Pancho Barnes (1988) 

It’s likely that most non-aviation buffs first became acquainted, if at all, with Pancho Barnes when she appeared as a character in The Right Stuff (1983). Yet long before she became the proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho had led a full life. According to this biopic, she fled a loveless marriage by hitching a ride on what she thought was a banana boat which turned out to be running guns. It’s unsavoury crew were not fooled by her attempts to disguise herself as a man, but after escaping their clutches Pancho wound up being captured by Mexican revolutionaries. And all this occurs in this biopic's opening thirty minutes!

Which may give the impression that this film fairly rockets along, but it doesn’t. Pancho Barnes has to wait until its heroine takes flight before it can overcome a headwind borne of leaden dialogue and a listless performance by a miscast Valerie Bertinelli. Thankfully, once the planes takes centre stage, such pronouncements of “dancing with angels” and “searching for windmills” are put on the backburner as Bertinelli relaxes into the role.

This highly romanticised version of Pancho’s life eschews any attempt to authentically portray her unique character by supplanting Pancho’s brassiness with Bertinelli’s perkiness. Yet the barebones of her story cannot help but provide some entertainment value, which this biopic manages to do in fits and spurts. So while Pancho’s involvement in the early days of aviation and cinema, racing against Amelia Earhart and battling with Howard Hughes, piques one’s interest, the fictional love-triangle with fellow stunt pilots falls flat.   

By the time we land in the more familiar territory of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, this two and a half hour film has run out of gas.

cast, Valerie Bertinelli, pancho barnes, ted wass, frank clarke
Valerie Bertinelli
Valerie Bertinelli

as Pancho Barnes

press to zoom
Ted Wass
Ted Wass

as Frank Clarke

press to zoom
John Hussey
John Hussey

as Will Rogers

press to zoom
David Kockinis
David Kockinis

as Howard Hughes

press to zoom
1/1
fact check, fact vs fiction, inaccuracies, true story

Gene McKendry was not a stunt pilot on Hell’s Angels (1930), as he would have been approximately 10 years old at the time.

Pancho didn’t meet Gene McKendry until 1946.

Pancho’s accident during the 1929 Women's Air Derby occurred during landing, not take-off.

Frank Clarke died in 1948, making it impossible for him to help Pancho buy her plane back twenty years later.

film clip, scene comparison, video, hell's angels, stunts

Biopic covers the making of Hell’s Angels (1930) though the stunts depicted, including Pancho flying though a hangar and a stuntman performing a wing walk, do not feature in the actual film.

cbs.jpg