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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Villa Rides (1968)




Dir: Buzz Kulik - Cast: Yul Brynner, Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Maria Gracia Buccella, Frank Wolff,  Herbert Lom, Robert Viharo, Alexander Knox, Dana Lorys, Antonio Ruiz, Jill Ireland, Fernando Rey, John Ireland - Screenplay: Same Peckinpah, Robert Towne, Music: Maurice Jarre

Villa Rides is set in revolutionary Mexico and stars Yul Brynner as Pancho Villa. To western fans it's best known as the movie that was not directed by Sam Peckinpah. He had written the original script and was also set to direct, but was fired because Brynner didn’t like his portrayal of Villa as a cynical and rather cruel revolutionary. The script was re-written by Robert Towne, who had contributed to the script of Bonnie and Clyde one year earlier (and would later write Chinatown with Roman Polanski). In the directional chair, Peckinpah was replaced by Buzz Kulik, who had mainly worked for television. 

The Mexican Revolution had started in 1910 with an uprising, led by Francesco Madero, against the reign of Porfirio Diaz, a former war hero (he had fought against the French) turned dictator. Diaz had become president in 1876 and had changed the constitution twice so he could be president for life. His presidency was marked by economical growth, but also by repression and political stagnation. Diaz favored foreign investments and encouraged the so-called peonage, a system which left laborers virtually without any rights; the situation led to a growing gap between rich and poor. 

Peckinpah was asked, by producer Ted Richmond, to adapt a Pancho Villa biography (by William Douglas Lansford); he was told the film needed an American character who got involved in the revolution. The idea of an American adventurer traveling south of the border, fascinated Peckinpah and he discoverd that there had been many adventurers traveling South to fight with villa. His gringo became a pilot using his plane to run guns with the federal Mexican army regiments supporting Diaz, the so-called Colorados. He is forced to stay in Mexico for a while when the landing gear of this plane must be repaired, but the village in which he was warmly welcomed (and has found a sweetheart) is raided by the Colorados, who execute several citizens before his eyes in gruesome fashion. When he’s captured by Pancho Villa and his revolutionary forces, Villa offers him a choice: aid the revolutionaries or die



Villa Rides is often considered to be one of those American westerns that were influenced by the Italian western, notably the Zapata westerns. It was shot in Spain has the distinctive story element of the foreign professional giving some technical and intellectual assistance to the illiterate Mexican revolutionary. But the foreigner, called Lee Arnold, is an American in his late forties, not a sophisticated European mercenary, and instead of a world-wise opportunist he's a cynical, disillusioned person, with no real aim in his life. 

Those Zapata westerns were set in Mexico, but they were European movies, reflecting the fancy pseudo-Marxist ideas that were popular among students and intellectuals. Villa Rides was filmed in Europe, but it's an American production, reflecting typical American feelings of the decade. Peckinpah had the feeling there were many people in the US like Lee Arnold: confused, disillusioned, without direction. But even in a world riddled with violence and corruption, is was possible for a man like Lee Arnold to find a cause worth living (and dying) for; fighting alongside Villa, he would become a true believer of the people's revolution. 


Peckinpah wrote the script in the first months of 1967. He had been struggling with Arnold's 'conversion' to Villa's revolution and agreed with Ted Richmond that there was still a lot of work to do, but thought he could remedy the script's shortcomings on the set. Yul Brynner saw other problems. In the original script Villa watches impassively how a corral full of prisoners are butchered and when he's about to be executed by Huerta, he breaks down and cries. Brynner thought this was the behavior of the villain, not of the hero of a movie. He demanded another script and another director, even though Peckinpah sent Brynner a note in which he asked for his suggestions. Richmond had little or no choice: Brynner was the star of the movie and he also feared that his movie would become a new Major Dundee.

In spite of Towne's rewritings, some of the original plans still shine through. There's a crucial scène in which Arnold learns that his Mexican girlfriend was raped while Villa and his forces were biding their time (in order to learn the villagers how to hate the Colorados). Villa and his troops have a lot in common with the oppressive forces they’re trying to overthrow. We’re far removed from the idealism of the Zapata westerns in which noble peasants were pitted against the brute forces of capitalism and imperialism. Villa is a bandit, and his major redeeming quality is that he's loyal to his cause and almost pays the highest possible price for investing too much faith in the wrong people, such as the treacherous general Huerta. 

Villa Rides lacks authenticity, but it's not a bad film per se. It has three large-scale action that are well-staged (and beautifully shot by Jack Hyliard). The score, by Maurice Jarre, is marvelous, with a particularly memorable main theme. The problem of Mitchum's character is not solved in the finished script: in the Zapata westerns the development of a revolutionary conscience was a dialectical process: the lead characters learned from each other; in Villa Rides there's very little interaction between Arnold and Villa and therefore Arnold' conversion has no resonance. In the end it’s Bronson who walks away with the movie as Pancho Villa’s lieutenant Rodolfo Fierro; he’s also involved in the film’s most outrageous scene, the execution of captured Colorados; it's a scene taken from the history books: Fierro was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer, but it's also quite an excessive scene, even for a movie made in the late sixties, when violence was taking over the genre. 


Peckinpah felt very depressed after his dismissal from Villa Rides. He thought he would never again be allowed to direct a movie. In retrospect, Villa rides seems an essential step towards The Wild Bunch. While working on Villa, he learned that he could infuse his vision about the end of the West with the idea of fortune seekers and outlaws driven across the Mexican border (where warlords and rebel leaders were willing to pay for their services) because they had become obsolete in their own country. According to his biographer Weddle, photos of the American adventurers fighting for Villa, show strong similarities to the publicity stills that were later made for The Wild Bunch. The leader of the bunch, Pike Bishop, shows some similarities to both Arnold and Villa: he's a man past his prime, disenchanted, but he loyal to his way of life and the men he's riding with.

***

References:

* David Weddle, Sam Peckinpah, If they Move, kill 'M, Grove Press, New York, 1994, p. 295-298
* Mexican Revolution: http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/a/mexicanrevo.htm 
* Rodolfo Fierro:  http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/p/08rfierro.htm 

The Score:
New Recording of the Complete Maurice Jarre score with Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra produced for Tadlow Music by James Fitzpatrick (be patient, the music starts after a couple of seconds):



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