Towards the end of Fernando de Fuentes’ 1936 epic Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!, Miguel Ángel del Toro ‘Becerrillo’ (Ramón Vallarino) asks, “The Revolution will triumph. Why do we stay?”
It’s the central question in this stridently anti-authoritarian, anti-militarist, and (possibly) anti-Revolutionary drama, considered to be the first Mexican “super-production”. The third in a celebrated trilogy but also a disastrously received film that nearly derailed its director’s career, Let’s Go With Pancho Villa! almost definitely contributed to his posthumous reputation as, in A.O Scott’s words, “the Mexican John Ford.”
With its huge battles, bitter characterization, and emphasis on figurative landscapes, the Ford comparison is apt. For his part, de Fuentes had this to say instead: “Mexican cinema ought to be a faithful reflection of our severe and tragic way of being, not a poor imitation of Hollywood.”
In any case, the film is certainly severe and tragic. Becerrilo (“little calf,” a play on his surname bestowed upon him by none other than insurgent leader Pancho Villa) is one of six central characters, collectively dubbing themselves “The Lions of San Pablo,” who join the fight for Mexican independence, but find their fervor and loyalty deeply betrayed.
Long before Becerillo utters his fateful words, de Fuentes foreshadows what’s to come. The film opens with a scrolling prologue, half expository intro and half apology-in-advance, emphasizing that the events depicted are meant to honor bravery but also acknowledge the cruelty of war, drawing a parallel between the bloody Mexican countryside and the trenches of France. A montage follows (the first, but not the last, nod to contemporaneous Russian filmmaking) that introduces images of guns firing, a woman making tortillas, and logs being split. This triad – heroic violence, domesticity, and division – animates the rest of the movie.
Becerillo is the first of our protagonists to make an appearance. He’s a prisoner of the haughty local general, and the one splitting those logs. Blamed, rightly or wrongly, for selling off a gun to local rebels who’ve been busy shooting soldiers at the base, he escapes, and finds his way back to the town of San Pablo. It’s there that he, the honorable Don Tiburcio Maya (Antonio R. Frausto), Melitón Botello (Manuel Tamés), Martín Espinosa (Rafael F. Muñoz), and the brothers Rodrigo and Máximo Perea (Carlos López and Raúl de Anda) resolve to join with Pancho Villa’s forces and fight for their homeland.The narrative, drawn from well-known source material of the time and assuming audience familiarity with the revolutionary context, doesn’t waste time filling us in on details. Back stories are in short supply: we simply head off to war.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa himself (played by Domingo Soler, alternating between a heroic posture, an aloof presence, and deeply unhinged sociopathy) is introduced doling out corn to peasants. He welcomes the new recruits, and they beam with pride at his attention.
It’s not long, however, before their nighttime conversations turn to discussions of how they would like to die, how they wish they could live, and how they would like to be remembered. There is a longing for home, but the focus – whether it’s a true one, or an act for their comrades, is open to question – is on what constitutes “a good death.” A prolonged scene details each of their fatalistic desires; each will be fulfilled in turn, with maximum irony.
De Fuentes films several gripping battle sequences, each staged on epic landscapes or in the shadows of monumental structures. He favors low shots of faces set against empty skies, slightly askew angles, and a general sense of foreboding and menace, of small bodies eclipsed by the looming structures that tower above them. As our heroes die one after another, he frames their deaths in tableau – draped over stationary weaponry, or surrounded by bewildered comrades. One shot, of bodies strewn across a trench stretching into the distance, recalls Griffith’s image, introduced with the title card “War’s Peace” in Birth of a Nation. It’s grisly business out there, and the chasm between machismo rhetoric and facts on the ground is emphasized.
By the end of the film, only Tiburcio remains, as his friends and townsmen predicted. Becerillo, who wondered why they stayed on, has contracted smallpox, and Tiburcio is ordered to burn him alive lest others get infected. (Why can’t you shoot him first? This question is never even posed.) The “Little Calf,” who wanted a military funeral, is consumed by flames while a solitary trumpet plays, and Tiburcio salutes, weeping.
In return for this unfailing loyalty, Tiburcio is scorned by Villa and his men, all afraid he may now himself be a carrier. The final shot tracks Tiburcio’s solitary walk, along train tracks, back into the night, as the heroic revolution departs in the other direction.
It’s not hard to see why audiences might’ve recoiled from such an enormously negative vision of the father of Mexican independence. But honestly, the film laid the groundwork long before. There is what amounts to a game of Russian roulette in a cantina presided over by the capricious general – a hero’s life is sacrificed for no other reason than it is bad luck for 13 men to drink at a table. And watch how Soler doles out badges to the surviving members of the Lions of San Pablo: noticing one is missing and discovering he died, Soler’s Pancho Villa absent-mindedly tosses and catches the medal while hearing the story. “A shame,” he notes, as if discovering dinner would be slightly late.
From its title’s exclamation point on down, Let’s Go With Pancho Villa! is seething with anger and irony, which only throws into relief de Fuentes’ mastery of heroic tropes. It’s unfortunate that no better transfer of the film exists to date – some enterprising restoration folks should really get on that. It would be far better served by a cleaner print than I was able to find.
But the version we have demonstrates in no uncertain terms what was intended. Even the prologue knows already what audiences will discover – this is an epic concerned far more with the small-scale tragedies of individual lives and deaths than anything approaching the grandeur of national revolution. It reserves as much affection and time for peasant songs and tortilla-making as it does for machine gun battles. And huge, visceral, carefully orchestrated military set-pieces are deployed in the service of empathy for minor characters … the ones who fight and die in the wars they are sold, by men who mostly hide behind them.
Is that fair to Pancho Villa? This is a film that does not care. Its allegiance is firmly with the abandoned soldier, walking alone into the night. It’s propaganda of the most humane sort.
Part of an ongoing effort to watch a set of films from non-White, non-U.S., non-male, and/or non-straight filmmakers and depart a little from the Western canon. The intro and full list can be found here.