Archivo de la etiqueta: Raoul Walsh

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: 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: 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]

Pancho Villa’s War (Movie)

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.

Mexican revolutionary General Pancho Villa, above in battle garb and bandoliers, dressed up for scenes in his 1914 semiautobiographical silent film. (Photo from Library of Congress)
Mexican revolutionary General Pancho Villa, above in battle garb and bandoliers, dressed up for scenes in his 1914 semiautobiographical silent film. (Photo from Library of Congress)

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:

Pancho Villa y Hollywood

El siguiente fragmento (pp. 372-374) proviene del primer volumen de la obra de Friedrich Katz, Pancho Villa publicada por Editorial Era en 1998:

Pancho Villa y Hollywood

Friedrich Katz según El Fisgón
Friedrich Katz según El Fisgón

Villa no sólo entendía la importancia de un tratamiento favorable por parte de los periódicos, sino también el impacto que un medio enteramente nuevo, el cine, empezaba a tener sobre la opinión pública estadounidense. No se limitó a permitir a los camarógrafos acompañarlo en sus campañas, sino que firmó con un productor de Hollywood un contrato de un género único.

Los tratos de Villa con la meca del cine resultaron muy provechosos en todos los sentidos de la palabra. Le dieron lustre y aumentaron su popularidad en Estados Unidos. También fueron rentables y produjeron dólares muy urgentemente necesarios que empleó para armar y abastecer a sus tropas. El 5 de enero de 1914, pocos días después de ocupar la ciudad de Chihuahua e incluso antes de tomar pleno control del estado, Villa firmó un contrato con Harry E. Aitken de la Mutual Film Company. El 7 de enero, el New York Times informaba:

La tarea del general Villa consistirá en escenificar thrillers cinematográficos en la forma que convenga a sus planes para deponer a Huerta y sacarlo de México, y la del señor Aitken, el otro socio, será distribuir las películas resultantes en las zonas pacíficas de México y en Estados Unidos y Canadá.

Para asegurarse de que su inversión sería un éxito, el señor Aitken despachó al campamento del general Villa, el sábado pasado, un pelotón de cuatro camarógrafos con aparatos especialmente diseñados para filmar en el campo de batalla.

The Moving Picture World del 18 de julio de 1914 (Vol. XXI, No. 3, p. 384)
The Moving Picture World del 18 de julio de 1914 (Vol. XXI, No. 3, p. 384)

Para la industria cinematográfica, este contrato fue muy importante. Los noticieros constituían un género relativamente muevo y había gran interés en su desarrollo. Por primera vez la gente que nunca había participado en un combate podía realmente ver cómo era la guerra. Por esta razón, la cobertura que los noticieros habían dado a la guerra de los Balcanes en 1912 y 1913 aumentó enormemente su popularidad y atractivo. Ahora tenía lugar un conflicto bélico mucho más cerca de casa, al sur de la frontera, en una región colindante con Estados Unidos, y las películas sobre la guerra en México prometían gran éxito. (1) Como todo lo demás que tiene que ver con Villa, la historia de sus relaciones con la industria del cine se convirtió en una mezcla inextricable de mito y realidad. Pronto empezaron a circular en la prensa versiones de que el contrato contenía algunas cláusulas muy peculiares. “Si el cámara no filma buenas escenas de batallas, Villa las pondría de nuevo en escena […] accedió a realizar sus ataques durante las horas diurnas.” (2) Esas cláusulas, que atraían la atención mundial, reforzaban la imagen negativa que muchos en Estados Unidos tenían tanto de México como de Villa: la imagen de un líder inescrupulosamente dispuesto a sacrificar la vida de sus hombres para obtener publicidad. El contrato original en realidad no contenía tales cláusulas. No había absolutamente ninguna mención de que las batallas podían escenificarse por segunda vez o de que Villa se encargaría de que hubiera buena iluminación. Lo que sí se especificaba era que la Mutual Film Company tendría derechos exclusivos para filmar a las tropas de Villa en batalla y que éste recibiría veinte por ciento de los ingresos que produjeran las películas. (3)

