Classic Film Guide

Viva Villa! (1934)

This film won John Waters a Best Assistant Director Oscar on his second, and last nomination; it was also nominated for Best Picture & Sound Recording, as was Ben Hecht’s adaptation of the material. It stars Wallace Beery (The Champ (1931)) as a fictionalized version of the titled character (Pancho Villa), who fought on behalf of the peons (landless poor people) and Francisco Madero (played in the film by Henry Walthall) against unjust land ownership laws in two different revolutions. Beery's portrayal is perfect in a difficult role, which requires him to balance between the tough, brutal, revenge-driven leader who's respected & loved by his men and the sensitive, almost simpleton man who respects and fights for his surrogate father, Madero. Though in real-life, the second revolution was because of inaction on Madero’s part, and impatience on Emiliano Zapata's, which included assassinations, the film uses a fictional character named General Pascal, played by Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola (1937)) , as a Zapada-like leader, who fought with Francisco "Pancho" Villa in the first revolution only to be opposed by him in the second.

Leo Carrillo plays Sierra and Pedro Regas plays Tomas, Villa's first lieutenants and trusted confidants; Katherine DeMille plays Rosita, a woman he "marries". Donald Cook and Fay Wray play rich Spaniards who at first support Villa, but grow to despise his crude "bandit" methods of war and social behavior. Wray’s character actually shoots and wounds Villa when he makes unwanted advances, which costs her character her life at the hands of Sierra. Stuart Erwin (Pigskin Parade (1936)) plays the most interesting supporting character, that of an American reporter who sensationalizes the events for his readers and forms a relationship with the larger than life character Beery plays, such that he is shown to be the one that gets Villa to return from Madera’s imposed exile to fight in the second revolution against Schildkraut’s character. It was directed by Jack Conway, though Howard Hawks is said to have contributed with both the film's direction (as was William Wellman) and screenplay. This movie boasts lots of thrilling action sequences, which are surely the reason Waters received his Academy Award.

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