Nov 272011

Rating: ★★☆☆☆
MGM, 1934, 115 minutes
Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo Carillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook, Stuart Erwin, Henry B. Walthall, and Josepth Schildkraut
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O. B. Stade
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Jack Conway

Historical Background

Although Mexico had prospered under the thirty-four-year dictatorship of Porfiro Diaz, social tensions were bubbling below the surface, leading to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). When Francisco Madero organized a revolution in November 1910, his middle-class supporters were crushed by Diaz’s ruthless intelligence apparatus but the uprising unleashed powerful social forces. In the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila, Pascal Orozco and Pancho Villa led a revolt by villagers tired of the iron grip of a local faction. Rebellion had broken out in the southern states as well, and one of the more effective leaders was a village chief in Morelos named Emiliano Zapata. Faced with rebellions in eighteen states, Diaz resigned on May 25, 1911, and fled the country. Madero shocked his supporters by refusing to purge the government of Diaz loyalists. An idealist, Madero hoped to win over the army and the elite, but they conspired with Generals Bernardo Reyes and Felix Diaz, the dictator’s nephew, to launch a coup in February 1913. Madero mistakenly placed his trust in General Victoriano Huerta, who switched sides, deposed Madero, and then betrayed Diaz by making himself president.

News of Madero’s murder led Villa to return to guerrilla warfare against Huerta. Zapata had never actually stopped fighting since Madero had refused to approve large-scale land reform, but Huerta was confident he could handle both of them. To his surprise, he received little support from the rich. Members of the elite had supported Diaz and Reyes to get their privileged positions back but Huerta believed that Mexico existed to support the army, and refused to even pretend to believe in democracy. The situation worsened when Venustio Carranza, governor of Coahuila, assumed leadership of the revolution. Despite Huerta’s contempt, Villa had built up a professional army, while Zapata had become a skilled guerrilla, who organized rebellions in several states. Huerta should have realized that his time was up when the Americans occupied Vera Cruz to avenge a minor diplomatic insult, and none of his opponents heeded his call to unite against the foreigners. Huerta would have been overthrown sooner but Carranza resented Villa’s insistence on autonomy, and gave more resources to Alvaro Obregon, a more loyal general.

Huerta resigned on July 15, 1914 and fled to exile in Barcelona, Spain. Carranza thought that he was the natural choice for president, but Villa and Zapata had the two largest armies in Mexico, and they both detested Carranza. Too independent to work together, their sole accomplishment was to deny Carranza the presidential chair. Carranza on his own was no match for either Villa or Zapata but Obregon still nursed a grudge from when Villa had tried to execute him. Since Zapata had little interest in events outside of Morelos, Villa was left to face Obregon alone. Several battles later, Villa had been exposed as simply a charismatic cavalry leader, and when he limped back to Chihuahua, he no longer had the largest army in Mexico. Angered by President Woodrow Wilson’s increasingly blatant support for Carranza, Villa raided Colombus, New Mexico in March 1916. A Punitive Expedition of 10,000 men was sent into Mexico, but it was a great embarrassment to everyone involved that Villa had not only eluded capture but had become a hero.

Tired of the constant warfare that had turned Morelos into a burned-out hulk, many zapatista leaders simply refused to fight, and a desperate Zapata was assassinated in April 1919. Carranza made a fatal error when he opposed Obregon’s candidacy for president and ordered his arrest. Obregon won the support of most of the army and Carranza was killed trying to flee Mexico in May 1920. Obregon had not forgiven Villa’s attempt to execute him, but allowed him to retire in exchange for peace, which ended the revolution after ten long, blood-soaked years.

Plot Summary

The son of a villager who had been whipped to death for protesting the illegal seizure of the village’s land by the owner of a local estate, Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) grew up to be a powerful bandit. Although the government hangs anyone suspected of causing trouble for the rich landowners, Villa boldly raids towns to avenge the weak villagers. Suddenly, a strange, gentle man called Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall) launches a revolution. Falling under his spell, Villa joins Madero, and recruits hundreds of villagers for Madero’s army. Villa wins victory after victory but Madero orders him to serve under General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut) as a punishment for killing wounded soldiers. President Porfiro Diaz abdicates after the capture of Ciudad Juarez, and Madero becomes president. Arrested by the army for robbing a bank, Villa is saved from execution by Madero, who exiles him. When Madero insists on introducing a radical land reform bill that will protect villages’ land, the generals seize power. Villa returns from exile, raises an army, and makes himself president. Remaining in Mexico City long enough to sign the land reform bill, he returns home as soon as it becomes law. However, he still has enemies.

Historical Accuracy

While Villa was hyper-emotional, Beery’s version is far too buffoonish. Villa is frequently shown drunk, but the real man was a teetotaller. Aside from Beery’s ham acting, the screenplay does present Villa’s habit of marrying all of the women that he slept with, so they could keep their honor.