Los directores de la Mutual consideraban a Villa tan fotogénico que decidieron combinar sus documentales con una película de ficción, The Life of General Villa (La vida del general Villa). La trama del film era un típico engendro hollywoodense: sacrificaba la realidad a lo que el productor suponía que sería el gusto de los espectadores estadounidenses. Los guionistas obviamente pensaban que los pobres no constituían buenos héroes. Así que la familia de Villa se transformaba, de pobres aparceros que trabajaban en una gran hacienda, en rancheros independientes, relativamente acomodados y con tierras propias. Los villanos, en vez de un hacendado, eran dos oficiales federales que perseguían a dos de las hermanas de Villa mientras éste estaba fuera y uno de ellos secuestraba a la menor, la violaba y la abandonaba moribunda. Cuando Villa regresaba y se enteraba de lo que había ocurrido, buscaba venganza. Tras una feroz persecución, mataba al culpable pero no lograba hacer lo mismo con su acompañante, el cual escapaba. Perseguido por las tropas federales, Villa huía a las montañas, pero juraba acabar con el segundo oficial involucrado en la violación de su hermana. Finalmente lo encontraba en la batalla de Torreón, y lo mataba. Ése era el clímax del film. Obviamente Villa se había convertido en el héroe de un “western”, una especie de Jesse James mexicano. Sin embargo, aceptó el libreto y Raoul Walsh, un conocido actor que luego se convirtió en uno de los productores más famosos de Hollywood, viajó a México para hacer el papel de joven Villa en la primera parte de la película. En las partes posteriores, él mismo hacía el papel y se incluían en la ficción tomas documentales de las batallas que libraba su ejército. (4)

Raoul Walsh interpreta a Pancho Villa joven
Raoul Walsh interpreta a Pancho Villa joven

Villa no puso objeciones a ese embellecimiento y “ascenso social” de las primeras etapas de su carrera. Estaba dispuesto también a complacer a la Mutual Films en otros aspectos. Como los productores consideraron que su atuendo normal, un sombrero fláccido y un suéter, demeritaban su prestigio de militar, aceptó ponerse un uniforme proporcionado por la productora y que siguió siendo propiedad de ésta. (5)

La película se exhibió en varias ciudades estadounidenses y al parecer tuvo un gran éxito, en parte porque se presentó en un momento en que Villa había alcanzado la cúspide de su popularidad en Estados Unidos: después de que las tropas estadounidenses ocuparon Veracruz y la guerra entre Estados Unidos y México parecía una posibilidad muy real. Villa fue el único dirigente mexicano importante que declaró que no le molestaba la ocupación y que no combatiría contra los estadounidenses.

Villa rompió con Estados Unidos poco después de que se hizo la película, y entonces Hollywood alteró drásticamente su imagen del revolucionario mexicano. En abril de 1916, después del ataque a la ciudad de Columbus, Eagle Films Manufacturing and Producing Company hizo una cinta llamada Villa Dead or Alive (Villa vivo o muerto) y la anunció con las siguientes palabras:

The Moving Picture World del 8 de abril de 1914
The Moving Picture World del 8 de abril de 1916

Eso fue lo que dijo el presidente Wilson, y eso es lo que nosotros vamos a hacer.

¿Está preparado Estados Unidos?

Ven a ver a las tropas del Tío Sam en acción.

Ve a tu bandera cruzar la frontera para castigar a quienes la han insultado.

Otra película, producida por la Feinberg Amusement Corporation, se tituló Following the Flag in Mexico (A México tras la bandera): “Villa a cualquier precio. Veinte mil dólares de recompensa, vivo o muerto. Las hordas del bandido mexicano en acción”.

Sin embargo, el tratamiento favorable que la industria fílmica y otros medios le habían dado a Villa en 1914 fue de gran importancia para su posición, tanto en México como en Estados Unidos. Los medios lo habían designado líder nacional mucho antes de que adquiriera algunos de los requisitos básicos para ocupar ese lugar, y con ello facilitaron su ascenso a la fama nacional e internacional.

Con todo, esa opinión general favorable con que contaba a principios de 1914 en Estados Unidos se vio amenazada por lo que se conoce como el affair Benton.


(1) Véase una excelente descripción y análisis de la compleja relación entre Villa y Hollywood, en Aurelio de los Reyes, Con Villa en México, México, 1985, y “With Villa in Mexico on Location”, Performing Arts Annual 1986, Library of Congress, Washington, 1986, pp. 98-132; Margarita de Orellana, La mirada circular. El cine norteamericano de la revolución, 1911-1917, México, 1991.

