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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wallace Beery was a complicated man. He was (from what I have read of
him) a nasty customer in many ways - he skirted the edge of the law on
several occasions. But he was an entertaining performer, in both drama
(CHINA SEAS, THE CHAMP) or comedy (DINNER AT EIGHT, A DATE WITH JUDY).
Although his Oscar (in the first tie vote in Academy history - with
Fredric March in DR. JECKYL AND MR. HYDE) was for THE CHAMP, in some
ways his most sympathetic role was as Pancho Villa in VIVA VILLA.
It is rather curious that this film, the first really serious sound film to study the Mexican Revolution, picked up on Villa as the hero, rather than Francisco Madero, the original leader of the revolution in 1910. Madero appears in the film (played by Henry B. Walthall, in a good performance), but it is Villa's story (or what passes for it). He was more colorful than the unfortunate Madero, now best recalled for his murder in 1913 by General Huerta. Villa was a highly successful bandit (a model for Alfonso Badoya's great bandit in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRES), who did support some amount of social reform for the lower classes - but he never was as committed to it as his southern rival Zapata. In fact, when Villa finally ended fighting the government, he retired to a large landed estate he had acquired.
But he had great color...for good or bad. On one occasion he was giving an interview to a newspaperman, when he noted a drunken soldier who was making too much noise, so that he could not hear the newsman's questions. Quietly, without looking vicious or nasty, Villa took out his gun and shot and killed the soldier. He then resumed the interview with the horrified newsman. Villa was like that. He considered his killing someone like that natural. He was an odd man, very childlike at times, very cunning (to a point rather clever as a military strategist), and highly murderous when angered. He loved women, and would "marry" many to satisfy their scruples if they hesitated having sex with him. This led Theodore Roosevelt to make the rather loopy comment that Villa was an evil murderer and bigamist.
Villa was also the last man in history (prior to Osama Ben Laden's tools) to attack the continental United States. Angered that President Woodrow Wilson stopped supporting him and his men in 1916, Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killing several Americans. The failure of the Carranza government to arrest or catch Villa led Wilson to blunder into Mexican affairs by sending General John Pershing and a large armed force into northern Mexico to catch Villa. Villa led Pershing a merry chase, and finally the Americans had to withdraw in humiliation. Actually that was his highpoint as a public figure. Within two years his army was in ruins and he had to surrender to the government forces. He retired to his ranch, only to be assassinated by personal enemies in 1923.
Beery was not the only actor to play Villa. Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas both played the role in films too. But the Beery film is best in making the Mexican into a tragic hero. He is an overgrown child, who needs a father figure to bring out his best side (briefly found in Madero), and does not fully know when he does wrong. But he also has a sense of right and wrong: witness his willingness to humiliate himself before his enemy General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut), to save lives - only to find that Madero has pardoned him already. Later, when he learns that Madero was betrayed and murdered by Pascal, he captures the General and gives the latter a brutal punishment, but one that the audience fully supports.
His friendship with the John Reed character (Stu Erwin as Johnny Sykes) shows that he was capable of being a more reasonable man, but was troubled by his behavior and his failures. He never did fully deliver the reforms to Mexico that he had pledged Madero he would bring. In the end, as he lays dying, Sykes is there to comfort him - telling him how Mexico will honor his memory. But he dies crying the line in the "summary" line above - what had he done wrong indeed!
Not the historic Villa, but a worthy portrait of a fascinating man.
While the story is a bit on the fanciful side, it still has a good period look, and some of photography and action sequences are excellent. Wallace Beery is not as hammy as usual and does a creditable job. Henry B. Walthall is good (as usual) as Francisco Madero and turns in the best performance of the movie. Interestingly enough, while some characters (Madero, Villa)actually use their real names, others such as John Reed, Victoriano Huerta and Rodolfo Fierro are fictionalized as Johnny Sykes, Pascal and Sierra, respectively. Perhaps the best thing about it is, despite when it was made it treats the subject matter with dignity and has a real respect for Mexico and Mexicans. Some of the shots look as though they were taken in the 1910s thanks to Jack Conway's and Howard Hawk's direction.
Viva Villa was a hard luck movie. Filmed in part on location in Mexico
City, during production, a plane carrying movie footage to Culver City
crashed, requiring reshoots of the lost material. Wallace Beery, always
obnoxious star, demanded extra salary before he would appear again in the
lost scenes. Lee Tracy, who originally played the part of the newspaper
reporter, while on location was accused of getting drunk and urinating
his balcony room onto revelers celebrating the Mexican Independence Day.
