Research Magazine 2009

Myth, Mexico, and the Movies

So blurred is the line between fact and fiction in accounts of the Mexican Revolution that some reports have filmmakers, and not generals, calling the shots.

Adela Pineda

Adela Pineda

“It is claimed, though it has not yet been confirmed, that Pancho Villa would alter the course of his battles according to the contractual demands of the Mutual Film Corporation. ‘There is no more light, so you have to start the battle tomorrow’—things like that,” says Adela Pineda, an associate professor of Spanish who is working on a book about film’s influence on the Mexican Revolution and the revolution’s long afterlife in 20th-century world cinema.

Pineda, a specialist in turn-of-the-last-century Latin American literature, came at her topic in a sidewise fashion. Initially curious about the role of intellectuals in the Mexican Revolution, she soon realized that their importance came later, after the armed conflict, when painters and writers such as Diego Rivera, Mariano Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán, and José Vasconcelos “worked for a cultural revolution which was going to support a revolutionary state.”

What she discovered instead was a quirk of timing that saw film emerge as a medium just as the revolution erupted in 1910, a coincidence that was to have profound and lasting effects on both art and life. “The history of film and the history of the revolution run parallel, and this is where my interest comes from,” says Pineda. “The Mexican Revolution was from the very beginning, because of the presence of film, a cinematic myth.”

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata surrounded by cohorts

Revolutionary generals Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (seated, l-r) in the presidential palace in Mexico City, December 4, 1914

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Among the military and political leaders vying for power, some caudillos quickly grasped the new medium’s utility in advancing their cause and ensuring them a place in history. In this regard, Francisco Pancho Villa was one of the most adept. “Though he was not an educated, lettered man,” says Pineda, “Villa was a very intelligent man, shrewdly forging his own legend.”

He turned public opinion in his favor through his collaborative effort with the Mutual Film Corporation in 1914—a biopic entitled The Life of General Villa, with actor Raoul Walsh in the title role, “but only as young Pancho Villa, because the older Pancho Villa was going to be Pancho Villa as himself.” In his memoir, Walsh recalls that the scenes depicting soldaderas—women, usually wives and mothers of soldiers, who kept camp with the men and served as cooks and nurses—were filmed using prostitutes rather than actors.

“They would alter life, and then they would present it as real life,” says Pineda. “The revolution was shaped by film, and would have taken a very different course if it hadn’t been for film.”

the Dorados

A band of Villa’s men, nicknamed the Dorados or “Golden Ones,” before the siege of Ciudad Juárez

Photo coutesy of George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

Later, cinema would become a medium well suited to telling the story of the revolution. Russian, American, and Italian directors each portrayed the revolution in a different way, says Pineda, for political and historical reasons.

Russian directors, including Sergei Eisenstein, saw the revolution as Mexico’s entrée onto the political world stage and a communist call to arms. His ambitious three-part Viva Mexico!, which was never completed and is extant only in fragments, was meant to show the world, “Look, this can happen! This is happening in Mexico. See that peasant, that Indian, is now Emiliano Zapata with a gun and a consciousness.”

American directors saw Mexico as a new frontier—a way to put the brave and lonesome cowboy, out of work since the United States realized its Manifest Destiny, back into a job. In films like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and The Professionals, says Pineda, “cowboys decided to cross the border and look for another West, which was the Mexican Revolution.” It’s no coincidence, she notes, that these films were produced in the 1960s, at a time when Americans “were questioning the role of individualism in society” following an era of conformity and McCarthyism.

Viva Zapata! movie poster

A movie poster for 1952’s Viva Zapata!

Image from Corbis

Meanwhile in Italy, “spaghetti Westerns” were largely parodies of their American counterparts, although a few scriptwriters and directors did use films set in revolutionary Mexico—most famously A Bullet for the General—as vehicles for political commentary on the “postcolonial movements then taking place in such countries as Cuba and Algeria.” In these films, says Pineda, “the Mexican Revolution is not really the Mexican Revolution, but a way to discuss the dialectic between the colonizer and colonized.”

She is fascinated by the way that the same historical events can have such wide-ranging and long-lasting appeal, and doesn’t shy away from a prismic version of the past—in which colors and shadows are constantly changing—to explain why the Mexican Revolution has provided ample cinematic fodder.

“That’s the way history is, really,” Pineda says. “We always try to find very coherent discourses because that’s what gives us peace, but I think it is more like oral traditions. There are so many ways to tell the same story, because the same story has so many meanings.”