The film is set around 1913, tracing the early victories of Francisco "Pancho" Villa (Brynner) during his alliance with Mexican President Francisco Madero (Alexander Knox) against counter-rebellion leader Pascual Orozco. The story is more or less told through the experiences of American mercenary and biplane pilot Lee Arnold (Robert Mitchum), originally a gun-runner working on Orozco's behalf. When his plane is damaged, he eventually is taken prisoner by Villa and nearly executed by Villa's right-hand man, Rodolfo Fierro (Charles Bronson) but spared at the last minute because Lee's plane can be used for reconnaissance flights ahead of Villa's forces. In the meantime ambitious, power-hungry General Victoriano Huerta (Herbert Lom), technically an ally of Villa but secretly plotting against both Villa and Madero, does all he can to see that the populist hero never leaves the battlefield alive.
According to David Weddle's essential Peckinpah biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em!, originally Peckinpah was hired to direct the film and adapt its screenplay from William Douglas Lansford's novel Pancho Villa. Brynner reportedly hated Peckinpah's script, which "drew Villa not as the cleft-chinned Robin Hood but as a warped idealist who shares disturbing similarities with the brutal regime he's fighting against." Among the scenes Peckinpah wrote that didn't make it into the film were Villa's hanging of a young boy and Villa's mental breakdown when placed before Huerta's firing squad. As far as Brynner was concerned, Peckinpah had turned his hero into a villain.
Weddle dismisses the film ultimately rewritten by Robert Towne and directed by Buzz Kulik, a contemporary of Peckinpah's who similarly rose through the ranks via television. And yet, Brynner's meddling aside, the core themes Peckinpah wanted to bring to the film are still very much present: Villa remains a contradictory character, passionate for Mexico's poor but also a bandit and a murderer intellectualizing his way around his army's moral aberrations. "Do the ends justify the means? Peckinpah asked the question again and again in the screenplay," writes Weddle, "but offered no easy answers."
That question is explored throughout Villa Rides (the exclamation point, Villa Rides! was only on the posters) along with classic Peckinpah blurring of good and bad, right and wrong. The screenplay is fascinatingly manipulative, making Villa and especially Fierro at once charismatic and horrifying, even sadistic. The first act of the violent (R-rated) film shows the raid of a village by Orozco Captain Ramirez (Frank Wolff, very good here). In an agonizing scene, in the town square Ramirez lines up men from the village (after brutally raping Lee's girl), standing them all on little chairs with ropes tied around their necks. Then, quite casually, he sadistically kicks away one chair after the other to the increasing horror of onlookers, including a helpless Lee.
Watching the film, the audience is tempted to join the Villistas then and there, so hateful is Ramirez. But later it's explained Villa deliberately delayed coming to the town's rescue, that he allowed Ramirez to hang the men specifically to generate hatred for Orozco and passionate support for himself. In this sense Brynner's Pancho Villa is closer to Peckinpah's General Mapache (in The Wild Bunch) than earlier screen portrayals of Villa.
There are many outstanding scenes exemplifying this. Initially reviled as a simple mercenary working for Orozco, Mitchum's Lee is placed in a holding pen while Bronson's Fierro announces he going to shoot all the prisoners, their only chance of escape is scaling a nearby stone wall before Fierro can execute them. Armed to the teeth, Fierro then has the men released three-to-five at a time; none has any chance. Those that don't run are just as cruelly killed. Though situated within the confines of a genre film, the casual brutality of this sequence is as disturbing as the indiscriminate killing by Ralph Fiennes' SS officer in Schindler's List.
And yet the script (aided by Kulik's fine direction and subtle performances by all three leads) constantly clouds our reactions to these characters. Villa challenges mercenary Lee, the film's protagonist-by-default, saying "You know you amaze me, gringo. You run guns and you don't care who gets killed so long as you get paid. And you don't have to watch. It must be a terrible thing, to kill men without hating them."
Soon after, the horror of Fierro's mass murder is countered with a funny scene where, afraid to fly, he refuses to board Lee's plane. (After looking the plane over he concludes, matter-of-factly, "No.") Villa, in a wonderful bit of bravado, then suppresses obvious fear in front of Fierro and the men by climbing aboard Lee's plane and with no experience at all flies it several hundred yards (and a few feet off the ground) in a brazen show of courage and leadership.
In what presumably was Towne's reworking of Peckinpah's script, Villa is also fashioned as a tragic El Cid-type character, the populist hero serving masters unworthy of his loyalty of love of country. Whatever Peckinpah had originally conceived in that breakdown scene is still fascinating in its reworked version: taken before a firing squad Villa is like a confused and hurt dog, unable to grasp why his cruel master would beat him for no good reason.
Mitchum is like an impartial, sometimes incredulous observer, and somebody made the wise decision to make him an omnipresent character with few actual lines of dialogue. His reactions are wonderful, and it's an underrated performance, as are Brynner's and Bronson's.
Filmed in Spain, the fine cast includes Fernando Rey, busy Spaniard Julio Peņa, Diana Lorys (The Awful Dr. Orloff), an unbilled John Ireland and, six minutes from the end, Bronson's future wife Jill Ireland (no relation to John, of course*) in their first of myriad films together. Maurice Jarre wrote the lushly romantic score.
Video & Audio
Villa Rides is presented in a 16:9 enhanced transfer that retains the original 2.35:1 Panavision screen shape. The image is pretty soft and colors run a bit hot (Fotofilm Madrid did the original processing; theatrical prints in the U.S. were by Technicolor), though overall it's acceptable. The mono audio is fairly hissy at times. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
Villa Rides is a real find, an underrated exceptional Western one hopes Paramount will revisit at a future date (it'd sure look great on Blu-ray!), and for now one of Legend Films' most welcome releases. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.