The MGM version of the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa takes the expected liberties with the truth, but it doesn't plunge too far into fantasy. On DVD now available from Warner Archive, Wallace Beery leads a strong cast through this rousing pre-code epic.
Remarkably polished for its era, Viva Villa makes excellent use of its Mexican locations. The chaos and violence of the revolution comes through in the clouds of dust pierced by sunlight and the busy crowds of fighting men. The big studio gloss and sentimentality are less potent here, as the hangings, whippings and injustice against the peons are presented in brutal detail.
Attacking the role of Villa with his typical gusto, Beery can play it a bit broad on occasion, but his big persona fits the role. He makes some odd choices: scrunching up his face to almost comic effect, often closing one eye like he's a bit drunk and tending to play the revolutionary like he wasn't the sharpest tool in the drawer, which given his accomplishments is highly unlikely. Still, he is never less than mesmerizing and he manages to tap into the complexities of a man who is crude and violent one moment, gentle and generous the next.
The biopic touches on the major events of his life: bearing witness to the murder of his father, his days as a bandit, his recruitment by Francisco Madero to fight officially as a soldier for the new Mexico and the fall out from his successful, but highly controversial methods.
Villa is often accompanied by American reporter Johnny Sykes, played by Stuart Erwin (it is always clear that this role was originally meant for Lee Tracy). The working relationship between the two is fluid; sometimes Sykes reports on Villa, sometimes Villa alters his reality to accommodate what the journalist has already written. I thought that was an amusing comment on the way we view, and sometimes create, our heroes.
Fay Wray is another stand out in the cast, playing a glamorous Mexican socialite. She seems a lightweight presence at first, but in a surprisingly violent scene with Beery, she demonstrates why her talents were greatly underused in Hollywood.
There's plenty of action to get the blood pumping, though many of the battle scenes can be disturbing as it is clear that several horses were seriously hurt during the making of the film. Despite this unfortunate, real brutality, the MGM machine chugs along efficiently here--this is big studio epic making at its most assured.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.