Because of the controversy that hovers over his memory and reputation, Villa has not been dealt with much through movies. When there are movies about him, they range from comically bad like Telly Savalas playing Villa in an awful Euro-western appropriately titled “Pancho Villa” or a straight action, shoot ‘em up flick like Villa Rides! From what I’ve read about the infamous revolutionary, there’s very little that isn’t interesting about him. An HBO Films production, 2003’s And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (odd title, cool movie) jumps right into the historical personality, looking at both the good and the bad.
It’s 1914 and with motion pictures still in a fledgling stage, Mutual Films agrees to a contract with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) who is fighting Mexican president Huerta and his army. Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) leads the film crew that will document the revolutionary struggle, including filming real live battles. The finished product is panned critically and is a miserable, costly failure. Frank comes up with a better idea, go back to Mexico and work with Villa on a second movie, a longer one that will explore Villa’s life that will take some liberties with the truth. But as “filming” begins, Frank begins to see that the man he’s come to respect so much isn’t everything he’s cut out to be. Amidst a bloody revolution, Thayer may pay for his errors with his life.
Just like controversial historical figures such as Che Guevarra, Adolf Hitler, and any number you care to add, you’re working on thin ice when making a feature length movie about them. Viewers are going to have a preconceived notion about the person going into the movie. With Villa at least, this isn’t as much of an issue. He’s been dead over a 100 years, and anyone who met him would have been a child when doing so. For awhile in ‘Starring’ I was worried that the portrayal of Villa was too whitewashed, painting him in this adoring light that ignored all his flaws. But as the movie moves along and we see more of Villa, we see a man who contradicts himself with his words and actions, combining the thoughtful and good with the horrific and cringe-inducing. A balanced look is always a better one, and ‘Starring’ is better for exploring the person through all the good and bad.
Besides the obvious physical resemblance, Banderas is about as perfect a choice to play Pancho Villa. No matter the role, he has an incredible physical presence on-screen. With a part like a revolutionary who leads thousands of followers with his charisma and personality, that’s a must for the actor. Banderas sells it that he could lead a rebel army into battle, riding at the front into a wall of gunfire. It is a role that allows him to show off his charming side while balancing it out with a side where rage and fury boils just beneath the surface waiting to explode. You’re never sure what to expect of the man, and that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. The relationship that develops between Banderas’ Villa and Bailey’s Frank is our view point, our perspective as we see all of the man’s flaws and imperfections.
Title cards, prologues, and epilogues all point that the story being told is a true one. Now as you might know, there’s no actual “The Life of General Villa” silent movie out on DVD. Thayer’s narration states it “has been lost to posterity.” That’s the surreal part of the movie whether you believe the claim of historical accuracy or not. Thayer and his crew film during battles as bullets fly by and explosions sound in the distance. I wish this angle would have been played up more as it provides some hilariously dark humor. Citing the contract they’ve both signed, Thayer even requests Villa attack from the west in an epic charge not because of a strategic decision but because the LIGHTING from the west is better than the east. A minor complaint there because what’s there is funny without overdoing it.
The parts for Banderas and Bailey (of Band of Brothers fame) dominate the story and the screentime, but that doesn’t mean the supporting cast isn’t worth mentioning. Alan Arkin is a scene-stealer as a machine-gunning mercenary from Brooklyn fighting for Villa and $1,000 a month, Michael McKean is the director working on-location in Mexico, Kyle Chandler plays future director and then-actor Raoul Walsh (playing young Pancho in the movie), James Broadbent as the studio head pulling the strings, and Alexa Davalos in a wasted role as Thayer’s love interest.
Just like its flawed title character, the movie has its flaws sprinkled here and there. But overall, the positives more than outweigh the negatives. Banderas carries the movie in one of his best performances in a movie with a large scale that never overshadows the personal side in this possibly – just maybe –accurate historical epic.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself <--- trailer (2003): ***/****