado.
The Moving Picture World, Vol. XVI, No. 8, May 24, 1913, p. 832:
LOVE AND WAR IN MEXICO (Special, 2 parts. May 28).—James Hudson, a young civil engineer, is engaged in surveying land In Southern California, when he meets and falls in love with Pequita, the daughter of Don Jose Alvarado, a Mexican farmer. Pequita learns to love Hudson and they are eventually married. Two years pass and Hudson has become addicted to the use of liquor, and has grown tired of Pequita. One day, while in a drunken rage, he strikes her, and as she falls unconscious, and he, being unable to revive her, believes her dead. He runs from the house, and, after a long journey, falls exhausted at the door of a mission. The padre finds him and takes him inside, where he is nursed back to health and eventually becomes a monk. In the meantime, Pequita has been found by her father and taken to his home, where her little son is born.
Twenty years elapse and the son, grown to manhood, has joined the insurgent Mexican army and is selected to do duty as a spy. He enlists in the Federal forces and in the execution of his duties as a spy, he is discovered and tried by court martial. He is condemned to death, but when the commanding officer visits him in his cell, the boy overpowers him and escapes by donning the officer’s cloak and bat. A detachment of soldiers give chase and overtake him at the door of the mission. The padre protects the boy and requests that he be allowed one hour for confession, after which the padre promises to deliver the prisoner to them. The officer consents and the boy is led inside. He requests that his mother be sent for and a monk goes to bring her. When she arrives she immediately recognizes the monk as her husband, and tells him that the boy Is his son. At the expiration of the hour the officer demands his prisoner, and the men are waiting outside the mission gate to carry out the execution. As the boy and mother are kneeling in prayer, the father dons the cloak and cap in which the boy escaped and goes out. As he opens the gate and steps forth, be is met by a volley of bullets from the guns of the soldiers, who march away, believing they have done their duty. The mother and son rush from the mission and fall weeping across the body of the father who, with his life, atoned for the suffering he had caused them.
The Moving Picture World, Vol. XVI, No. 11, Jun. 14, 1913, p. 1135:
“LOVE AND WAR IN MEXICO” (Lubin), May 28 — A melodramatic picture of revolutionary times in Mexico. It is in two parts; but would have been better in one. The scenario was worthy of artistic treatment, but is very poorly acted. The scenes too, are poorly composed and, with dull photography, are more of a hindrance in that they give the mind something to be dissatisfied with, when it would prefer to think of nothing but the story. The opening is particularly dull and without the snap that it ought to have and, in these early scenes, the “degenerate husband’s” brutalities are annoying. Some people left the theater, others laughed and made fun of them. In the end, this man has become a very devout priest, thinking his wife dead. Twenty years late, his son, whom he has never seen or heard of is to be shot by the Federals and runs to the church. The priest promises the captain to bring the fugitive in an hour and sends for the boy’s mother, a woman of the village, whom he doesn’t know is his wife, until they meet.
Ficha filmográfica: Love and War in Mexico (1913) Norteamericana. B & N: dos rollos. Productor: Siegmund Lubin para la Lubin Manufacturing Company. Distribución: The General Film Company, Inc. Estrenada el 28 de mayo de 1913. Director: Wilbert Melville. Intérpretes: Henry King (James Hudson); Irene Hunt (Paquita); Carl von Schiller (Manuel, el hijo); James Fitzroy (José).
Motography del 31 de mayo de 1913 (Vol. IX, No. 11, p. 6):
James Hudson married to a beautiful Mexican girl in a drunken fit strikes her and leaves her for dead. He seeks refuge in a Mission and becomes a monk. Pequita is nursed back to life and has a son. Twenty years later the boy becomes a spy in the Mexican Revolution, he is discovered and sentenced to be shot. He escapes but is pursued by the soldiers to the Mission. There he pleads that they send for his mother. In the Mission, Pequita recognizes her husband. The monk takes the boy’s hat and cloak and coming out of the gate, places himself in front of the guns.
