And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)
Many a biopic has been made about the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Yet the honour of first actor to portray Villa goes to the future film director Raoul Walsh, in The Life of General Villa (1914). Also appearing in that film was Pancho Villa as himself. Outliving the film, of which only a few fragments exist, is the legend surrounding its making.
According to the most popular version, Pancho Villa agreed to allow Mutual Film Studios make a biopic of his life in an effort to enhance his image and, more significantly, his finances. A major selling point for the film was to be the inclusion of actual footage of the war. Mutual therefore prescribed a few stipulations; costumes would be provided for Villa’s troops; all battles had to take place during the day to take advantage of the light; and said battles would be restaged if required.
It is upon this premise that And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is based, focusing on the efforts of the inexperienced Frank Thayer to bring the project to fruition. Despite the film’s lacklustre portrayal of ancillary historical figures, it is saved by a bravura performance of Antonio Banderas as Pancho Villa who struggles with the hopes of his countrymen and the demands of the film crew.
Quick to anger, he argues that dramatic license is a license to lie! A more charitable view, that applies equally to this biopic, may be that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
The only surviving copy of the contract between Pancho Villa and the Mutual Film Company does not stipulate that Villa would only fight during daylight hours, or that he would restage battles for the cameras.
A contemporary review of the first film shot by Frank Thayer indicates that rather than being in the midst of the Battle of Ojinaga, the crew entered the town after the battle was over -
The pictures do not portray or claim to portray a battle; they show among other things the conditions in and around Ojinaga after the battle which was fought in and about the town. Ojinaga is just a cluster of houses with a church. It was badly damaged by the soldiers of Villa and the films gave a very good picture of the damage done. The films also showed the badly battered buildings from which the Federals were driven by the Constitutionalists and likewise the trenches that had been dug by the Federals. There was a good view of the police station had been the military headquarters of the Federals. Other things shown on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande were the train of captured guns and ammunition wagons, the review of the ‘army’ before General Villa, the captured Federal prisoners, the wretched refugees on their way to the American side… There is no scene of actual fight or murder in the films.
W. Stephen Bush, The Moving Picture World
No scene recreations in this biopic as only a few fragments still exist of The Life of General Villa. Biopic does feature some representations of what may have been.