Tracy's action caused a national scandal. MGM managed to smuggle him out
the country. Then Louis B. Mayer fired Tracy from MGM and also got him
blacklisted. Tracy's replacement, Stuart Erwin, was terrible as the
reporter. Due to the delays, Viva Villa did not get released until after
July 1, 1934, the date the Motion Picture Production Code took effect.
had to make changes to meet new code requirements, such as a scene where
Wray's character is whipped. Jack Conway took over for Howard Hawks as
director to finish the production, which may explain the change in the
pacing. The movie starts off fast, with a great scene of Villa and his
riders taking over a town and Villa issuing swift justice as the new
in town. Viva Villa never maintains that pace. But,one big plus, Leo
Carillo as Villa's homicidal sidekick is great.
I'm still not clear on how MGM got away with this film. Pancho Villa
had only been dead for 10 years and his famous raid on Columbus, New
Mexico almost 20 years. Surely not enough time for people to have
forgotten Villa or what he did.
But the most famous thing he did, raid into the USA and provide a pretext for intervention into Mexican affairs, is completely forgotten by this film. The Villa we see here is a lovable lug of a guy, a typical Wallace Beery part who gets his social conscience awakened by Francisco Madero and gives up banditry to become a revolutionary.
If you're a big fan of Wallace Beery and liked him in such films as Min and Bill and Treasure Island than Viva Villa is simply an extension of the characters he played there.
Actually I think the most interesting character in the film is that of Francisco Madero. Henry B. Walthall's performance is the best and I wish Walthall had starred in a film where he was the central character. Madero was as you see in the film a man of high ideals, betrayed and assassinated by his supporters. But it was hardly Pancho Villa who took vengeance on his betrayers. After long time Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz was overthrown in 1911 and then Madero assassinated in 1912, Mexico fell apart much like the former Yugoslavia did almost 20 years ago. Civil war raged there for a generation. Eventually it united under the PRI party which elected all of its presidents until Vicente Fox.
I've never really liked this film, it stray so far from the facts it's laughable. The players go through their familiar roles and it's a good cast that Howard Hawks later Jack Conway put through their paces. Of course the most famous story coming out of this film is about Lee Tracy getting blotto and going out on a balcony and raining on some Mexican soldiers. Got him fired from the film and Stu Erwin got the break and Tracy's part as the newspaper reporter who popularizes Villa.
If in fact you consider it a break Erwin got to be in Viva Villa.
The life of Mexican rebel and maverick Pancho Villa is brought to the screen is in this highly fictional but yet log-line or plot points accurate story. This is clear to anyone because the opening has one of those disclaimers that states that though the story is true, the movie has fictionalized certain scenes and scenarios but is in essence a true portrait. Whatever! That said, despite unexpected tonal shifts (Howard Hawks was the original director before Jack Conway was brought in and re-shot a lot of his footage. It makes me wonder how the new Exorcist movie that Renny Harlin is reshooting will play) the film is a touching portrait of a man of the people who could never lead a nation. It does not patronize the dastardly or generally inhumane tactics of Villa. As far as Villa was concerned, it is war and one must vanquish the enemies completely. Take no prisoners was his approach. It has the typical, rotten scoundrel and bandit to careful redemption of the soul arc but is handled atypical which is a plus. Beery, one of the biggest stars Hollywood ever produced is solid in the role and should have gotten an Oscar nomination. Directing is solid except for sudden comic ouvres among the chaos stopping the movie from achieving rich resonance but overall enabling it to still work. Sets are huge, action sequences are passable and scenarios and dialogue are either very good or cliched in certain respects. But I think the ending of the movie has one of the best written scenes and final lines I've ever heard. I won't spoil it but it lets you know that what you've seen and read about is essentially a myth and legend and that's what people choose to remember and live on. Kinda like the ending of the movie Big Fish.
In various venues, I've read some film writers' claims that the whipping of Fay Wray's character, while she laughs, was deleted due to the newly enforced production code at the time of this film's release. This claim is not accurate. The current TCM copy doesn't show this scene, however, the full whipping scene was regularly shown, in the 1960s, on either NYC station WNEW 5 or WCBS 2 whenever "Viva Villa" was aired. Another now-deleted scene showed Leo Carillo's character lining up captured federal soldiers, three at a time, front to back, and executing them with one bullet in order to save ammunition. I remember thinking how violent this film was for its time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A little picaresque Spaghetti Western like sample from the beginning:
A decree is posted on a tree a priest reads it to the peons, their land is being taken over by the local Don, and the peons ask the priest what can they do, the priest says "pray".