The Moving Picture World del 24 de mayo de 1913 (Vol. XVI, No. 8, p. 784):
James Hudson is married to a beautiful Mexican girl Pequita. In a maudlin condition he strikes her and leaves her for dead. He seeks refuge in a Mission and becomes a Monk. Pequita is nursed back to life and has a son. Twenty years later, the boy becomes a spy in the Mexican Revolution, is discovered and sentenced to die. He escapes, but the soldiers trace him to the Mission and capture him. He pleads that they send for his mother. She recognizes her husband and tells him it is his son. The father changes clothes with the boy and suffers the penalty.
The Moving Picture World del 24 de mayo de 1913 (Vol XVI, No. 8, p. 781)
As its title implies, a Mexican war drama of more than usual interest. Two reels, produced by LUBIN. A young American, a civil engineer, makes the fatal mistake of marrying the daughter of a Mexican farmer. They quarrel and he strikes her, leaving her for dead. Years later, he does penance for his crime, by giving his life for his son, who has been captured as a spy.
Emilio García Riera en México visto por el cine extranjero (Vol. I, p. 55) menciona:
Otras, como las de In the Days of Gold (1911) y The Fatal Black Bean (Título antológico – El frijol fatal – de 1915), se probaban aguerridas al disfrazarse de hombres, y las hubo abnegadas al sufrir en Fate’s Interception (1912) y en Love and War in Mexico (1913) los agravios de un mal marido gringo.
En el volumen II de la misma obra, García Riera nos proporciona una sinopsis:
El ingeniero James Hudson, casado con la mexicana Paquita, hija del ranchero don José Alvarado, se vuelve con los años alcohólico. Cansado de su mujer, la desmaya a golpes; la cree muerta, por lo que huye y llega después de un largo viaje a un monasterio, donde lo cuida un fraile. Hudson se hace religioso a su vez. Veinte años después, el hijo de Paquita se une a los revolucionarios mexicanos y debe cumplir una misión de espionaje entre los federales, pero es descubierto y condenado a muerte. Sin embargo, logra huir disfrazado con el uniforme del jefe federal, a quien vence cuando el segundo lo visita en la prisión. El joven llega en su fuga a un monasterio, donde un fraile pide a sus preseguidores que permitan su confesión. Llega Paquita y reconoce a Hudson en el fraile. Hudson se disfraza como su hijo para morir en su lugar.
La primera noticia de The Woman in the Box es una breve nota publicada en The Moving Picture World del 16 de octubre de 1915 (Vol. XXVI, No. 3, p. 473) donde nos informa sobre la filmación que se lleva a cabo:
Harry Morey and L. Rogers Lytton are actively engaged in enacting the principals in the Vitagraph Broadway Star Feature, “The Woman in the Box,” now being produced under the direction of Harry Davenport.
Una semana después, el 23 de octubre, se publica un anuncio de The Vitagraph Company of America en The Moving Picture World (Vol. XXVI, No. 4, p. 583):
En el número extraordinario que sacó The Moving Picture World correspondiente a octubre 30a, 1915 (Vol. XXVI, No. 6) se publicaron dos artículos sobre la cinta; el primero (p. 968):
THE WOMAN IN THE BOX (Vitagraph), Oct. 23.—High-pressure romance, with scenes in Mexico and a U. S. Secret Service officer in love with the wife of a Mexican official, who is plotting against the United States, is found in this two-reel drama, written by Edward Wm. Fowler. The story is engrossing, the local color realistic, and the photoplay is vividly acted by Harry Morey, Peggy Blake, L. Rogers Lytton and George Cooper.
La segunda nota sobre la película (p. 987) ahonda un poco más en la trama y en el título se hace hincapié en las “escenas mexicanas”:
MEXICAN SCENES IN “THE WOMAN IN THE BOX”
A story of Mexico, during the days when intrigue and war alarms were threatening the precipitation of the present struggle in our sister country, is vividly told in the Vitagraph Feature production, “The Woman in the Box,” now nearing completion under the direction of Harry Davenport. Typical Mexican street scenes showing the Peon in his home life and pursuits, scenes that picture high officials of the War Department and the men of authority, who represent the wealth of Mexico, are graphically pictured, introducing the inner workings of the secret service and showing the palace of society members, whose vast estates are the beauty spots of the land.
