In HBO’s “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” Larry Gelbart delivers an ambitious script, based on the true story of a Hollywood film company lensing the pre-WWI Mexican Revolution, that makes a meek film executive into the protagonist and displays the tender side of Pancho Villa. Eion Bailey is up to the task of portraying fish-out-of-water filmmaker Frank Thayer, but Antonio Banderas has his hands full trying to portray the alternately benevolent and rash Villa. Still, “Pancho Villa” is an easy watch thanks to the lush cinematography of Peter James and the light touches of director Bruce Beresford.
Truth of the story begins with Villa offering to sell the rights to his life story to fund his rebel forces. He finds a taker in New Jersey-based Mutual Films mogul Harry Aitken (Jim Broadbent), who eventually decides to make a seven-reel silent pic, complete with actual battle footage. Aitken first approaches partner D.W. Griffith (Colm Feore), who loves the idea but passes on the project, obviously to prep for “Birth of a Nation.”
The moviemaking, with Raoul Walsh (Kyle Chandler) directing, is factual. But Gelbart takes the story into the land of embellishment with the character of Thayer, Aitken’s nephew, who is sent to Presidio, Texas, to win the confidence of Villa in order to control him.
Villa’s primary obligation is to the Mexican people, who are assisting him in the fight against the Huerta regime; however, he is aware of the power of film, especially in shaping public opinion in the U.S.
For the most part, Villa shows great warmth for his supporters, but the telefilm depicts inconsistencies in the way he ruled. A priest impregnates a 14-year-old and is given a set of guidelines rather than punishment; a widow publicly mourns her loss and blames Villa, who shoots her in cold blood. Banderas handles both situations without any display of emotion.
The driving force of “Pancho Villa” is the Thayer-Villa relationship. They bond over a similar first name (Pancho is actually Francisco) and, as both roll through tough spells — indifference from the film company back in Fort Lee, N.J., or a lost battle– they are never out of each other’s eyesight.
One of Villa’s gunners, Sam Drebben (Alan Arkin), offers an East Coast Jewish perspective for Thayer, giving Thayer a spiel and enthusiasm he can translate for his bosses back home. Drebben is an A-plus associate, giving Villa his due and spelling out the rebel world in a way Thayer can understand.
Eventually, all sides get what they want: Villa plays himself onscreen, awkwardly in scripted parts and with bravado when leading a charge; Thayer oversees his first film and, for a short while, gets the girl (Alexa Avalos); and Mutual gets a well-received film, “The Life of General Villa.” (Although now lost, the 1914 pic appears to have existed, but Variety never reviewed it.)
Bailey brings a wide-eyed glow to Thayer. The growth of his character has a compelling logic, even as the fighting and killing fail to inure him. He leaves the battlefront disgusted, yet years later the memory lingers as a time of intense schooling. Thayer seemingly has no regrets about any of it.
Villa was larger than life, and Banderas vibrantly captures his bravado. Everything in the telepic, though, is designed to make Villa a likable force, which pushes and pulls Banderas in a number of directions, only some of which play well. Eventually, “Villa” exposes a dark side in the man, and Banderas forsakes crafting the image of a hero to allow the man’s ambiguity to shine.
Beresford hits every angle in “Pancho Villa,” capturing the horror of a mano-a-mano battle as well as the naivete of filmmakers in a perilous situation. “Villa” possesses minimal amounts of humor, yet the prevailing lightness of the piece allows the darker moments to strike that much more forcefully.