A boy watches his peon father get whipped to death for questioning the take over of the peons land by a wealthy Don. In a dark alley the boy stabs the whip man in the back and scrambles up into the hills. Thirty some odd years later he rides down as bandit chief Pancho Villa.
The following scene is indicative of the tone of the film. We see a courtroom, on a bench six peon prisoners, one is picking his nose, lol, and his finger must be up to the second knuckle, lol.
Into the courtroom enters Don Pablo he goes up to the judge and gives him a mirror and with a wink & a nod tells him to look at the back which must hold a risqué' image, (signifying the decadence of the aristocracy no doubt, lol). The Judge thanks the Don and proceeds to say that we don't need to clutter up the day with a trial these men are guilty. The six are then strung up on a gallows outside.
We see a shot of peons looking at the dead men whose feet swing in the foreground; we then hear shots and cut to a bandit army overthrowing the town. Pancho Villa rides up bandoleer over one shoulder (Beery resembles the real Villa, contemporary describers of Berry have described him as looking like an overstuffed laundry bag, lol), and we get a close up of Berry as he looks at the dead men and growls "cut them down".
We cut back to the courtroom; in burst Villa's men and his right hand man Sierra (Leo Carrillo whose character is probably based on the butcher Fierro) takes a bead on Don Miguel, and shoots him as he stands huddled with the rest of the officials on the dais. Sierra then shoots down Don Pablo. Villa runs into the courtroom and yells out "Sierra, you wait!"
Pancho turns back towards the outside he yells "bring them in". We see peons carrying the hanged men into the courtroom. Villa, "put on the bench", cut to Villa standing alongside the bodies sitting on the bench "straighten them up"
Villa looks admiringly over the dead men, he smiles then shakes his head as he turns to the officials, "now everybody shut up," he first gestures lovingly to the dead men, then with an angry look at the officials states "we're going to have a trial". Judge, runs up to a railing "I'm a government official and I demand to be heard" Pancho, "well, ah fine, you go head and talk....., there is the jury" gesturing to the dead men. Judge, "I was only doing my duty..." Pancho interrupts "DUTYY!" Pancho turns and he talks to the jury, "jury, did you hear, he was just doing his duty" he chuckles. Judge "these men were sent to me by Don Miguel for the crimes they committed." Pancho "crimes what crimes?" Another official hands Pancho a piece of paper saying "they are wrote out in full". Pancho exaggerates opening the paper looking at it turning it over, and showing it to the jury, he chuckles again and shrugs "sorry I ... I do not read," he hands the paper to the judge, "perhaps you should read it to the jury they have ears same as you have but..." and his voice changes into a growl, "perhaps they DON"T HEAR SO GOOD NOW!, so read LOUD, LOUD!" Judge, "but this is outrageous, I demand Justice, Justice!"
BANG the judge is shot in the back by Sierra.
Pancho sarcastically, "Sierra now why didn't you let him finish," Pancho gestures to the jury, "now you spoiled the trial." Sierra, "I do not like, it take too long." Pancho, "Well then we'll hurry, now this is the law of Pancho Villa's court, TWO FOR ONE, understand, for every peon killed I will kill two major do-mos or the best that I can find".
Sierra starts to go for his gun, Pancho stops him, "one moment Sierra.." Pancho turns to the jury "any objections from the jury?" he elaborately gestures as he walks along the jury line bending toward them and cupping his hand to his ear, straining to hear, "no?", he turns back and shrugs his shoulders to Sierra "no objections from the jury". Pancho points his thumb over his shoulder as he orders Sierra "you finish", then Villa walks out of the frame as Sierra and his men execute the rest of the officials.
Anytime Beery is on, it's a scream, just hilarious; his portrayal of Villa is as memorable and as lovable as Eli Wallach's Tuco. Beery portrayed the lovable rascal/rogue, in most of his films and it's a pity that a lot of his work is unavailable or hard to find. He should have won an Oscar for this role. Another sad factor is most all of his work was in B&W, so you may catch one of his performances occasionally on cable on TMC, if you are lucky.
