I don’t know much about Pancho Villa. That being said, I think I can correctly assume that Viva Villa, which purports to be about the Mexican icon, isn’t a very good source to use to try and get a historical context about the figure. Hell, the film even starts off with a title card explaining that, even though Pancho Villa was a real person, the film is almost entirely a fictional account of his exploits; basically, the film is telling you right from the get-go that it is pretty much making everything up as it goes along about the real Pancho. Now, I will say, not every film has the, to use the Mexican term, cojones to state upfront that the film is a load of historical bullshit and that you should watch it anyway, so I had to give Viva Villa some credit. It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t do much to really run with the meager amount of credit that it had won from me.
Wallace Beery stars as Villa, who at the beginning of the film is a young lad witnessing his father get whipped to death for standing up to a brutal landowner. After taking revenge for his father, we meet the adult Pancho as a rebel and bandit, who winds up in a meeting with Francisco Madero, a revolutionary leader who wishes to use Villa’s leadership and loyalty to Mexico to oust the current president and establish a new government kinder to the ‘peons’ of the country. Villa agrees, and the film follows his exploits as one of the captains of Madero’s army, his meeting and friendship of American newspaper man Johnny Sykes, his womanizing of several females in his life, and his attempts to find a new path in life once the fighting is over. The first thing I couldn’t help but think, in comparison to the last film I watched, was: now here’s a film that has production value and knows exactly how to use it. The film was shot in Mexico, and more than a few of the scenes feature a slew of extras, sometimes on horseback, so not only did the film have the resources for authenticity and to make a more complete picture, it didn’t exceed the limits of its resources or mishandle them to try and make a film other than what the material called for. Impressed enough with how the film was handled, I couldn’t help but be less so with how the film goes about telling the story it wants to tell. It seemed the film was too concerned with making Villa a caricature rather than an actual character, and the plot was too concerned with following Villa around rather than actually having a real plot, with developments and turns. In short, there really wasn’t a plot to this one; it was just an excuse for Beery to act kinda like a stereotypical Mexican, and little more.
While the passion for the material was definitely here, spirited in its construction, and filled with zest and fervor in its making, there was just something missing to this one, a cohesiveness that wasn’t there; the parts and pieces and ingredients were all present, but they weren’t mixed and molded together into something greater and more complete. It’s actually a little bit disheartening; with the production value behind it, if they’d gotten the right director, and a script with much more know-how, this could’ve been a real winner, and a standout surprise in a field of largely repetitive nominees. But, it wasn’t, and even though it wasn’t, it got nominated for the big one anyway, so did this end up succeeding even barely? I really don’t know. I can’t really give any good reason to watch this, though, so if anything’s gonna sway me to one side of the fence or the other, it’ll probably be that.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10