Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Two for Cinco de Mayo: "Vámonos con Pancho Villa" and "Macarío"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As a tribute to Cinco de Mayo this year I ended up watching two Mexican movies. One was a quite remarkable 1936 movie called Vámonos con Pancho Villa (the “official” English translation of the title was Let’s Go with Pancho Villa, which frankly sounds silly: “We’re Going … ” would seem to make more sense), directed and co-written by Fernando de Fuentes and apparently the third of a trilogy of films he made about the 1910-1917 Mexican revolution.

Though Villa appears as a major on-screen character — and the actor who plays him here, Domingo Soler, gives him a good down-home persona hardly comparable to the larger-than-life way Wallace Beery played him in MGM’s ¡Viva Villa! two years earlier, though in a way that makes sense since the MGM film showed Villa mostly as a politician and a would-be lover while Fuentes depicts him almost exclusively as a battle commander — the real central figures of this fllm are six peasants from the village of San Pablo who get tired of being pushed around by the local landowners and decide to retaliate by joining Villa’s army. They’re some of the most incredibly unlikely movie warriors you’ve ever seen — aside from young man Miguel Angel de Toro (Ramón Vallarino), who’s not only hot-looking (he’s introduced with his shirt off being whipped by a government military officer for having sold his carbine rifle to a revolutionary) but has genuine star charisma (didn’t any U.S. studio casting directors see this film? I would think he would have been offered a Hollywood contract immediately if they had!), they’re middle-aged or older, hardly in great shape, and the “training” in Villa’s army consisted almost exclusively of giving the new recruits guns (in some cases not even that, since a good number of them probably brought their own) and having them practice by shooting at cacti. (I joked, “We’re going to continue to fight until every last cactus in Mexico is destroyed!”)

The film starts in a light-hearted mode but gets darker as it progresses and the six “Lions of San Pablo” find that war isn’t the glamorous, glorious proposition they’d always heard it was. According to the notes on this film on, Fuentes had the reputation of being the John Ford of Mexico — and the similarities of this film to Ford’s The Lost Patrol are pretty obvious, though in Ford’s movie the members of the “lost patrol” were at least fully trained soldiers in a disciplined, professional army and they fell victim because they were outnumbered and isolated from the rest of their force, not (as here) because they were brave but not especially competent and were in a rag-tag, ill-disciplined army (when Villa signs them up in the first place he makes them all lieutenants, and later he promotes the survivors to major, even though they’re never shown assuming anything resembling the usual duties of commissioned officers).

Anyway, Vámonos con Pancho Villa is a first-rate movie, gripping and exciting, decently photographed (though it was a surprise to see Gabriel Figueroa’s name on the credits as a camera operator — the director of photography was Jack Draper — since there are very few of the red-filter effects for which Figueroa became famous once he became a d.p. himself) and quite well acted by a cast who, aside from Vallarino, aren’t particularly good looking and would have therefore been relegated to character parts in U.S. films where here they are playing leads, albeit in an ensemble cast. There are almost no women in the dramatis personae — just an old woman making tortillas in the opening sequence (she’s shown being harassed by a government army officer in full uniform and handlebar moustache, which economically tells us how oppressive the government is) and “hostesses” in the cantina sequence later on — and the script, by Fuentes and poet Xavier Villaurrutia from a “novela” by Rafael F. Muñoz (the credit list on translates “novela” as “novel” but Charles told me it really means a short story), is well knit even though a bit predictable in the way it moves from light-hearted action (like the scene in which one of the six fighters lassos an enemy machine gun and drags it to Villa’s lines, albeit at the cost of his own life) to intense drama as well as off-handed brutality we’d never have seen in an American film of the period.

At one point Villa is told that his army has captured a band of musicians from the opposition, and the person who led the capture asks for permission to execute them. Villa asks if there’s anywhere in his operation the musicians can be put to work. He’s told, “Each regiment of ours has its own band,” and he replies, “O.K., go ahead and execute them.” Later there’s a truly bizarre scene in the cantina (where Silvestre Revueltas, the major Mexican classical composer whom Fuentes tabbed to write the score for this film — and, incidentally, the only person involved in it I’d heard of before — plays the piano player, who pulls down a sign saying “Please don’t shoot the piano player” in the middle of a gun battle where he has reason to believe he’s in imminent danger of precisely that fate) when Villa and his men decide to play a bizarre variant of Russian roulette: they’ll load and cock a pistol, have the lights turned out, throw the gun in the air and see who gets shot. (The point of this game, at least according to what we hear from the participants, is to determine who has the most courage and also a response to the unluckiness of there being 13 people at the table.) The fattest and most out of shape of the six “Lions” gets the bullet, and though he’s merely wounded in his chest and not killed, he pulls out his own gun, puts it to his head and finishes the job rather than burden the rest with seeking medical attention for him.