The action of the story revolves around Milton Asheton, of the United States Secret Service, and Señora Vallantino, the American wife of the Secretary of War for Mexico. “The Woman in the Box” is thoroughly Mexican and is of unusual interest because of its visualization of scenes in a country that has been prominent in the newspapers for the past four years. The players enacting the principal roles include Harry Morey, L. Rogers Lytton, George Cooper and Peggy Blake.
Lo interesante de esta película es que el personaje mexicano no es “greaser”, revolucionario o bandido, sino el mismísimo Secretario de Guerra mexicano, su esposa estadounidense y el amante, agente del servicio secreto norteamericano. La infidelidad de la esposa se justifica “moralmente” pues el esposo planea atentar contra la integridad de Estados Unidos. La nota menciona que se “muestran los palacios de los miembros de la sociedad cuyas vastas tierras son los puntos hermosas de la tierra.”
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
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.
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, 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.
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.
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]
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]
Pancho Villa’s War (Movie)*
By Allen Barra
On Jan. 26, 1914, a ragtag revolutionary army of some 10,000 infantry and cavalry, led by a wily and charismatic horseman named José Doroteo Arango Arámbula—better known as Francisco “Pancho” Villa—approached the city of Durango, capital of the Mexican state of the same name. Villa was then commander of the División del Norte and caudillo, or leader, of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. His imminent attack on Durango was part of a larger campaign to march on Mexico City and wrest control of a bloody revolution that since 1910 had sundered the nation. Refugees from the fighting told Villa of a strong federal garrison inside Durango. Villa—something of a natural tactician and by then a veteran skirmisher—sent his cavalry armed with modern rifles to encircle the garrison and cut off any retreat. Although Villa’s horse soldiers wore motley, makeshift uniforms, they reportedly maneuvered with all the élan of U.S. Army regulars.
As the cavalry split up and rode off on their flanking movement, the rebel infantry prepared for a frontal assault on the garrison. They formed into three long battle lines and attacked with a fervor conspicuously absent among the more smartly dressed federales.
Once Villa’s men swarmed over the walls and battered their way through the front gate, the battle for Durango ended quickly—too quickly for a pair of noncombatants closely following the action: Raoul Walsh, a handsome young American actor and (soon to be famous) director, and Hennie Aussenberg, his veteran German cameraman. Their presence signaled one of the strangest episodes in American cine-ma and a first in military history. For American film pioneer D.W. Griffith’s Mutual Film Corp. they were shooting a feature movie—docudrama? newsreel? reality show?—about Villa, even as the general’s troops fought an actual bloody revolutionary war, with real casualties.
Walsh and Aussenberg advanced into Durango with Villa’s infantry, occasionally stepping over the body of a fallen villista. Bullets had splattered around them, and they had gotten some dramatic footage of the fighting, but to their disappointment most of the combat was over by the time they entered town. The rebels were rounding up prisoners and hanging several federales accused of murdering civilians, and Villa had already entered Durango.
Walsh decided he needed to restage history. He asked one of Villa’s officers to coax the general into riding through the city gates again, this time with his victorious troops whooping, shouting and firing their weapons into the air. Villa loved the idea. The general was, as Walsh later observed, “a hog for publicity.” Villa had his military victory. Walsh would soon have his movie.
From 1912 into the 1960s Raoul Walsh acted in, directed or produced nearly 150 films. Starting as a protégé of D.W. Griffith—he played John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)—Walsh did more to establish the careers of great film actors than any other filmmaker: John Wayne, whose breakthrough film was Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930); James Cagney, whom he directed in two gangster classics, The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949); Errol Flynn, as George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1941); and Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, who became major stars in the film noir classic High Sierra (1941). Yet the most improbable feature Walsh directed was his first, starring the real-life revolutionary Villa.