(2) Aurelio de los Reyes, “With Villa…”, cit, p. 103.

(3) Los contratos originales firmados entre “Francisco Villa representado por y a través del general E. Aguirre-Benavides, agente y representante legal debidamente autorizado del dicho Francisco Villa y Gunther R. Lessing… Mutual Film Company… representado por y a través de Frank N. Thayer”, se encuentran en los papeles de Federico González Garza, folio 3057, Fundación Condumex, México.

(4) Aurelio de los Reyes, “With Villa…”, cit, p. 125.

(5) New York Times, 11 de febrero de 1914.

Pancho Villa, líder de la Revolución Mexicana y estrella de cine. La Calle de diciembre 10, 2012

El conflicto de Viet Nam fue considerada la primera guerra televisiva, transmitiendo escenas de las batallas directamente a los hogares de la población americana. Pero la primera guerra cinemática puede ser considerada la Revolución Mexicana de 1910-1921, tragedia épica que dejó un mínimo de un millón de muertos y desplazados. Su gran “estrella” fue Pancho Villa, el brillante estratega de la División del Norte que logró controlar todo el norte de México y la frontera con Estados Unidos.

La curiosa simbiosis de un bandolero y agiotista convertido en comandante militar con la industria fílmica norteamericana es el tema central de un documental de Gregorio Rocha, Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa de tan solo 49 minutos de duración que junto con La venganza de Pancho Villa (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa), un semi-documental en blanco y negro filmado durante los años 30 del siglo pasado por los cinematografistas trashumantes Edmundo y Félix Padilla, padre e hijo nos muestran cómo fue la relación entre Hollywood y El centauro del norte.

Los rollos perdidos de Pancho VillaUn fascinante e irónico diario que recrea las vicisitudes quijotescas que vivió Rocha durante la búsqueda de cintas que recrean las hazañas de Villa, Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa es un misterio cultural detectivesco. En otro nivel, es una meditación muy personal sobre las relaciones entre política, los medios masivos de comunicación y la fabricación de identidad de figuras públicas.

Es del conocimiento común entre estudiosos del cine que Villa, un personaje consciente de su personalidad e identidad popular, firmó un contrato con un estudio de cine norteamericano, la Mutual Film Co. para filmar segmentos de sus batallas contra las tropas federales para una película muda de larga duración, The Life of General Villa. Para ese momento, Villa ya había cautivado a las audiencias americanas; era descrito en los noticieros cinematográficos norteamericanos como un audaz y agresivo líder militar a la par que un Robin Hood local, quien robaba a los barones del dinero para dar a los pobres.

Las evidencias muestran que la compañía cinematográfica suplió a Villa y a sus hombres con vistosos uniformes militares para reemplazar las paupérrimas vestimentas que utilizaban las tropas villistas, además de requerir que los ataques se efectuaran durante el día, porque durante la noche era sumamente difícil filmar los combates. En Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa, hay un historiador que refuta esto último.

Estas escenas iniciales reflejan y hasta cierto grado, conforman y describen la política exterior oficial del gobierno de Estados Unidos hacia Pancho Villa y sus rebeldes durante su levantamiento contra el gobierno del despótico Porfirio Díaz, dictador mexicano que estuvo en el poder más de 30 años.

“Resulta muy interesante cómo Washington y Hollywood iban de la mano,” comentó Gregorio Rocha. “Hollywood interpretaba lo que Washington decidía.”

Durante la investigación, tanto en archivos europeos como norteamericanos, Rocha descubrió un sorpresivo número de filmes olvidados que muestran a Villa durante el conflicto bélico revolucionario. Durante la Primera Guerra Mundial (1914-1918) que se desarrolló en Europa, el público norteamericano se maravilló con la sangrienta guerra que se llevaba a cabo al sur de su frontera. “Creo que fue la proximidad a Estados Unidos lo que causó que se convirtiera en un circo mediático,” manifestó Rocha en alguna ocasión.

Al combinar pietaje documental con escenas de ficción de la biografía de Villa, The Life of General Villa es un curioso melodrama híbrido que utiliza escenas documentales y de ficción. Se estrenó en Nueva York en el Lyric Theater durante la primavera de 1914. El dinero que ganó Villa como pago por la película lo uso para comprar implementos militares para su tropa.

