Uncovering the Truth Behind the Myth of Pancho Villa, Movie Star
The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself fighting several contending rebel forces—most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa-and the three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion and (north of the Rio Grande, at least) its unusual film deals. Specifically, it is remembered for the contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this agreement, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold.
Even at this early date, there was nothing especially surprising about Pancho Villa (or anyone else) inking a deal that allowed cameras access to the areas that they controlled. Newsreels were a coming force. Cinema was growing rapidly in popularity; attendance at nickelodeons had doubled since 1908, and an estimated 49 million tickets were sold each week in the U.S. by 1914. Those customers expected to see some news alongside the melodramas and comedy shorts that were the staples of early cinema. And there were obvious advantages in controlling the way in which the newsreel men chose to portray the Revolution, particularly for Villa, whose main bases were close to the U.S. border.
What made Villa’s contract so odd, though, was its terms, or at least the terms it was said to have contained. Here’s how the agreement he reached with the Mutual Film Company is usually described:
In 1914, a Hollywood motion picture company signed a contract with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in which he agreed to fight his revolution according to the studio’s scenario in return for $25,000. The Hollywood crew went down to Mexico and joined Villa’s guerrilla force. The director told Pancho Villa where and how to fight his battles. The cameraman, since he could only shoot in daylight, made Pancho Villa start fighting every day at 9:00 a.m. and stop at 4:00 p.m.—sometimes forcing Villa to cease his real warring until the cameras could be moved to a new angle.
It sounds outlandish—not to say impractical. But the story quickly became common currency, and indeed, the tale of Pancho Villa’s brief Hollywood career has been turned into a movie of its own. Accounts sometimes include elaborations; it is said that Villa agreed that no other film company would be permitted to send representatives to the battlefield, and that, if the cameraman did not secure the shots he needed, the División del Norte would re-enact its battles later. And while the idea that there was a strict ban on fighting outside daylight hours is always mentioned in these secondary accounts, that prohibition is sometimes extended; in another, semi-fictional, re-imagining, recounted by Leslie Bethel, Villa tells Raoul Walsh, the early Hollywood director: “Don’t worry, Don Raúl. If you say the light at four in the morning is not right for your little machine, well, no problem. The executions will take place at six. But no later. Afterward we march and fight. Understand?”