The revolution itself had begun in 1910 as a revolt against longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz and devolved into a bloody civil war, with numerous factions fighting for control of Mexico. Francisco Madero, an aristocratic idealist and progressive, had become president after Díaz was deposed. In 1913 Madero was forced to resign, then betrayed and assassinated by one of his generals, Victoriano Huerta, who soon assumed power. In 1914 Huerta, too, was overthrown after little more than a year of unrest capped by the American occupation of Veracruz. Venustiano Carranza, once a minister of war in Madero’s cabinet, became president. Carranza, an educated man from a prosperous family, lacked the sympathy for land reform that motivated revolutionaries like Villa. He attempted to call at least a temporary halt to the revolution. Villa, who believed the revolution’s major aims had not been achieved, began fighting on his own.
The mountainous state of Chihuahua was a natural base from which to carry on a revolution. It bordered the United States, which could be either an advantage or a detriment, depending on how one played politics. To Villa, even then a media-savvy revolutionary, it proved an advantageous location. He was mindful of the importance of newspaper coverage of his exploits and was intrigued by the possibilities of what was then a nascent medium: motion pictures. No one knows how Villa and Griffith first made contact. Quite possibly it was Villa’s idea, as he loved movies and enjoyed watching himself in the early newsreels. What is known is that on Jan. 5, 1914, only a few weeks after his soldados occupied Ciudad Chihuahua in an attempt to cripple government power in the north, Villa signed a contract with Griffith’s Mutual Film, represented by partner Harry E. Aitken.
Two days later The New York Times reported on the deal:
The business of General Villa will be to provide moving picture thrillers in any way that is consistent with his plans to depose and drive General 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 the United States and Canada. To make sure that the business will be a success, Mr. Aitken dispatched to General Villa’s camp last Saturday a squad of four moving picture men with apparatus designed especially to take pictures on battlefields.
“For the film industry,” Friedrich Katz wrote in his The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, “this contract was very important. Newsreels were a relatively new genre, and the film industry was greatly interested in their development. For the first time, people who had never been involved in a war could actually see what war was like.”
Walsh would recall some 60 years later in his highly embellished 1974 memoir, Every Man in His Time, that he was watching dailies in a California projection room when he got the call from producer Frank Woods, who said Griffith wanted to see him right away.
“Mr. Woods tells me you have spent some time in Mexico,” Griffith said. Walsh confirmed he had. Griffith introduced him to two of Mutual’s moneymen from New York and explained what seemed an outlandish idea: Mutual had made a deal with Villa to shoot a picture about him and his army, which was then in Chihuahua preparing for a new campaign. Did Walsh want the job? Without hesitation he said he did. “You will direct the picture,” Griffith said. “Mutual will supply a cameraman, and General Villa will be paid $500 in gold each month while the production is going on.”
Griffith did not mention then that Walsh would have a double assignment: The picture would be a blend of fiction and documentary, and in the fictional part Walsh himself would be playing Villa as a young man. All Walsh wanted to know was when would he start. He would be leaving in about four hours, Griffith told him. There was no script; Griffith gave him a fanciful biography of Villa that supposedly would fill him on the general’s early life. (Walsh later said he had only three hours to read the book during the 800-plus-mile train ride from Los Angeles to El Paso.) Griffith’s parting words were, “That should give you time to start the story. The sequences will take care of themselves. Good luck, Mr. Walsh.” And so Albert Edward “Raoul” Walsh, 27, actor and aspiring filmmaker, former sailor and cowboy, headed for revolutionary Mexico and the strangest adventure of his life.
As Walsh boarded the Sunset Limited at Los Angeles’ Union Station, he got one more piece of advice from Woods: “Think up a story that the general will like, and for God’s sake, never refer to him as a bandit.”
