This HBO presentation is lavishly filmed, with some very elaborate battle scenes. Antonio Banderas offers a shallow but lively impersonation of Pancho Villa, the natural leader of the anti-Huerta revolutionaries in Mexico for almost sixteen years early in the 20th century.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself bites off a big subject and manages to touch all the bases at least lightly - irresponsible filmmakers, crazy Mexican battles and an early demonstration of the power of film to debase history and warp the truth.
Fort Lee New Jersey is the movie capital of America, so says an early title, thereby setting the casually satiric tone of the movie. Green producer Frank Thayer befriends wild-card Pancho Villa, and proves himself wild enough to film during the general's battles. The fledgling film industry fumbles when the "real" battles aren't dramatic enough for New York, so Thayer takes a crew an films a phony story around Villa, which becomes a hit. Thus, we are meant to believe, the essentially corrupt movie industry was born.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself has a lot of amusing movie-lore trivia with the likes of Raoul Walsh and Christy Cabanne on the battlefield and D.W. Griffith lording it over his paltry film empire in the East. But it lacks a strong and lasting point, because the Mexican adventures with Villa (Raoul Walsh wrote them up quite differently) were a strange sideshow and not a strong influence on Hollywood. The implication is that "the media" lied back then as it does now, a very poor analogy not borne out by the decades of newsreel companies slanted by newspaper and studio ownership. Like the slanderous Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies that indicts journalists as the evil in modern society, this picture calls filmmakers too irresponsible to be trusted with the facts.
The Frank Thayer character has himself some high adventures, mingling with the "less civilized" Mexicans but not learning anything from the experience except obvious lessons about savage killing and the reckless abuse of power. Banderas' Pancho Villa is all swagger and style and comes off pretty well as a leader who knows he hasn't what it takes to really help his country after the revolution is won.
The filmic situation is nicely rendered, with Thayer's phony life story for Villa being more than credible, and the telling detail that the camp whores do a better job playing revolutionary wives and sweethearts than do the shy and frightened real thing.
The plot makes a big deal of the obvious, as when one child mascot becomes a soldier while his brother becomes Thayer's assistant. The soldier is killed during the filming of a real battle (in closeup of course), a loaded situation we're supposed to sort out when his brother has to edit the film.
Besides Eion Bailey, who is good as Thayer, Alan Arkin is the only other player with a developed part. And his soldier of fortune is played for thin irony too, eventually returning to New York and his mother after losing an arm. Thayer has a liason with a starlet to provide a sex scene. Banderas has a lover for the same purpose, to put some female presence in this entirely male show. Jim Broadbent is excellent as usual in the underwritten role of the Jersey film tycoon.
The battle scenes are fairly elaborate and large-scaled. The visual treatment is almost a direct copy of The Wild Bunch, with the way soldiers are edited when they're hit, etc. But the general idea that most of the battles are amusing circuses cheapens the Mexicans as much as do earlier depictions of the revolutions down there - Americans seem to think that South of the border is a land of trigger-happy crazoids and drunks who love to die by the dozens. It's a stereotype too "colorful" to die out, and it perpetuates the American notion that life is cheap in foreign lands.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself tries to make a better statement about this in a scene where a woman begs Pancho to save her husband, an innocent bystander arrested in one of his sweeps. Villa tries to free him but finds out he was just executed. When the widow starts screaming and carrying on, he shoots her too. Banderas and the director try to pitch this as tragedy, but in the general light context, it comes off as just more of 'crazy Pancho's' casual savagery. 1
The most successful part of the film are the recreations of the silent movies on their fake outdoor sets. Without exaggeration, the real views dissolve into the films projected on a screen. They look pretty darn believable as the real thing.
HBO's DVD presentation of And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is terrific-looking. Savant sees so many older films that what can be done with new productions planned for DVD from the start is very impressive. The images pop for us as they did for the filmmakers preparing them for HD TV broadcast.
The show comes with a behind the scenes featurette that's too promotional to hold the interest. Better is a full-length commentary from writer and exec producer Larry Gelbart, who made his fortune thirty years ago with his anti-war TV show M*A*S*H.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself rates:
1. Pancho's legend bears out
this kind of 'solve everything with bullets' mentality: a famous incident has Pancho and his men
rounding up old buddies to start fighting again. One of his better Lieutenants is now a family man
and uninterested. Pancho uses promises of adventure, riches, and camaraderie to lure the man away
from his farm. But the man repeatedly and finally says no. Pancho doesn't even stop smiling as he
shoots dead the
man's wife and children. Now the father has no more responsibilities and has no further reason not
to rejoin Pancho. After a few seconds of shock, he drops his tools and saddles up.