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Film / Viva Villa!

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Viva Villa is a 1934 film directed by Jack Conway, starring Wallace Beery. It is a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa.

The film starts with Villa as a teenaged boy in Mexico. When the local lords confiscate the lands of the peasants, Pancho's father protests, and is whipped to death outside the walls of the town as punishment. Adolescent Pancho then stabs the man who whipped his father In the Back and heads off to the mountains. The film cuts to a good 30 years later or so to find Pancho a flamboyant bandit, who leads raids against the corrupt Mexican aristocracy and dispenses rough frontier justice to particularly abusive lords.

Pancho is introduced to Francisco Madero, an idealist who seeks to reform Mexico and overthrow corrupt president Porfirio Diaz. At Madero's urging, Villa leaves banditry behind and fights in an army like a proper soldier. Despite being an illiterate peasant he turns out to be a brilliant tactician and wins several battles in The Mexican Revolution, eventually being key to the installation of Madero as president.

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He's still an illiterate bandit, though, so Madero dismisses him, due to Pancho not being cut out for civilian government. However, when Madero is overthrown and murdered in a coup by counter-revolutionaries, Villa saddles up and rises again.

Viva Villa! became famous as a Troubled Production. Lee Tracy, originally cast as Sykes the reporter, was fired from the production after either making an obscene gesture towards a military parade or drunkenly urinating on a military parade. The film was shot on location in Mexico at great expense, and Howard Hawks, the original director, quit the production over the disorganized and unsafe conditions. The film is also famous for using the "inverted W" rig that deliberately tripped galloping horses in order for greater drama, often killing the horses—the tripwires can be clearly seen during Pancho's dramatic horseback assault on a town. Filming went on for three years and the movie wound up costing over a million dollars—but it became a huge box office hit and earned all of its bloated budget back.

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Compare Viva Zapata!, a film made 20 years later telling the same events, but from the perspective of the other peasant rebel during the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata.


Tropes:

  • Blood from the Mouth: Teresa is still standing up, but that blood from the mouth tells the audience that Sierra's bullet mortally wounded her.
  • Brownface: Not a single actual Hispanic in the production. Most obvious with the lily-white Fay Wray, made up to look Mexican.
  • But Now I Must Go: Realizing that he is not cut out to be a civilian leader, Pancho quits the government and leaves.
  • Call-Back
    • A clod of dirt drops from the hand of Pancho's father after he's killed. Pancho drops a clod of dirt from his hand as he is exiled from Mexico.
    • Pancho wants an artist to draw a bull on his letter to one of his girlfriends. The artist refuses and draws a pigeon, and Pancho is enraged. Later, Pancho is enraged again when the artist draws a pigeon instead of a bull on the paper money Pancho's printing.
  • The Casanova: Pancho has a habit of "marrying" a pretty girl in every town he conquers/sacks. He's also pretty cheerful about keeping a mistress nearby after sort-of settling down with a sort-of wife.
  • Circling Vultures: They aren't circling, but some vultures are perched nearby as Pascal is tied down and eaten by ants offscreen.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Pancho really, really hates General Pascal. So he won't have Pascal shot by firing squad; instead he has Pascal covered in honey so he can be eaten alive by ants.
  • Dead Guy on Display: A common tactic in Mexico, first seen when the corpse of Pancho's father is hung up to warn other villagers. Later Pancho the bandit takes to doing this himself, when raiding and terrorizing the Mexican aristocracy.
  • Excited Show Title!: Viva Villa! Although it really should be ¡Viva Villa!
  • Fanservice: The flamenco dancer who can't seem to stop flipping up her skirt to reveal her garters and stockings.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Seen in Mexico City after Pancho resigns the presidency, and as he is ambushed and murdered.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "Tell her I am her desert pansy." What? It's a flower!
  • It's Personal: Pancho takes this attitude after Madero's murder, arranging for a ghastly death for Pascal. And then later Don Felipe takes this attitude when Pancho's right hand man shoots and kills his sister. Eventually, Don Felipe murders Pancho in revenge.
  • Kangaroo Court: The court assembled to try six peasants that Don Miguel wants dead. The judge doesn't even bother to read the charges before ordering their execution.
  • Leave No Survivors: Pancho has a bad habit of slaughtering all his prisoners. Madero gets him to stop doing this for a while.
  • Literal Ass-Kicking: Pancho does this when a mook gives him a funny look after an unpleasant meeting with Madero.
  • Lovable Coward: Johnny Sykes, Villa's American reporter sidekick, who is not at all enthusiastic about getting dragged into combat zones.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The opening scenes feature a teenaged Villa avenging the death of his father, before jumping forward a few decades.
  • Never Learned to Read: Pancho is illiterate. This is sometimes embarrassing, when he has to have his enemy Pascal read the telegram from Madero granting clemency.
  • No Place for Me There: Pancho is told this by Madero, as Pancho Villa, illiterate rough-necked bandit, isn't really cut out for civilian government. Pancho sadly accepts, but this turns out to be a big tactical error for Madero. Without Pancho's protection he is overthrown and killed.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Pancho comes back over the border and raises his army again after the murder of Madero.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: A problem for Pancho. Madero coaxes Pancho into supporting him by saying that the revolution needs to be civilized, and that Pancho needs to fight in an organized army and not murder the enemy soldiers he captures. Pancho is reluctant, but agrees, and does become civilized for a time. But after Madero is killed Pancho fights back in his old prisoner-killing bandit style, which costs him the support of idealists like Don Felipe. And when he takes over as President of Mexico Pancho is an incompetent administrator, which he eventually admits.
    Pancho (to Madero): You can't win a revolution with love. You've got to have hate. You are the good side; I am the bad side.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Pancho's father is whipped to death for defying the local aristocrat.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: And the film comes right out and admits it in an opening title card: "This saga...does not come out of the archives of history. It is fiction woven out of truth." Villa never ran the nation of Mexico, not even for a little while, although he did print his own money when he was governor of the northern state of Chihuahua. The character of traitorous General Pascal is fictional, and appears to be loosely based Victoriano Huerta, who led the coup against Madero in 1913 and was briefly president before being forced to resign. The film leaves out some of Villa's more colorful later exploits, like his 1916 raid into the United States and a fruitless American invasion that tried to apprehend him. And Villa was not murdered by an aristocrat avenging his murdered sister. Although the circumstances behind his murder remain mysterious, Villa was probably killed to prevent him from coming out of retirement and entering the Mexican presidential elections of 1924.
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