Friday, October 19, 2012

Rode Hard, Put Away White: "Villa Rides" (1968)

From the title, you might think this film was a biography of the infamous Mexican Pancho Villa. You would be half right.

Yul Brynner, unrecognizable with hair and a mustache, is Pancho Villa. He and his right hand man Fierro (Charles Bronson) and their gang are fighting the troops in support of their president Madero (Alexander Knox). Villa's commanding officer, General Huerta (Herbert Lom), is the villain, wanting glory and the country for himself. Madero is eventually assassinated by Huerta, who seats himself as the leader of Mexico, and Villa marches into Mexico City with 50,000 men, and...okay, I don't know what happened, since the closing credits crawl did not tell me.

This film, which is dedicated to Villa, chooses to show some of the more boring aspects of Villa's life. The Madero assassination and Villa's march on Mexico City are all hearsay, not shown on camera. Instead, we get the revolution told from gringo gun runner Lee Arnold's (Robert Mitchum) point of view. Brynner takes a supporting role in Villa's own biography, as we grapple with such boring issues as Arnold's love affair with a pretty Mexican girl and his own greed. Much like some of the films released in the 1980's dealing with South African apartheid from some white guy's point of view, this film fails because we are supposed to be concerned with how the Mexican Civil War affected an American, not the people who fought it.

Some of the battle sequences are impressive. However, there are some clumsy attempts at humor (Fierro's meals, Villa's piloting skills) that do not work. The screenwriters (Robert Towne and Sam Peckinpah?!?) cannot make up their minds about a focusing character to watch, and Kulik's one note direction does not help. Cover your eyes for the down right embarrassing flying special effects. Even the musical score is weird, sounding like an Edward D. Wood, Jr. canned soundtrack one minute, then falling completely silent in what should be ideal scenes the next.

Francisco Villa was fighting for the people of Mexico. Thanks to a white guy, he began to succeed. What happened to Villa? What happened to Fierro or Huerta, if they existed at all? I should not be expected to do library research to fill in the blanks left by this oddly written film.

"Villa Rides" and rides, and leaves too many unanswered questions. When a film is dedicated to the subject, what kind of picture are we going to get of the man? In this case, it is a muddy one. (* *) out of five stars.