When Walsh arrived in El Paso, he met Villa lieutenant Manuel Ortega, “a middle-aged Mexican in the biggest sombrero I had ever yet seen.” Walsh had the foresight to dress Western style, in hand-stitched boots and leather jacket, topped by a carefully rolled Stetson. The two climbed into a waiting car and sped off across the border. As they approached Villa’s headquarters somewhere near Chihuahua’s capital city, Ortega had one request: that the American wear a blindfold. Why? Walsh wondered, given that every child in Juárez certainly knew of Villa’s whereabouts. Whatever the reason, Walsh decided, it added more drama to the situation.
Villa’s camp, Walsh observed, was nothing like any army installation he had ever seen: “There were no tents. Everybody was stretched out on blankets and serapes, and none of the soldiers wore uniforms: a big sombrero, dirty cotton trousers and shirt, a bandolier of bullets and a gun were all that distinguished them from the hucksters and enchilada peddlers.” He met and shook hands with the general. Walsh found him “a big man physically: big black mustache, big head, wide shoulders, thick body and eyes that reminded me of something wild in a cage.” He was, Walsh thought on meeting him, naturally charismatic. Ortega announced, “The general wants to see the money.” Walsh opened his satchel and put it on the table; Villa took a $20 gold piece, turned it over in his fingers and dropped it back in the bag.
On the journey from Los Angeles, Walsh had had an intuitive flash: Present the script idea orally, not in written form. So he’d memorized his notes. “The picture,” he told Villa and his staff, “will be seen by millions of people in the United States and other countries. It will show General Villa as a boy, living with his mother and sister outside Hidalgo del Parral. As he grew up, he got work as a vaquero on a nearby ranch. …When he heard of an opening on the big Terrazas hacienda in southern Chihuahua, he embraced his mother and sister and rode away after leaving them the little money he had.”
Translate that to the general, Walsh told Ortega, and see if he likes it. Actually, while Villa felt awkward about speaking English, he understood it fairly well and already liked the Hollywood flair of the story. The rest of Walsh’s plot involved Villa returning to Parral to find his mother and sister raped and murdered by federales—at least that’s the way Walsh related it in his autobiography. Actually, Villa did maintain that one of the owners of the hacienda where he was born tried to rape his sister, and Villa shot him in revenge; Frank McLynn, author of Villa and Zapata, casts doubt on the veracity of this incident, but Villa certainly appreciated the impact of the story. Walsh noted that as Villa listened, his eyes changed: “Now they shone as he licked his lips briefly. I thought of a jaguar getting ready to spring.”
Walsh ran through some of the lines Villa’s character would relate in captions on the silent screen: “I swear before God that I will raise an army and destroy these murderers. Then I will ride to Mexico City and pull down the government which hires them.” The general smiled and nodded. “He wishes to congratulate you,” Ortega said. “The general says he will be pleased for you to make the story, and he will take good care of you, because if you were killed, there will be no picture for the world to see.”
Walsh’s cameraman finally arrived, and the campaign—both Villa’s and Walsh’s—began. Villa’s men had commandeered a train belonging to the Mexican Central Railroad and piled the boxcars high with military equipment and cans of water. The water, Walsh noted, was yellow and muddied; “I would not have washed a dog in it, let alone drink the stuff.” He instructed an assistant to ride back to El Paso and fill some cans with potable water.
The revolutionary army’s first destination was the federal-held town of Durango, south of Parral, which they took in a matter of hours. Villa’s final destination was Mexico City and control of the nation. But while still in Durango, Walsh and Villa continued to tailor revolutionary realities to fit their film: When the villistas released a few woebegone prisoners from the Durango jail, Walsh restaged the event in a more cinematic style. He conferred with Ortega and Villa, and the general ordered several companies of his men to doff their sombreros and bandoliers, stack their rifles and enter the jail. The soldiers, initially confused, were then instructed that when one of Villa’s lieutenants fired his pistol, they were to rush from the jail yelling, “Viva Villa!” in praise of their “liberator.” One soldier—perhaps an early proponent of method acting—got so enthusiastic that he ran up, grabbed his commanding officer by the ankle and kissed his boot.
Walsh even staged a mock battle between Villa’s soldiers and some federales. On Villa’s orders his reluctant soldados stripped caps, boots and bloody jackets off their dead enemies. “Once they got over their reluctance to don the hated uniforms,” Walsh later wrote, “everything became a big joke to them. I had never heard of troops under fire grinning like apes at one another or the enemy.”
