Monday, January 19, 2009

Viva Villa!

[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]

Viva Villa! was a troubled production right from the start, a cheerfully ahistorical account of the life of the Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa, undertaken with a huge cast of extras, on location in Mexico, with little regard for historical accuracy. Director Howard Hawks initially approached the project as a satirical take on the genre of the historical drama, an opportunity to give an irreverent slant on history. But it was not to be: Hawks' tenure on the film was cut short when actor Lee Tracy nearly caused an international incident when he, by varying accounts, either urinated on a group of Mexican soldiers from his hotel room's balcony, or simply insulted the Mexican flag during a parade. In the ensuing controversy, Hawks was dropped from the film, with much of his footage lost in a plane crash, while Jack Conway took over as director. Several actors were recast as well, meaning the film was almost entirely reshot from scratch; Hawks' imprint on the film remains primarily in some location and incidental footage incorporated into Conway's finished version.

The resulting film feels as haphazard and carelessly assembled as its origins would suggest. Its epic tale of Pancho Villa's rise from murderous bandit to revolutionary to, briefly, conquering general, never much feels like an epic, primarily because so much of the action is lazily communicated with intertitles and montages. Despite the number of battles fought throughout the film, there's surprisingly little action, and the scope of the few battles that are shown makes them seem more like minor skirmishes rather than the historic storming of entire cities. But neither is the film the wry satire that Hawks intended the film to be: trapped in a netherworld between the traditional Hollywood biopic and a more comedic take on the genre, the film winds up being nearly nothing.

There are, nevertheless, worthwhile moments here and there. One senses Hawks' touch most forcefully in the opening scenes, in which the young Pancho Villa witnesses his father being whipped and killed after the peasants' land is taken from them and given to wealthy landowners instead. The scene is filled with insert shots of Mexican peasants, shot in tight, austere close-ups that capture the worn, heavily lined features of their faces, the defiant gleam in their eyes. There is a solid, unpretentious realism to these shots, a near-documentary quality that is missing from the rest of the film's slick Hollywood textures. It's not much of a stretch to guess that these inserts are among the Hawks shots preserved in the final film; they gibe well with Hawks' interest in always grounding his stories in concrete reality. There are other moments, scattered here and there, that feel like Hawks, mostly in large shots of gathered peasants, shots that have an unruly energy that's constantly threatening to boil over.

It must be admitted, though, that Hawks' impact on the film is minimal, largely confined to brief scenes here and there. Conway's direction is more polished, tending towards formalist compositions where large shadows cast symbolic associations over the action. Early on, when some peasant revolutionaries are being tried by a disinterested bourgeois judge, the scene plays out with the shadow of a noose already projected on the wall behind the defendants, reflecting the only possible outcome of this show trial. Later, the charge of Pancho Villa's army is staged as a mirror image, in which the horses and their riders race towards the right side of the frame, while to the left the horses' shadows play across the plain white surface of a nearby bridge, suggesting a shadow army splitting off in the opposite direction, multiplying the numbers of Pancho's troops. Exaggerated shadows also figure prominently in several other scenes, particularly the one in which Pancho's father is whipped, or the later sequence where the revolutionaries execute several traitorous army officers, as the magnified shadows of drummers are projected onto the rock wall behind the murdered men. These expressionist touches provide some much-needed visual interest, at least, as the film's plot careens haphazardly out of control.

Indeed, it's a good thing the film at least has some interesting visuals, because there's little else to like. Wallace Beery turns in a caricatured, silly performance as Pancho Villa, a cartoon version of the historical figure who loves to rob, kill, fight and "marry" countless women who he meets on his adventures. Beery's performance suggests that the audience is meant to laugh off Villa's excesses as the cheerful crimes of a lovable rogue, but it's hard to do when he's basically raping and pillaging his way through countless cities — and even harder to do in the light of any outside historical knowledge of the real Villa.

One can also see, in the character of Jonny Sykes (Stuart Erwin in the part originally played by Lee Tracy), some hints of Hawks' plans for the film. Sykes is a drunken journalist who becomes Pancho Villa's de facto biographer, sending back outrageous dispatches that often have only a tangential relationship to the truth. In one of the film's best scenes, Sykes sends back a report that Villa's army has routed the federalists in a crucial battle that is not actually scheduled to take place until weeks later, after many reinforcements have arrived. To accommodate his friend, though, Villa agrees to attack immediately, taking care to stage the battle as closely as possible to the newspaper account that's already been published. It is presumably this kind of hilarious scene, this carelessness with historical truth, that Hawks loved in this material. In the finished film, though, Sykes is a ghostly presence, drifting in and out of the film at random, and his brotherly camaraderie with Villa is a mystery that is never developed on screen. It's sadly apparent that his role, so important to the film's satirical thrust, has been trimmed considerably in the wake of Tracy's departure.

Viva Villa! is ultimately a confused mess of a film, a victim of too much studio meddling and the passing of the material from one director to another. It's sporadically interesting, but more often just dull and plodding.


Jason Bellamy said...

either urinated on a group of Mexican soldiers from his hotel room's balcony, or simply insulted the Mexican flag

Man, if I had a nickel for the number of times I'd been in the middle of similar controversies. Well ...

But seriously. I loved this line:

"trapped in a netherworld between the traditional Hollywood biopic and a more comedic take on the genre, the film winds up being nearly nothing."

As usual, the quality and quantity of your output for this blog-a-thon is incredible. Keep up the good work.

As I was reading this post, I found myself tossing around a favorite pondering: Isn't it interesting that in old movies the acting tends to be so exaggerated, as if filmmakers and actors hadn't figured out the differences between screen and stage, between talkies and silents, while at the same time the images themselves are often more expressive than what we get today, as if some modern directors have forgotten the inherent strengths of cinema from a different direction.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Jason. Very interesting take on the differences between older movies and today. It's striking that even in a throwaway movie like this -- which is, to be honest, really awful for the most part -- there are still these great, memorable images here and there.