The film’s climax comes the morning after the cantina scene, in which Miguel wakes up with what at first we think is just a hangover, but it quickly turns out that he’s caught smallpox and Villa is told by his doctor that they need to burn Miguel alive and make sure the fire consumes all his belongings as well to keep the smallpox epidemic from spreading throughout the army and wiping it out. Miguel’s friend and the only other remaining “Lion,” Don Tiburcio Maya (Antonio R. Frausto, top-billed), at least grants him the privilege of shooting him first so when his body is consumed by the flames, at least he won’t feel anything (he also kisses him on the lips, which seemed to me a noble gesture but the last thing you’d want to do with someone you’re about to put to death for having smallpox), and the film ends with Don Tiburcio heading home to rejoin his wife and family (in an American movie the fact that he had a wife and family would have made him the first to be eliminated!) and say the Revolution goodbye.

In his introduction to the TCM showing, Robert Osborne said that Vámonos con Pancho Villa was bankrolled by the liberal Mexican government of president Lázaro Cárdenas (it was released under a consortium of films from various Latin American countries) and its box-office failure helped to bring about the Cárdenas government in 1940. (It did not — his term just ran out and, in classic PRI tradition, he was able to hand-pick his successor, Avila Camacho; Mexico did indeed retreat from the radical program of Cárdenas, but much more slowly and evolutionarily.) What the film’s failure did mean was that Fuentes never again made anything remotely this serious; just before he made it he’d shot a musical called Allá en el Rancho Grande, and that film had been a major hit (indeed, it was big enough that the title song became a hit on this side of the border, too!), so Fuentes got the message and directed nothing but light entertainments for the rest of his career — an artistic tragedy if Vámonos con Pancho Villa is any indication of where his true talents lay!

I was worried about what we would follow up this film with — we had enough time in the evening to run two — and when Charles expressed surprise that the promo after Vámonos con Pancho Villa mentioned a film of B. Traven’s Macarío, that was the film I decided to run. It turned out to be every bit as good, albeit in a quirkier way. It takes place while Mexico was still under direct rule from Spain — though the time doesn’t become clear until the ending and it could have been just about any time from the initial conquest to 1960, when it was made — and deals with a desperately poor peasant named Macarío (played by a quite fine actor, Ignacio López Tarso, who’s good looking but not so attractive that we can’t believe him as a peasant) whose main sources of upset are a) that his family never has enough food, and b) that what little food they do have goes mostly to his wife and children, not himself.

Macarío threatens to go on a hunger strike until he gets the right to eat an entire turkey by himself — he’d just been to the local baker and found no bread available because all the man’s ovens are tied up with cooking six turkeys for the home of the local landowner and patron, Don Ramiro (Mario Alberto Rodríguez) — and his wife (Pina Pellicer, who later starred in Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, allegedly had an affair with him and ultimately committed suicide) manages to steal a turkey from Don Ramiro’s property, cook it and give it to him. He goes into the woods to eat it (he makes his living chopping down trees for firewood and she helps out by taking in laundry) and is visited in turn by three spirits, each one wanting a piece of his turkey: the Devil (José Gálvez), who offers him the predictable riches; God (José Luis Jiménez), who wants him just to make a gesture (“action,” the subtitles rather awkwardly translate it); and Death (Enrique Lucero), who takes half the turkey and in exchange opens up a spring that brings forth a magic medicine that enables Macarío to cure people — but not all people; when he administers it Death will appear and stand by either the head or the foot of the sick person’s bed. If Death stands at the person’s feet, that means the cure will work; if Death stands at the head, it means the person is doomed.

Macarío becomes a rich man with his healing powers and goes into partnership with Don Ramiro, who builds a hotel next to Macarío’s clinic to make money off his suffering patients — until the church denounces Macarío as a sorcerer (brujo) and demands that he be executed for blasphemy. Macarío can get out of legal jeopardy if he can cure the viceroy’s son, but he can’t (Death stood at the wrong side of the bed), and at the end of the film it’s revealed that the entire story has been a dream and Macarío himself is dying in the forest where he works. (It’s a tribute to how skillfully this film has been made that this ending doesn’t seem like the outrageous “cheat” it usually does.)

The debt of this film to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (another movie in which Death walks the earth and interacts with normal, non-supernatural people) is pretty obvious — though B. Traven may have written the source story, “The Third Guest,” before Bergman made his film — and where Bergman’s movie is mostly gloomy and angst-ridden, Macarío, directed by Roberto Gavaldón from a script he co-wrote with Emilio Carballido, is a bit heavy-handed in its depiction of the class struggle early on (well, whoever Traven was he was quite radical in his politics, so what did you expect?) but told with a great deal of wit and charm, especially as the supernatural elements of the plot kick in (today this sort of story would be called “magical realism”), and the cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa, despite the rather “soft” print we were watching, is luminous and beautiful, providing a suitable visual style for the story. For someone who’s hardly watched any Mexican cinema (and what I’ve seen has been closer on the quality scale to The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy than either of these films) this excursion into high-end south-of-the-border moviemaking was a welcome and awesome surprise!