While filming the combat scenes, Walsh decided Villa’s men didn’t look “martial” enough—neither, for that matter, did the general. Someone on the crew hastily assembled a formal uniform for Villa, who wore it proudly for the movie and then promptly discarded it. That episode led to one of the strangest rumors of the campaign. According to a later account by Walsh, during production Villa’s troops wore what appeared to be regular army uniforms, which the director claimed Griffith had donated. The uniforms reportedly looked very much like those worn by Griffith’s Confederate soldiers in Birth of a Nation. Thus Villa may have appeared in his autobiographical film wearing the uniform of a Confederate Civil War officer. The problem with the story is that Birth of a Nation wasn’t filmed until after Walsh returned from Mexico; it is possible, though, that Griffith had contributed surplus uniforms ordered in advance for his Civil War epic. The story has never been verified.
When the revolutionary army left Durango for the nearly 500-mile journey to Mexico City, it had grown to nearly 9,000 men, many armed with rifles, pistols (including U.S. Army Colt automatics) and even some machine guns purchased with the gold from Griffith’s Mutual Films. Villa’s army marched into Mexico City on February 17. The occupation of the capital city, compared to the Durango campaign, was relatively bloodless. By then, the federales had begun to lose heart. When they saw the giant dust cloud kicked up by Villa’s approaching army, they fled the city. Villa, hailed as a benevolent conqueror, rode into the capital to shouts of adulation.
Walsh finished his interior filming by throwing open doors and windows in Chapultepec Castle and within three days had sufficient footage to pack up for the long trip back to Hollywood. The journey was far from easy; Mexico had few decent roads, and travel by truck was hazardous. It took Walsh’s three trucks, loaded with food and barrels of gasoline, three weeks to make the dusty, bumpy ride to Juárez. From there he caught a train to Los Angeles where, almost immediately, he began filming the studio sequences at Mission San Fernando, standing in for Villa as the young Pancho. He finished the scenes in less than a week, and after some frenzied editing, the eager studio had its feature-length five reels. Griffith and Woods were enthusiastic about Walsh’s work: “Some of the shots are good and bloody,” Walsh recalled Griffith saying. “The censors may faint,” he added, referring to the shots of federales hanging from trees in Durango, “but that’s Mutual’s headache.”
The Life of General Villa premiered in New York on May 14, 1914, to generally favorable reviews. It was released on different dates and under different titles (The Life of General Villa, The Tragedy and the Career of General Villa, The Tragic Early Life of General Villa) in other parts of the country. The film seemed to do well at the box office, but producers never told Walsh how much it grossed. According to Katz, “The film was shown in several U.S. cities and seems to have been a great success, partly because it was shown at a time when Villa had reached the apex of his popularity.”
The goodwill was not to last. Toward the end of 1914 Villa finally broke with Carranza, who persuaded the Wilson administration to cut off all aid to Villa’s army. This sparked Villa’s infamous March 1916 raid on Columbus, N.M., in which his men killed several American citizens. Wilson then ordered General John J. Pershing on a fruitless attempt to chase down the rebel general. Almost overnight, Hollywood’s perception of Villa reversed. Pershing never caught Villa. The Mexican Revolution came to an uneasy truce between Carranza and Villa. In 1920, with the assassination of Carranza, the new president, General Álvaro Obregón, gave Villa a hacienda near his old home in Parral. On July 20, 1923, while visiting town without his usual bodyguards, Villa himself was ambushed and assassinated, reportedly with Obregón’s approval.
Walsh’s innovative war movie has been lost to history for almost 90 years, as has the role of an American movie company in financing a revolution south of the border. And for the rest of his life, Walsh would wonder, “Had I directed Villa, or had he directed me?”
For further reading Allen Barra recommends The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, by Friedrich Katz.
*Originally published by Military History magazine. Published online on September 8, 2011: http://www.historynet.com