Mexico, 1912. Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) finds himself without adequate funding to finance his war against the military-run government. He also finds himself at odds with the Americans because of the Hearst media empire's press campaign against him. To counter both of these threats, he sends emissaries to movie producers in Hollywood to convince them to pay to film his progress and the actual battles. Producer D.W. Griffith (Colm Feore) is immediately interested and convinces Mutual Film Studios boss Harry E. Aitkin to send a film crew. Aitkin's nephew Frank Thayer is initially a mere errand boy for the studio, but he makes a good impression with Villa, who demands that Thayer be placed in charge of the project. Thayer and a camera crew team arrive in Mexico and film Villa leading his men to victory in battle. Despite the failure of this initial footage (which draws derisive laughter from potential backers) Thayer convinces Aitkin to invest even more money in a second attempt, and also convinces Villa to participate in making a more narrative film.
Over a year later in 1913, Thayer returns to Mexico with a director, actors, producers, cameramen and screen writers, and begin to film Villa's previous exploits using a younger actor. The filming goes well, although Villa becomes angry that the screenwriters and the director have changed history to make a more dramatic film.
Another few months later, Villa then assembles an army to attack a Federal held fort at Torreon. Thayer and his team go into film the action. After a skirmish on the way to the fort, Villa's army arrives at Torreon and lays siege to the fortress. Villa orders an attack and personally leads the charge. Villa's army is initially successful, but they suffer heavy casualties and are forced to withdraw.
That night, Villa orders his army to bombard Torreon into submission, and, after a long, brutal bombardment, Villa's cavalry finish off the last of Torreon's Federal defenders. However, Thayer and his camera crew team witness Villa personally shooting a Mexican widow in cold blood with his handgun during the aftermath of the battle. Disgusted, the team leaves.
In 1914, the silent feature film, 'The Life of General Villa', is shown in theaters in America, and to great box office success, although Thayer and his camera crew members regret making the film.
Nine years later in 1923, the recently retired Villa is driving his 1919 Ford Dodge roadster with an associate and two of his bodyguards through the large town of Parral, Chihuahua. His car is flagged down by a Mexican civilian, when several civilian-clothed Federalies suddenly pop up with machine guns. Villa reaches for his pistol, but is shot several times and is killed.