Monday, 24 January 2011

Review : Viva Villa! (1934)

Howard Hawks was very familiar with the notion of ‘tall tales’. Ever aware of the power of mythmaking in respect to his own career and that of those with whom he surrounded himself, there are countless anecdotes and adventurous yarns of which only he could prove the veracity. So it seems apt that his attempted telling of the life of Mexican revolutionary fighter Pancho Villa would be more interested in ‘printing the legend’ than approaching his subject with an eye towards historical accuracy. I say ‘attempted telling’ as it’s unclear how much of Viva Villa! can ultimately be attributed to Hawks. Replaced after ten weeks’ location filming in Mexico by MGM stalwart Jack Conway (credited as sole director on the picture), the exact reason for his firing is difficult to pin down. Some accounts credit actor Lee Tracy (originally set to play newspaper man Jonny Sykes), drunkenly urinating over a balcony onto the heads of a passing parade of Mexican soldiers as the final straw for MGM general manager Eddie Mannix, coming at the end of those ten manic but less-than-productive weeks, but Hawks himself in Joseph McBride’s Hawks on Hawks tells the story thus :
“…we were making some scenes and working on a railroad cut – you know, where a railroad runs through and the sides are steep – and a fellow came out and shoved a gun at me and started to yell something. I just turned and hit him, and he went over and lit on his head on the railroad track. I never heard whether he died, or what happened. I said, ‘What the hell was he yelling?’ They told me that he said, ‘This is for the revolution!’… …We were making another scene one time and some shooting took place about half of a short block away. People went running out firing guns. This was for real. A car passed us one day going too fast – it rolled over and over through a fence. We got over there, and a guy crawled out of it, looked back in, pulled out a gun, and blew his brain out. It was nutty. Finally after ten weeks Eddie Mannix came and said, ‘This isn’t working out, Howard you can go.’ I said, ‘Eddie, I’ve suffered for ten weeks here, so I want to be paid for ten more weeks.’ He said, ‘OK.’“
So it’s mostly a guessing game as to how much of Hawks’ footage remains in the finished film. I’d like to think that much of what I admired about the picture came from Hawks’ hand, and there are certain thematic and socio-political concerns which resonate with much of his other work, but I must confess to being unfamiliar with the (quite considerable) body of films directed by Jack Conway to do much more than guess.
Both tonally and narratively the film is something of a mess. Hyperbolic, declamatory intertitles (“Injustice was his nurse, obsession his tutor!”) scroll across the screen at intervals far too frequent, a lazy expositional shorthand that shuttles us between the dramatically significant events in Villa’s life, and whilst Hawks’ regular Ben Hecht’s dialogue occasionally shines, the overall narrative structure essentially presents itself as ‘Pancho’s Greatest Hits’.
Much of what proves problematic stems from Wallace Beery’s portrayal of Villa. He had played the part once before, a much lesser role in the Jacques Jaccard directed serial Patria (1917) and his casting initially caused consternation amongst Mexican government officials who saw his usual screen employment as either a villain or buffoon as anathema to the image of Villa they were hoping to project. He certainly has a great entrance, riding into full close up with one eye squinting into the sun, looking like a cross between Walter Matthau and Eli Wallach, but there’s more than a hint of Oliver Hardy about him too, his often bumbling child-like qualities aren’t a huge stretch from the similarly characterised gangsters in Hawks’ earlier Scarface (1932), kids with their toys and their own naïve codes of ethics and morality. How sympathetic are we supposed to find him? His unwavering sense of honour may well be presented as commendable, but the film struggles to find its own moral centre, our sympathies veering towards and away from him in sequential moments, typified in a late scene between Beery and Fay Wray which begins as an awkward attempt at seduction and ends with him almost beating her to death in silhouette as she defiantly laughs at him.
There are germs of interesting ideas and directions which present themselves only to be swamped almost immediately in subservience to plot progression, mostly centred around the character of newspaperman Jonny Sykes (ultimately played by Stuart Erwin). He arrives in Mexico in the hope of a scoop and ends up befriending (after being kidnapped by) Villa and acting as his unofficial biographer, sending news of his conquests and revolutionary campaigns back to the States. The idea of ‘printing the legend’ is briefly incorporated, Villa possessing a keen awareness of his legacy and his portrayal in the media, even his place in history, relying on Sykes to shape public opinion of him in the press, even ultimately writing his eulogy, choosing apt final words on his behalf as he lay dying. But his character seems to come and go at will, becoming little more than a plot convenience by the end. He does have one particularly good scene in which he confesses to having already submitted a story of the conquest of the town of La Rosalia, and finding out they haven’t reached it yet, asks Villa to attack it just to make his story true :
-          “But I wrote you came in from the South.”
-          “We can’t come in from the South, there’s a river, a big hill…”
-          “But every paper in America says you came in from the South.”
-          “How many papers?”
-          “Six million”
-          “Six million? OK, we come in from the South.”
Perhaps the presence of Hawks can best be sensed in the first reel. There’s a kind of neo-realist, quasi-documentary style to many of the expositional set-ups, from those populated with hundreds upon hundreds of extras to those of villagers faces shot in piercing close-up,exhibiting a sense of place absent from much of the studio based work which he generally found preferential, a picture of the Mexico that Sam Peckinpah would stake a claim to thirty five years later.
As Villa’s campaign finds initial success and a newfound, albeit short-lived, faux-democracy begins to bear fruit, there’s a particularly strong scene where Villa goes to withdraw money from the bank where he’s now keeping it. Unaccustomed to the particularities of how this novel transaction works, he arrives after closing time only to be refused service. His henchman Sierra (a great Leo Carrillo) whacks the cashier over the head with the butt of his gun, killing him, as Villa declares “I’ll be back tomorrow for the interest”. It proves a fateful moment for Villa, the corrupt General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut, itching to twirl his moustache, I bet!) seizing the opportunity to incarcerate him and sentence him to death. Shifting positions of power are hinted at but barely explored, and class issues (whilst clearly apparent) are seconded to traditional notions of goodness and villainy.
There are some intermittently impressive action sequences, mostly as a result of the scale and the sheer number of extras on screen, but they’re often botched in the editing, a nifty tracking shot during the final assault is chopped up with needless cutaways and a mounted camera as Villa leads a stampede has to be viewed through a dominant, scrolling intertitle.
The ‘christ-fool’ Madero, a political figurehead of the revolution who hires Villa, provides the requisite Hawksian bromance, his every line underscored with a recurring romantic motif that soon had me giggling, and Pancho himself makes it clear that he’d rather have the company of him or Sykes over the many ‘wives’ he takes along the way, a false marriage being the only way he can get them to sleep with him. His real wife Rosita may not possess the quick-fire Hawksian patter synonymous with many of his screen creations, but she certainly doesn’t take any shit from him either, issuing him with a 9 o’clock curfew and a slap when his eyes begin to wander.
Viva Villa! may ultimately remain a curiosity in Hawks’ catalogue, a film whose production probably offers more interest than the final product itself, but it’s clearly a real shame he never got to make the film he set out to, whatever that may finally have been, as it still provides glimpses of its potential as both a satirical subversion of the traditional Hollywood historical biopic and also as an account of a time and place in which a nation chose a leader from amongst their own and fought oppression with revolution.
Viva Villa! – 1934 – USA – 110 mins – Dir : Jack Conway

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