“It might be the hammy Beery’s best movie role ever.”

(director: Jack Conway; screenwriters: Ben Hecht/from the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O. B. Stade; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Wallace Beery (Pancho Villa), Fay Wray (Teresa), Stuart Irwin (Johnny Sykes), Donald Cook (Don Felipe), George E. Stone (Chavito), Leo Carrillo (Sierra), Henry B. Walthall (Madero), Joseph Schildkraut (General Pascal), Katherine De Mille (Rosita), Frank Puglia (Villa’s father), David Durand (Bugler boy), Francis X. Bushman Jr. (Calloway), Phillip Cooper (Pancho Villa as a boy); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; MGM; 1934)

“It might be the hammy Beery’s best movie role ever.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Forget historical accuracy if you want to relish this entertaining fictionalized biopic on Mexican bandit and revolutionary hero Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery); it eschews history to be strictly a romanticized action-packed adventure tale, that’s filled with violence and a highly questionable depiction of Villa. It might be the hammy Beery’s best movie role ever, as he plays with exuberance an unimaginable buffoonish Villa and makes the menacing illiterate boor, killer and womanizer a sympathetic loving slob who should be respected for being honest about wanting to help his poor countrymen get a better life through a peasant revolution.

MGM gives it a high polish glossy production and were rewarded with one of their bigger commercial hits in 1934. It’s based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O. B. Stade, and Ben Hecht turns in the deliciously fun screenplay. Jack Conway (“Boom Town”/”Arsene Lupin”/”The Unholy Three”) gets credit for directing it as a replacement troubleshooter for Howard Hawks. An uncredited Howard Hawks, the film’s original director, probably made most of the film. But there was trouble from the get-go at the location site where local non-professional Mexican actors were used as both soldiers and peasant bandits, and they often caused delays with violent acts of their own. The Mexican citizens and government leaders were leery of romanticizing Villa, and didn’t receive the shooting of the film with open arms–especially disapproving of Beery as the lead, someone they say acted too moronic and was not in the least like Villa. But worse things happened. For instance Lee Tracy, known in Hollywood as a troublesome drunk, was playing the fast talking reporter Sykes and had already filmed several key scenes for Hawks before he went off the deep end. On a Sunday, during a national holiday, the cast and crew were celebrating in the streets with the locals while an inebriated Tracy was standing buck-naked on a hotel balcony and shouting obscenities at the crowd, and would urinate on a group of Mexican military cadets passing below. Tracy was immediately fired and rushed out of the country to avoid further trouble, as Selznick wrote a letter of apology to the Mexican government. The firing led to a bitter argument between studio boss Mayer and Hawks, and Hawks belted Mayer. This led to his dismissal, and much of the picture had to be re-shot with Conway directing and Stuart Irwin taking Tracy’s place.

We first meet Pancho Villa as a boy in the 1880’s when his father is whipped to death by a soldier, after protesting the tyrant Diaz’ seizure of the Mexican peons’ land. Pancho exacts a revenge by knifing the whip wielding soldier to death afterwards, then heads for the hills of Chihuahua to mature and organizes a band of renegades called Doradoes to ruthlessly attack the federal troops and pillage the countryside–robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. During a train robbery, Pancho encounters Johnny Sykes (Stuart Erwin), an American newspaper reporter, and forcefully recruits him to write mythical propaganda pieces on the bandit’s legendary feats. Villa, after scoring many victories in the Mexican countryside, is recruited by wealthy landowner Don Felipe (Donald Cook) and his beautiful sister Teresa (Fay Wray) to join forces with the mild-mannered scholar Madero (Henry B. Walthall) and make a peasant revolution that will grant land reform to the peons. But Madero insists Villa must stop killing the wounded and looting, and instead follow the army discipline of General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut). Agreeing to those terms because of his immediate respect for Madero, Villa’s help will lead to the rebel victory. But Madero leaves Villa out of the new Mexico City government, and when Villa and his partner Sierra (Leo Carrillo) go back to robbing a bank in their hometown mountain area Madero orders Villa exiled. Villa moves to El Paso as a defeated man and a drunk. When Madero and the revolution are betrayed and Madero is slain by the two-faced Pascal, Villa returns with a sixty thousand strong peasant bandit army and overtakes Pascal to exact his final revenge and become the president of Mexico. But Villa is assassinated in Mexico City by his onetime nobleman friend Don Felipe, a vengeful man who holds him responsible for the death of his sister Teresa.

There’s one tantalizingly perverse scene, where the film’s arch villain is patted down with honey and left staked in the torrid sun to die a torturous death as ants crawl over him.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Writing Adaptation, Sound and Assistant Director). It won only for Assistant Director.