It's a typical Hollywood vehicle with a twist but it's a hoot. The fact that it was a western about Villa freed it somewhat from the typical manifest destiny theme and Hollywood melodramatic moralizing. .
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Huh?! This film begins with a prologue where the people at MGM admit
that this entire "biography" is fictionalized!! Then, I ask, what's the
point?!?! It's like the opposite of the old TV show DRAGNET, where the
names were changed to protect the innocent. Here in this film, ONLY the
names are true--everything else has been changed!! Aye, aye, aye! While
I am a huge fan of classic Hollywood, this is the sort of film that
they did worst--with absolutely no respect for the source material.
Wallace Beery looks and sounds nothing like Villa and Villa is more a
sentimental comic book bandit than who he was in reality.
As for the film, Wallace Beery seems to play....well...Wallace Beery--or at least a sociopathic Wallace Beery with a heart of gold! He kills, he fights, he loves, he mugs for the camera but still, down deep he loves his country and President Madero. It's all pretty entertaining and well made (especially with support from actors such as Leo Carrillo and George E. Stone) but whitewashes the life of Villa. Because of this, I can't recommend it to anyone unless they really have no desire to learn about the real life Villa.
During one of Pancho's raids, he finds an American newspaper man (Stu Erwin) and kidnaps him, because he wants the reporter to glamorize the bandit's exploits. So, Erwin has an unusual inside view of this great man--a lot like Arthur Kennedy's role in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. And the bulk of the film shows the battles, the ups and downs and death of Villa.
By the way, the man they got to play Francisco Madero was amazingly similar to the real Madero--looking like his twin. At least in this sense the film got it right.
Good western movie with good all around production and performances.Very gritty and not too watered down in it's violent sequences.The only flaw here is the fictionalised version of the main characters story which is not what most people want from a profound historical icon as Pacho Villa.Surely he must have had a great true to life story to be told thru Hollywood without resorting to this over mythologised version.Also,the great actress Fay Wray was so underused here as well.Her makeup here was also terribly done,making her look like some kind of evil Vampiress.Only for fans of Mexican Westerns and big fans of the lead actors.....
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Viva Villa!, and its bookend film Treasure Island made just afterwards
by Wallace Beery are two of my favourite fiction films from the Golden
Age of Hollywood action and adventure. Both are tour-de-force
performances by the inimitable Beery, and although chockful of thrills
and spills the main entertainment value lies in Beery's screen persona.
Story purports to relate the meteoric rise and eventual sideways move of Pancho Villa, Mexican rebel, patriot, murdering raping thug in his quest to give the land back to the peons which had been violently taken from them years before by the arrogant aristocracy. He has a childlike trust in Madero the benign statesman who is almost deified by the movie, and has constant assistance from Sierra played by Leo Carillo, his psychotic sidekick. Fay Wray got a couple of appearances in but some of her scenes were apparently cut when the Hays Code came into force. Based on fact and fiction it's an entertaining ride - yet another Revolution Betrayed, episodic because of production problems they had but always engrossing if you can get over the technical limitations (mainly dodgy back projection).
But it's Beery's performance that's so breath-taking: as a real-life dislikable person he successfully plays a thoroughly dislikable swine (and in Treasure Island, too) as a lovable overgrown simple child, except he'd like to try pulling the legs off soldiers instead. You root for him all the way throughout his murderous career, go misty eyed when he does, agree with every cause of his anger. The pathos he introduces at various points in the tale is indescribable and unique and it's made clear that everyone loves him, except for Fay Wray's character and her brother played by that marvellous wooden actor Don Cook. Some favourite bits: defending his savage tactics to Madero: "You can't win a revolution with Love, you've got to have Hate"; letting embedded journalist Johnny have his way and deciding on a whim to take Santa Rosalia; the telegram from Pancho to Madero stating "nobody killed much" in taking Juarez; Johnny's summation to Pancho "you're better than News, you're History"; Pancho's tearful last orders to his troops; telling a disgusted Cook "Alright. The poor always was the Beast. Only this time we're not frightened"; the thought of the method of execution of General Pasquale; being fed his dying words "Forgive me? Johnny what I done wrong?", childlike to the end and playing on your heartstrings to a stirring musical score; so many more.
The subject history is a bit sketchy so if for no other reason watch this for Beery - to my mind this and Treasure Island are his best performances - not a great actor but in here he's wondrous to behold. The power of film is frightening.
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