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The life of general Villa: Pancho Villa as himself

On January 2, 1914, Harry S. Aitken, a representative of the Mutual Film Corporation, met with the revolutionary general Francisco Villa in El Paso, Texas. A contract was signed where the leader of the Northern Division granted exclusive rights to film his military campaign against the Federal Army, which would culminate in Mexico City. The legal document stipulated, among other clauses, that Villa and his superiors would wear new uniforms that would be used during filming and that the battles would be planned in agreement with the cameramen to ensure the best scenes and lighting conditions. The takes would even be repeated if they weren't satisfactory enough. By this means of agreement, Pancho Villa would get 25 thousand dollars and 20% of its box office; in addition, the caudillo promised to star in a biographical movie that was being planned simultaneously.

La vida del General Villa: Pancho Villa como él mismo

It revolves around the unusual beginning of the Centauro del Norte's acting career in the movie The Life of General Villa/La vida del General Villa, directed by William Christy Cabanne (and an uncredited Raoul Walsh) and starring, not only Doroteo Arango Arámbula (San Juan del Río, Durango, 1878-Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, 1923) but also Raoul Walsh himself on the role of a young Villa. Walsh later directed titles such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Objective, Burma! (1945). It is, of course, a work that goes beyond fiction and history to become a distressing reflection on the unusual perspectives when it came to the representation of the Mexican Revolution in cinema. And, incidentally, it largely demystifies the revolutionary patriotic aura – which explains why Villa demanded a large amount of money and brand-new uniforms to look shiny behind the cameras.

The Life of General Villa, a lost film, produced by the company of David Wark Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Mutual, included not only real scenes of battles fought during the second revolutionary stage, but also fictional sequences to make audiences aware of the hero. He started out as a worker, became an independent rancher, and faced some of his perverse Federal Army officers (WH Lawrence and Walter Long) after they kidnapped, badly injured, and raped his sister – played by actress Teddy Sampson, often cast in the "latina" role (The Bad Man, The Pretty Sister of Jose).  This provoked Villa's thirst for revenge and the uprising against the regime as he angrily pursued those responsible, killing one while the other escaped. Harassed by federal troops, the caudillo fled to the mountains before finding and assassinating the second officer in the famous battle of Torreon.

The Northern Centaur promised to avoid night battles since they hindered camerawork in 1914; however, he ignored it out of military strategy. It is known that he blew up a church with dynamite to provide better lighting, but all this is between legend and reality. Several owners of important newspapers who used to attack him forgot his career as a prerevolutionary “bandit” and elevated him to a hero, even John Reed himself, author of Insurgent Mexico, interviewed him. The first images that Mutual exhibited were in the battle of Ojinaga, on January 10, 1914; then, later, the battle of Torreón, on April 3 of the same year. Later, the States and Hollywood forgot about Villa and recognized Venustiano Carranza, Villa's rival, as head of the victorious army and the new Mexican ruler. On March 9, 1916, Villistas attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 17 Americans. On March 15, 1916, an expedition under the command of General John Pershing crossed the border and entered Chihuahua to try to capture him.

Between 2000 and 2003, documentary maker Gregorio Rocha immersed himself in various international film archives, as well as in the Library of Congress in Washington, in search of those images. The result was Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa, where he established the relationship between the leader of the Northern Division and Mutual Film Corporation based on various film materials, interviews with historians and film curators, photographs and fictional recreations discovered while searching for the film. Also in 2003, renowned Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), made the telefilm Presentando a Pancho Villa/And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, with Antonio Banderas as Villa, Kyle Chandler as Raoul Walsh, and Damián Alcázar as General Rodolfo Fierro, among others. The movie reconstructs the events surrounding the Centauro del Norte's contract in 1914 to make The Life of the General Villa at a time when the US press was spreading terrifying news about Villa, and how Mutual Film Corporation convinced him that this movie would change public opinion of him.