Viva Villa! is a fictionalized account of the escapades by one of the most prominent generals of the Mexican revolution, Pancho Villa. As a boy, Pancho’s father spoke out against the Mexican government taking the people’s land and was sentenced to a hundred lashings, killing him in front of the boy. To avenge his father’s death, Pancho murdered one of the men responsible and ran off into the Mexican hills, becoming a bandit. He emerges as an adult (portrayed by Wallace Beery), rallying the people of Mexico against a justice system that has too much power and no sympathy. Pancho befriends an American journalist, Johnny Sykes (Stuart Erwin), who writes about his raids first hand. But as he becomes more influential, some of the supporters of the revolution do not agree with the way Pancho leads his people. Though Pancho has good intentions in his fight in the revolution, he comes across mostly as a raiding, womanizing bandit, and must change in order to have a positive influence in Mexican history.
If you are a history buff specializing in the Mexican revolution, you will probably find many, many historical inaccuracies, but the film is more concerned with making Pancho an unforgettable character than preserving history. Pancho’s womanizing is accurate, in the film we see him hit on multiple senoritas (one played by Fay Wray) and marry two, right out of the blue and half drunk. One plot twist that I desperately hope is not historically accurate is when Johnny Sykes writes an article proclaiming that Pancho and his troops have stormed and taken a city, when they in fact have not. Rather than have Sykes own up to his drunken, epic journalism fail, Pancho rallies his troops to make his article true, before the papers are delivered. Now that is a dedicated friendship.
Wallace Beery’s performance as Pancho is fun and helps give the film a cowboys and Indians feel. Beery actually first portrayed Pancho in a collection of silent shorts in Patria, from 1917. Here, he is a brash, boisterous bandit, plundering and killing in the name of justice. The only things that make Beery look like a Mexican are his sombrero and mustache. Instead of an accent, he just speaks in short sentences and broken English. However, it is never misunderstood that Pancho is focused on bringing a better life to his fellow Mexicans, even if his methods feel barbaric.
Viva Villa! was one of the highest grossing film of 1934, and I can see why. There are laughs, romance, triumph and tragedy all packed into this film. The film has a level of gun-slinging excitement that appeals to a wide range of audiences, while painting Pancho as hero. It was nominated for Best Picture, Sound Recording, Writing and won Best Assistant Director at the Oscars. Today, Viva Villa! is a hard film to find, thankfully I caught it on TCM, but I believe it may be on YouTube as well.
“It ain’t time for me to die yet, Mexico needs me.”