Para 1916, la administración del presidente Woodrow Wilson apoyó a Venustiano Carranza y Villa lanzó su ataque a Columbus, Nuevo México. El complejo político y de entretenimiento, así como el público en general le dieron la espalda. La Mutual llegó al grado de utilizar segmentos de los filmes de Villa combinados con nuevas escenas protagonizadas por Raoul Walsh, quien interpretó a Villa en la película de 1914, para estrenar una nueva cinta, The Outlaw’s Revenge, donde se muestra a Villa como un forajido.

Anuncio de The Mutual Film Corporation de Nueva York en The Moving Picture World del 16 de mayo de 1914
Anuncio de The Mutual Film Corporation de Nueva York en The Moving Picture World del 16 de mayo de 1914

Por décadas, no se supo qué sucedió con The Life of General Villa y The Outlaw’s Revenge hasta que Gregorio Rocha hizo su investigación y algo de luz sobre los filmes ha salido a relucir.

Para Jesse Lerner, curador del REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater) junto con Steve Anker, “Gregorio logró juntar pedazos y claves cinematográficas para dar un gran paso hacia adelante para comprender el papel de Villa en el cine.”

Como se narra en Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa, la investigación de Gregorio Rocha lo llevó al archivo de la Universidad de Texas en El Paso y luego a casa de los descendientes de los cineastas Padilla. Ahí, Rocha encontró una versión de La venganza de Pancho Villa, cinta que los Padilla editaron al juntar escenas de filmes mudos originales. Rocha ayudó a restaurar la copia que posee la Library of Congress de Estados Unidos.

Entre las virtudes que posee el filme de Rocha, destaca la conciencia de la enorme cantidad de filmes mudos que han desaparecido o fueron destruidos a través de los años. Cuando llegó la era sonora del cinematógrafo, miles de películas fueron derretidas para recuperar la plata y otros metales valiosos.

“Esta continua búsqueda de datos históricos previene que las personalidades y los eventos del pasado se conviertan en meros ‘monumentos congelados’. Al final, si no compartes tus descubrimientos, éstos se pierden,” manifestó Gregorio Rocha.

Para ahondar en el tema les recomiendo un par de obras: la biografía en dos volúmenes de Friedrich Katz, Pancho Villa y Con Villa en México: Testimonios de camarógrafos norteamericanos en la revolución de Aurelio de los Reyes.

The Red Dance (1928) con Dolores del Río

Ficha Filmográfica: The Red Dance (Fox, 1928). Dirección: Raoul Walsh. Guíon: James Ashmore Creelman basado en la obra The Red Dancer of Moscow de Henry Leyford Gates. Fotografía: Charles Clark. Reparto: Dolores del Río (Tasia), Charles Farrell (el Gran Duque Eugen), Ivan Linow (Ivan Petroff), Boris Charsky (Agitador), Dorothy Revier (Princesa Varvara).

Tasia (Dolores Del Río) es una niña campesina que vive un romance con el Gran Duque Eugen (Charles Farrell), un aristócrata ruso que se supone que debe casarse con la princesa Varvara (Dorothy Revier). Finalmente gana el amor verdadero, aunque siempre las cosas son complicadas por las transformaciones provocadas por la Revolución.

 Coincido con Ana M. López en que:

Aunque trabajó con varios directores, la imagen de Dolores Del Rio en el periodo silente permaneció bastante estable. A pesar de que se le identificaba insistentemente como mexicana, interpretó rusas (Resurrection, 1927, y The Red Dance, 1928), bailarinas españolas (The Loves of Carmen, 1927, y The Bad One, 1930), mestizas (andina en The Gateway of the Moon, 1928, y estadounidense en Ramona, 1929), gitanas (Revenge, 1928), todas muy sensuales. No se le identificó con personajes latinoamericanos. El suyo era más bien un exotismo de clase alta, articulado dentro de una categoría general de sensualidad trágica «extranjera y otra». Como «otra» sensual, objeto de fascinación, trasgresión, temor y capitulación sexuales, su imagen en pantalla no tenía procedencia nacional o étnica específica; su «otredad» se ubicaba y definía en un registro sexual refundida en lo extranjero y exótico y no en lo étnico.