Vamonos con Pancho Villa [Let’s Go with Pancho Villa] (1936)
It may not be the most uplifting look at Mexican history, but Vamonos con Pancho Villa (Let’s Go with Pancho Villa) is an effort to puncture destructive myths that have crippled the Mexican people. Director Fernando de Fuentes confronts the tragedy of the “revolution” head on, and comes up with some disturbing observations about his countrymen.
We start with a rancher named Tiburcio, who is appalled at the state of things in his country. Porfirio Diaz and his allies have taken control of most of Mexico’s land and resources, allowing a tiny elite class to live like kings while the ordinary folk scrape by on what’s left. Tiburcio decides that the only course of action is to join the revolutionary Pancho Villa. He leaves his wife and children, riding off with his friends to fight with the rebels.
Tiburcio is an honest man seeking justice, but he is also naive. Still worse, he and his friends believe that being a man means taking on any challenge, no matter how insane. In order to prove how macho they are, Tiburcio and his comrades hurl themselves head first into a whirlpool of violence and destruction. The results are predictable.
While Fuentes doesn’t shy away from the horror and the madness, he always keeps his characters human. The story is a tragedy because it shows how good people can destroy themselves and the country they love, even when they sincerely believe in the cause they’re fighting for.
The script, by Fuentes and Xavier Villarrutia from the novel by Rafael Munoz, stays with the circle of friends as the war rages around them. As the film goes on we get closer and closer to the characters, making it harder to watch as their numbers dwindle. Fuentes’ direction is mostly simple and straightforward. We don’t get the furious poetry or the epic sweep that Pudovkin or Ford might provide. The photography, by Jack Draper and Gabriel Figueroa, catches some lovely moments, but mostly the camera is there to observe the action.
The most frustrating thing about the film is the sound quality. It sucks. This is bad enough when the dialogue is muddled. It’s even worse when Silvestre Revueltas’ score gets mangled. Part of the problem may be the print, but unfortunately Mexican filmmakers of the thirties didn’t have access to state of the art equipment.
The acting is mostly solid. Antonio Frausto is well cast as Tiburcio, a good man whose illusions about the revolution are slowly stripped away. The stand-out performance, though, is Domingo Soler as Pancho Villa. Soler is lively and magnetic. It’s easy to believe that people would be charmed into following him through the gates of hell. And he convincingly shows Villa’s transformation from a defender of the poor into a savage egotist. The “revolution” never really happened, in part because it was driven by charismatic leaders rather than a set of ideals.