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Facets Video's DVD of ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (the English title sounds like an album by the Baja Marimba Band) is a fairly beat-up surviving print of what appears to be a Mexican landmark. Made barely twenty years after the events it depicts, the film is based on a novel by Rafael F. Muñoz, an eyewitness to the events of the Revolution.
I'll have some comments about the state of Latin American film preservation below; this tough-minded look at the 'glorious revolution' answers many questions about a historical period most Norteamericanos know only through westerns about American aventurers abroad.
After the portrait of Mexican revolutionary warriors seen in American films like Vera Cruz, The Wild Bunch and Old Gringo, it's refreshing to come across a document like ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! that originated from the revolutionary country itself. Americans frequently jump to the conclusion that 'life is cheap' in foreign lands; the Mexican Revolution gave them a first hand look at crazy guerilla warfare with mass executions and a fatalistic attitude that would seem to border on a death cult.
This impression obviously came from our decades of relative domestic peace, or at least the illusion of it; discounting the bloody repression of the labor and anti-war movements, Americans haven't seen real home-turf anarchy since our own Civil War. What may seem a glorious adventure to the fighters is a cold-blooded war to the generals who order killings without batting an eye. The calculating Huerta general violates a flag of truce and prepares to hang three of our Leones. Pancho Villa's flippant attitude toward life and death is equally callous:
Villa: "No, we can use musicians."
Soldier: "But all of our regiments already have full bands."
Villa: "Oh, okay, shoot them then."
Villa uses soldiers as a completely expendable resource and the battlefields are littered with corpses expended with little thought and surely no regret. All this is considered Mexican madness, when the fact is that at the same time in Europe, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Germans were busy doing the exact same thing, exterminating millions over pride and prestige.
The volunteers in ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! at least have personal reasons for fighting. Showing Francisco Villa that they're tough will cement their reputations as real men, and there's always the factor of group solidarity to consider. Only the subtitles use the word macho, but it's a close-enough description of what motivates these fighters. Don Tiburcio denounces the idea of playing a silly game of chance with a loaded revolver in a crowded bar ... and then goes through with the pointlessly deadly ritual because honor requires it. The 'Mexican' madness in this show is very alive in American culture, if one follows what happens each Fall on college campuses. Every young man seeks to define himself with his peers, and asinine dare games persist everywhere.
Perhaps there is a special cultural death wish in action here. Melitón sings a drinking song about "If I'm going to die tomorrow, why not shoot me today?"
¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! delivers an odd mix of messages. A scroll title up front calls the revolution glorious and yet a deadly tragedy. We cannot help but side with The Lions and their adventures, even as we see them cut down one by one. The way Pancho Villa treats the two survivors must have been a big surprise to Mexican audiences of 1936 - nobody goes out in a blaze of glory here.
Director Fernando de Fuentes stages scenes simply but has a good eye for compositions and action. The battle scenes are excellent even though the main cavalry attack is badly scratched (see below). The cultural detail is amazing and undoubtedly authentic, from costumes to locations to equipment -- a lot of German machine guns seem to be in use. The revolutionary anthem Adelita plays everywhere in its original, less melodic form. San Pablo is a small railway depot almost identical to the location of the big Villa battle scene in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. When a barroom pianist puts a sign up reading, "Please don't shoot the piano player" we can tell it's no joke. The Federale lieutenant sent to execute our heroes looks like he's seventeen years old, yet carries his duty like an old man.
Facets Video's DVD of Let's Go with Pancho Villa! is a good transfer of a print in condition that varies from reasonably good to ridiculously scratched - one needs to watch this excitingly directed relic knowing that the print may very well be all that remains of a crucially important classic Mexican film. The state of Latin American movies from this period is deplorable, as most weren't protected or properly duplicated. Storage was an iffy proposition and many surviving prints exist only in private hands, deteriorating as they are shown. Even in Argentina, decent copies of famous Tango musicals -- and even movies with Eva Perón -- are hard to come by.
This print has some splices but appears to be a 35mm dupe beset with every flaw known to B&W film. The battle scene starts with least a minute of footage so heavily scratched that no one would use it if anything else - anything - was available. Yet the movie's unique content makes Let's Go with Pancho Villa! easy to watch.
A Spanish menu path leads one to the same material as the English path, with the text extras translated. Both paths have a startling film remnant, an alternate ending in even worse condition than the normal film. The movie would have to be opened up to accomodate this post-script scene. Don Tiburcio's wife is played by a different actress, indicating that this may be a revision added a year or two later.
The alternate ending is perhaps the original version of an oft-repeated grim anecdote about Pancho Villa -- I believe it may be retold in B. Traven's book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Several years later, Villa happens by Tiburcio's farm and asks him to come ride with him in a new rebellion. Remembering how Villa wrote him off as expendable, Tiburcio declines, and foolishly introduces the General to his wife and small children ... The incident encapsulizes everything about the impact of war and glory on an ordinary campesino: The old fighter knows how useless it is, the General only thinks about his battles, and the young boy is inescapably wrapped up in dreams of glorious fighting with the legendary Villa. It never stops.
Let's Go with Pancho Villa! is an uncompromising Mexican look at the real meaning of war. Let's hope a better version surfaces someday from some private collector.
The movie was reviewed from a pre-release check disc bearing the disclaimer "DVD and packaging do not reflect final version." Savant normally reviews only final product just so readers aren't surprised by something different than they were expecting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Let's Go with Pancho Villa! rates: