At the Arthouse

Pancho Villa bombed in Mexico, but it might be the best Mexican film ever

Pancho Villa bombed in Mexico, but it might be the best Mexican film ever

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A scene from "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" Courtesy of © UNAM

This would seem an unfortunate time for Mexico to be celebrating its 200th anniversary. Large chunks of the country are now a war zone more dangerous than Iraq or Afghanistan. Americans routinely refer to the country as a ‘failed state.’ So it always comes as a surprise to read that the Mexican economy is growing a bit faster than in the U.S., and that the middle class is expanding as well. But you have to celebrate your anniversaries when they actually come, and not only when you’re ready for your close-up.

There will be a variety of events around town commemorating the bicentennial, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston film program is getting into the game early. This weekend they’ll be showing three films that deal more or less directly with the Mexican Revolution (Mexico was erupting with violence on its centennial as well). They’re all directed by Fernando de Fuentes, whom the New York Times dubbed “the Mexican John Ford.”

All three, Prísionero 13, El Compadre Mendoza, and Vámanos con Pancho Villa, look interesting, but let’s go with Pancho Villa (as the latter film’s title translates) because it will be the most compelling for non-Mexican viewers. The film, which is shown tonight at 7 and Sunday at 5 p.m., features nearly nonstop action and a strong cast, and some observers call it the best Mexican film ever.

The film’s naïve title implies that joining Pancho Villa to fight the hated rich landowners was something of a lark for provincial smallholders eager to prove their manhood. That’s the case with the six “Lions of San Pablo.” The film shows that they are in fact oppressed by government forces, but also that they’re eager to show quien es el mas macho. That is, which of them is least afraid to die.

They’re led, more or less, by Tiburcio (Antonio Frausto), whose gray mustache gives him an air of authority. Comic relief is provided by the chubby and amusing Melitón (Manuel Tamés) who reminded me of Lou Costello, seasoned with a pinch of Curly Howard. Imagine such a character suffering a tragic fate and you’ll get an idea of what a compelling character Melitón is.

The six Leones find Pancho Villa in full Robin Hood mode. Reincarnated rather credibly by a grinning and slightly potbellied Domingo Soler, Villa is passing out corn to hungry peasants from a train car he and his troops have commandeered. He signs up the six men on the stop and challenges them to prove they’re “real lions” whose bite matches their roar. This railroad episode is one of many beautiful mise en scenes that de Fuentes stages here. The scene is like a classic photo from the Mexican Revolution—the smoking train; the huge-hatted, piratical soldiers; the female camp followers—come to life. (De Fuente doesn’t pay the Adelitas their full due. Here they mostly pat tortillas, but in reality they fought alongside the men.)

From this early point in the film de Fuentes essentially treats us to non-stop action. But it’s not just a popcorn film. As the Lions drop one-by-one in combat, de Fuentes is making points about the horrors and futility of war that resonate not only with the Mexican Revolution, but with the World War that was already brewing when this film was release in 1935.

By the film’s end de Fuentes has made a bold attack on two Mexican icons, el macho in general, and also the macho in charge—Pancho Villa. The León that the audience sympathizes with most dies, not bravely on the battlefield, but in the cantina, as the result of a stupidly macho drinking game. (The splendid cantina scene includes a cameo by famed Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who wrote the film’s jaunty, brassy score. When the borrachos pull out their guns, Revueltas, playing the honky tonk piano, flips up the ‘don’t shoot me I’m the piano player’ sign.)

The film’s surprising ending no longer shows Villa as Robin Hood, and the lone surviving León walks away bitterly into the night, apparently disillusioned with the Revolution.

This was the most expensive Mexican film made up to that time, and it bombed spectacularly at the box office, playing in Mexico City for only one week. Apparently the public wasn’t ready for an ambiguous portrait of a revolutionary hero.