The first of three films in a trilogy about the legendary folk hero of Mexico, Así era Pancho Villa (1957 aka This Was Pancho Villa) is essential viewing for anyone interested in Mexican cinema and a colorful example of populist storytelling for the movie-going public south of the border. Directed by Ismael Rodríguez, the Villa trilogy is a fascinating mixture of fact and fiction that attempts to resurrect Villa’s larger than life personality and his exploits which have passed into folklore in his native land.
As the first film in the series, Así era Pancho Villa sets the movie’s magical realism tone from the beginning as Villa’s head, encased in a glass jar in some cloistered archival facility, recalls memories and events from his life. While real facts and documented incidents may occasionally figure in the events that transpire on screen, Rodríguez is more interested in capturing the essence of Villa, the man and mythmaker, and it often borders on the fantastic. Real outdoor settings are sometimes presented with stylized color backgrounds, comedy and horror often occur simultaneously as they do in fairy tales and villains and victims defy stereotypical treatment more often than not. While many actors have portrayed Pancho Villa on the screen over the years – everyone from Wallace Beery to Yul Brynner to Antonio Banderas in a 2003 TV movie – Pedro Armendáriz is the one most identified with the role for Latin American audiences; he played him a total of four times. Under Rodríguez’s direction, Armendáriz’s portrayal of Villa emerges as impulsive, mercurial, lusty, and prone to rabble rousing and inspirational oration. He’s also quick to anger and pass sentence and just as quick to forgive if he feels he has acted in error. Así era Pancho Villa is episodic and presented in vignette form with chapter headings. In one of the more striking episodes, one of Villa’s soldiers attempts to rape a woman and kills her farmer husband when he tries to rescue her. The grieving widow, left alone with three children to raise on her own, appeals to Villa for justice. Instead, he calls a priest to marry the widow and the killer of her husband. What seems like a terrible miscarriage of the law is soon rectified as Villa reveals his sense of morality, formed by his devoted reading of the Book of Solomon. After the couple is legally married, he has his trigger-happy sidekick Fierro (Carlos Lopez Moctezuma), who was nicknamed “El Carnicero” (The Butcher) in real life, shoot the new groom dead, thus allowing his wife to collect the financial compensation due the wife of a dead soldier.
Many aspects of Villa’s persona are dramatized here such as his womanizing and his irresistible appeal to women. According to some accounts, he was married 26 times and in one chapter of Así era Pancho Villa, the revolutionary almost meets his match in the fiery Jesusita (Maria Elena Marques), a man-eating cantina hostess who charms him with her earthy songs.
Music is also an integral part of this film’s fable-like structure and it’s not unusual for Asi era Pancho Villa to transition from a dramatic situation to a musical interlude, not unlike a Hollywood musical. The other two films in Rodríguez’s Pancho Villa trilogy are Pancho Villa y la Valentina (1960) and Cuando! Viva Villa…¡Es La Muerte (1960). Though these films were extremely popular in Mexico, they are less well known in the U.S. and Rodríguez’s international reputation as a director is due more to his 1957 feature Tizoc, starring Pedro Infante in his last film role, and Animas Trujano (1962), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign language film that featured Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as a Mexican Indian. The entire Pancho Villa trilogy has been available on DVD as stand-alone discs as well as a box set containing all three films but current availability depends on the sellers. Some editions may be in Spanish only with no English subtitle options. All three films have aired on Turner Classic Movies and at one time were available for streaming on Amazon Prime. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic movies website.
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