- And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself
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Doroteo Arango was born in the state of Durango, Mexico in 1878. His childhood was marked by adversity, as if the world was at war against him. Defending his sister's honor (and his own), he shot a wealthy hacendado and ran for his life. In a country where justice was administered according to race and social position, Doroteo had no choice but to become an outlaw. Out of desperation, he declared war against the world and, more specifically, against the wealthy class. In an intimate ritual, while hidden in the mountains, he changed his name to Pancho Villa, not knowing that the name was to become a legend not only in Mexico but throughout the world.
Why did Pancho Villa become part of American legend in particular? If you enter "Pancho Villa" into any Internet search engine, more than 300,000 entries pop up, most of U.S. origin. From motorcycle clubs to health spas, fan clubs to historical researchers, a wide range of interests maintain the Villa name in American popular culture. What is more fascinating is that during his own lifetime the real Pancho Villa served as raw material assimilated into the American imagination via the entertainment industry.
In 1914, at the peak of his military career, Villa became the protagonist of one of the first American biographical feature films, The Life [End Page 142] of General Villa, a production as legendary as the subject himself. The movie, now presumed lost (except for some fragments), derived from a contract Villa signed with Mutual Film Corporation. But what we know about this incident has been filtered and tarnished by past film historians. Beginning with Terry Ramsaye and his account "Panchito Villa Sells a War" in the fanciful book A Million and One Nights (1926), almost every historian who has dealt with it has contributed to the confusion surrounding this odd event in motion picture history.1
It is possible to understand the misdemeanors of such interpretations, since film history has always been fueled by legend. And Pancho Villa has proven to be a complex and multilayered character, one who deftly evades the historian's microscope.2 What is not understandable—or forgivable—today is to offer a strongly Eurocentric, pre-World War I perspective on Villa as historical character, as if nothing had changed in the field of historiography in the past ninety years. Yet that is what the latest screen incarnation of Mexico's celebrated revolutionary does.
On September 7, 2003, HBO premiered And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, the network's most significant feature of the season. In a clumsy and expensive ($30 million) HDTV production, HBO attempted—for at least the fourth time in U.S. media history—to use Pancho Villa as an entertainment icon.3
This seemingly innocent TV production actually does little more than revive the negative stereotypes of the "greaser" genre that populated early American cinema, especially in the 1910s. Greaser films dominated early U.S. productions that featured Mexican characters. D. W. Griffith himself was an enthusiastic perpetrator, directing the prototype, Greaser's Gauntlet (1908). In this western subgenre, a Mexi-can character—a "greaser" or "half-breed"—appears as either the antagonist of or faithful companion to an Anglo protagonist. The contents of these films were so offensive that several Latin American countries raised diplomatic complaints, pressuring the American government to urge producers not to refer to specific countries or ethnicities in their scripts. "In 1922," Chon Noriega points out, "the newly constituted Mexican government instituted a ban on all films by any U.S. studio that released a derogatory film about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Rather than reforming the portrayal of Latino characters, the entertainment industry simply stopped including them in films."4
Although this HBO production offers a storyline, a cast of characters, and a crew much different from the seminal 1914 Villa film, this new movie changes little of substance about the antiquated greaser formula. Into an otherwise fascinating...