The screen Madero does have an otherworldly look about him, although there is no mention of his belief that he was in regular contact with spirits. It is true that Villa was extremely impressed with Madero, and was very loyal, but this loyalty was not returned by Madero. Despite the repeated man-hugging between Madero and Villa, the real Madero was not that fond of Villa, and dropped him as soon as the fighting was over. Blind to the contradiction, Madero wanted a nice, orderly revolution, and forgot that he owed his victory to violent men like Villa. Moreover, Madero feared that land reform would damage the economy, so he tried to crush the zapatista movement, which focused solely on land reform, therefore it is strange to see the screen Madero devoting his life to land reform.

The movie’s Villa is already a bandit with hundreds of followers when Madero asks him to join the revolution. Actually, Villa was merely a small-time rustler when he was recruited by Abraham Gonzalez, a key leader in Madero’s movement, and he had become one of the main rebel commanders in Chihuahua before he ever met Madero. The fictional Villa is never defeated, which is far from accurate. While he did capture Ciudad Juarez without killing anyone, it is a pity that the script does not explain how he did it, since it was a cool trick. Needing a victory, Villa filled a train with troops and bluffed his way to Ciudad Juarez on November 15, 1913 by claiming to be a federal commander who could not move south because the tracks had been destroyed by guerrillas. The train moved from station to station, and a gun would be placed next to the head of the telegraph operator at each station to ensure their cooperation with the deception. Allowed to roll into Ciudad Juarez at night, he took the garrison by surprise and captured the city without a fight.

Choosing to portray Madero as a saint-like figure who labors selflishly to improve the lot of the little people, the film does not present his genuine discomfort with the rough-edged men who actually did the fighting, and his lack of gratitude towards the poor villagers who had risked their lives to overthrow a dictator. The movie ignores Madero’s previous attempts to negotiate a compromise where Diaz would be able to remain president in exchange for token reforms, an approach that was strongly opposed by his advisers, including Villa. In fact, Villa was so angry that he resigned from the army. Admittedly, the real Madero went to Mexico City without the revolutionary army, but he was uncomfortable with revolutionaries and happily left them behind. Madero was as naive as he appears in the movie, if not more so.

Villa was arrested by the army and sentenced to execution, but for leaving the army when the campaign against Orozco was finished, not for robbing a bank. Unwilling to oppose the army to defend a general that he did not really like, Madero did not intervene on his behalf, so Villa had spent months in prison and finally escaped on his own before Madero agreed to grant an anmesty. The coup against the screen Madero does not mention Reyes or the standoff between Huerta and Diaz, where they pretended to fight while plotting to overthrow Madero. In fact, aside from Villa, Madero and Diaz, everyone else in the movie is a fictional character. General Pascal, the regular army officer who betrays Madero, seems to be based on Huerta. Villa’s pet executioner Sierra (Leo Carrilo), is modeled on the real Villa’s executioner Rudolfo Fierro, who was considerably more bloodthirsty, and was feared equally by federal soldiers and Villa’s troops. The scene where Sierra kills three men with one bullet is based on an actual event.

Ignoring Villa’s artillery, hospital trains, and disciplined, uniformed army, the movie shows only thousands of badly armed peasants. It appears that the screenwriter wanted to present the revolution as a struggle between peasant revolutionaries and the regular military, which once again sounds more like the zapatistas, who were a bonafide peasant movement. Villa’s father died clutching earth, but the land had a religious meaning in the south, not the north.

The story had repeatedly exaggerated or stretched the truth but it literally leaves reality towards the end of the movie. Villa did NOT become president or try to introduce land reform. He stayed in Mexico City long enough to ensure that his candidate became president, thus ensuring autonomy for Chihuahua. Also, the script unfairly shows him as a simple man, incapable of administering a state. As military governor of Chihuahua, he had often been impatient with complex situations, did not understand budgets and printed too much currency, but he did repair damaged infrastructure, build schools and ensure that his army was paid and supplied. Most important, a simple man would never have outlasted so many rivals or become the most powerful man in Mexico, if only for a few months.

The script does deserve credit for keeping Villa’s comment that “this is a pretty small medal to give someone who did the things that you said I did.”

The screen Villa is killed by a rich landowner seeking revenge. While Villa was assasinated near a butcher shop, the script neglects the massive paranoia that made it almost impossible to get near enough to kill him. Having made many, many enemies during the revolution, Villa’s security depended on the numerous former villistas who had settled on either his hacienda or nearby estates, while the hacienda was turned into a fortress, where the number of visitors was regulated and closely watched. Despite these considerable precautions, he never slept in the same place twice, never allowed anyone to stand next to him, and was always surrounded by fifty bodyguards.

The story moves along pretty quickly, skipping the provisional president, Orozco’s Rebellion, the Convention of Augascalientes, the Punitive Expedition, and Zapata, as well as Obregon and Carranza, both of whom really did become president.


Sierra has a good sense of humor, always complaining that things took too long and wanting to get on with shooting people. Sykes, the American reporter who becomes part of Villa’s entourage, has married women to Villa so many times that he can do the ceremony when he is drunk and half-asleep. Portraying Villa as a hen-pecked husband dominated by his main wife helps whitewash him, thus making him suitable to be a hero, even though the real man had forced women to sleep with him by threatening their families, which was basically rape.

Villa, Zapata, Carranza and Obregon were the four key personalities during the revolution, and their lives were tightly intertwined. A movie that does not even refer to three of them is not a movie about the Mexican Revolution.