Villa rages! Villa lusts! Villa kills! VILLA RIDES!
Name a good motion picture about the Mexican Revolution. No, I can’t really name one either. And after watching 1968’s Villa Rides! I still can’t. Not that Villa Rides! is a bad picture, because it isn’t. But rather is take one of the looser interpretations of history and roles with it. Yes, most of the main characters are in fact those from reality, as are the situations of the roughly two hour long film.
But don’t look to this one for anything more than a tertiary level history lesson as all but the basics are obfuscated into one bubbling morass. It is when one steps out from behind the sham of its historical façade that one can truly appreciate this one. On paper the film shows one of Villa’s campaigns coupled with tertiary hints of the power struggle between Villa and his superiors. In fact, the factual basis covers several years and the film cobbles many disparate factual tidbits into a single narrative.
Sadly Villa Rides! is a rather neglected little piece of film, wedged between the last gasp of the Western and the rash of mini-epics of the early 1970s- think Patton and The Godfather as examples of the latter genre. But taken for purely entertainment value alone, Villa Rides! strangely leaves one wanting just a little bit more.
Yul Brynner, cast before even the script was complete, come across as a somewhat dour and dignified Pancho Villa. Having signed with script approval, he rejected the original script by Sam Peckinpah (who was also seeking to direct) on the grounds that it portrayed Villa in a light that was perhaps a bit too shady. For an actor with a penchant for portraying the honorable, delving to anything less wasn’t acceptable. Peckinpah was summarily sacked and his screenplay completely overhauled by Robert Towne. Pedestrian director Buzz Kulick came in for behind the camera leadership.
Though Kulick is by no means what one would term a heavy hitter, the results are admirable. The film has a nice flow without any true lulls. Perhaps seeing that Brynner was the star he gets preferential treatment throughout.
Brynner’s portrayal is weak as it ignores by design anything negative about the man. That said, between the addition of hair and a few grandiose speeches he does a fine job. He doesn’t provide any real sense of the man and like the rest of the cast become the glue to hold the various action sequences together.
For reasons unbeknownst to most, Robert Mitchum signed on as well in the role of ‘The Gringo,’ an American gunrunner and overall miscreant. Rumor has it he was brought in to break up the “Mexican” feel of the picture and give it more star power. Perhaps, but the results are perhaps the single greatest negative of the picture.
Here Mitchum sleepwalks through what must rank as one of his weakest roles ever. Gringo doesn’t really contribute to the picture in any way and if anything slows down some of the stronger portions. He waffles initially between the revolutionaries and the government forces before finally settling into an uneasy partnership with Villa and company. There is a slight attempt at a love story, but even that falls flat.
Helping Brynner and Mitchum among the supporting players are Herbert Lom (as the diabolical General Huerta) and Charles Bronson as Fierro. Though Lom is perhaps underutilized here, existing mostly to grimace, sneer, and drink cognac, Bronson is one of the highlights of the picture and shows perhaps some of the remnants of the original script.
Bronson nearly makes the picture his own with his dry sense of humor written into his character. Clearly a man not indisposed to killing, he diligently carries out his job, but in a way which clearly causes him some pleasure. At one point he orders prisoners to run in batches of three- later five, telling them that if they can make it over a nearby wall without him shooting them that they can go free. Of course they all fall to the ground with more than a few appearing to have been hit by a howitzer given how far they fly.
Later in an effort perhaps to save ammunition, Fierro stands three captives back to front. However, they are of differing heights and so as to use only one bullet he has the middle one squat slightly to equalize the situation before dispatching the unfortunate trio.
Filmed in Spain in an attempt to capture some of the success of Sergio Leone’s pictures, the cinematography is good for the outdoor scenes, with heavy use of the countryside. One wonders however why Mexico itself wasn’t used, being much closer and presumably presenting similar production costs. An additional benefit of a Mexican shoot would also have been the incorporation of local flavor into the results, as in the late 1960s there were still many alive who were firsthand witnesses to Villa and his times.
Outside of Bronson, the highlights of the film are the three large action sequences, all of which are filmed expertly. The final attack on the city is by far (and by design) the grandest, with each side taking the upper hand for a few moments before the end. Incorporating the best aspects of the other sequences, the ‘siege’ of the city include three cavalry charges, an artillery bombardment, a force bridge crossing, and bombing from the air.
Maurice Jarre’s score is a good one trick pony, with one theme pervading the entire picture with only the orchestration altered. Though not perhaps the most original approach, the pony’s one trick is really good! The theme imminently gets stuck in your head and every time you hear it build you know something good is coming. And as you can imagine, Villa Rides! is rather short in the surprise category.
So at the end of the day Villa Rides! is an enjoyable Western with only a passing resemblance with historical fact. When taken as such the two hours pass quickly with an entertaining passage of bullets and gunfights.