And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a 2003 television film for HBO in partnership with City Entertainment and starring Antonio Banderas as Pancho Villa, directed by Bruce Beresford, written by Larry Gelbart and produced by Joshua D. Maurer, Mark Gordon, and Larry Gelbart. The cast also included Alan Arkin, Jim Broadbent, Michael McKean, Eion Bailey, and Alexa Davalos.
Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) finds himself without adequate funding to finance his war against the military-run government. He also finds himself at odds with the Americans because of the Hearst media empire’s press campaign against him. To counter both of these threats, he sends emissaries to movie producers to convince them to pay to film his progress and the actual battles. Producer D.W. Griffith (Colm Feore) is immediately interested and convinces Mutual Film Studios boss Harry E. Aitkin to send a film crew. Aitkin’s nephew Frank Thayer is initially a mere errand boy for the studio, but he makes a good impression with Villa, who demands that Thayer be placed in charge of the project. Thayer and a camera crew team film Villa leading his men to victory in battle. Despite the failure of this initial footage (which draws derisive laughter from potential backers) Thayer convinces Aitkin to invest even more money in a second attempt, and also convinces Villa to participate in making a more narrative film.
Thayer returns to Mexico with a director, actors, producers, cameramen and screenwriters, and begin to film Villa’s previous exploits using a younger actor, future film director Raoul Walsh (Kyle Chandler). The filming goes well, although Villa becomes angry that the screenwriters and the director have changed history to make a more dramatic film. However, he agrees to do a cameo appearance as an older version of himself. Meanwhile, Thayer begins a romance with actress Teddy Sampson (Alexa Davalos) whom he’s had a crush on since they first met. One night Villa announces that they will attack a Federal held fort at Torreon and win the revolution. The film’s director and his crew tell Villa that they are not coming with him to film the battle. Villa scares them into going to the battle by having a firing squad shoot over their heads.
The next morning, Villa assembles his men to attack Torreon. Thayer and his team go in to film the action. After a skirmish on the way to the fort, Villa’s army arrives at Torreon and lays siege to the fortress. Villa orders an attack and personally leads the charge. Villa’s army is initially successful, but they suffer heavy casualties and are forced to withdraw. That night, Villa orders his army to bombard Torreon into submission, and, after a long, brutal bombardment, Villa’s cavalry finishes off the last of Torreon’s Federal defenders. However, Thayer and his camera crew team witness Villa personally shooting a Mexican widow in cold blood with his handgun during the aftermath of the battle. Disgusted, the team leaves.
The Life of General Villa is shown in theatres in America, and to great success, although Thayer and his camera crew members regret making the film.
Nine years later General Villa is driving his car with an associate and two of his bodyguards through Parral, Chihuahua. His car is flagged down by a Mexican civilian, when several Federals suddenly appear with machine guns. Villa reaches for his pistol, but is shot several times and is killed.
Maurer, who originally conceived the story and did extensive research, sold the project to HBO and then brought on Gordon and hired Gelbart to write and collaborate on the screenplay. At the time of production, this was the most expensive 2-hour television/cable movie ever made, with a budget of over $30 million. The movie was shot almost entirely on location in and around San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
- The film concerns the filming of The Life of General Villa (which was shot in 1914) and is seen through the eyes of Frank N. Thayer, a studio boss’s nephew who gets a career boost when he is placed in charge of the project.
- The resulting film became the first American feature-length movie, introducing scores of viewers to the true horrors of war that they had never personally seen.
- Thayer sold the studios on making the film despite their concerns that no one would sit through a movie longer than 1 hour, by convincing them that they could raise the price of movies to ten cents, doubling the going price at that time.
- The actual contract that Pancho Villa signed with Frank N. Thayer and the Mutual Film Company on 05 January 1914 to film the Battle of Ojinaga still exists and is in a museum in Mexico City.
- The original film has been lost, but some unedited film reels of the battle, showing Pancho Villa and his army fighting Federal forces, as well as photographs and publicity stills taken from the original film, still exist.
- Raoul Walsh, who played Villa as a young man in The Life of General Villa, wrote extensively about the experience in his autobiography Each Man in His Time, describing Villa’s charisma as well as noting that peasants would knock the teeth out of corpses with rocks in the wake of firing squads in order to harvest the gold fillings, which was captured on film and had the projectionists vomiting in the screening room back in Los Angeles.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Bruce Beresford.
- Producers: Joshua D. Maurer, Mark Gordon, and Larry Gilbert.
- Writer: Larry Gilbert.
- Cinematography: Peter James.
- Editor: Mark Warner.
- Production: HBO Films.
- Distributor: HBO.
- Release Date: 07 September 2003 (US).
- Running Time: 112 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.