Searching for Pancho Villa… et. al.
It’s often said that the first casualty of war is the Truth. Perhaps the final casualty is our memory. Although the Mexican Revolution was much more than a military conflict (in reality, a series of military conflicts) involving radically conflicting visions of what it meant to be a nation in the 20th century — the forerunner of both the better known European ideological conflicts beginning with the Russian Revolution, and of the later struggles against colonialist and neo-colonialist exploitation — our “memory” of what happened a century ago is rooted in what was memorialized at the time.
But images of ideological struggles are likely to be rather dull, and do not capture the public imagination the way those of armed conflict do. Although wars had been photographed as far back as the American Civil War, and there was always a market for such images, moving pictures were still something of a novelty in 1910 when the first phase of the Mexican Revolution, conveniently close to the United States border, created an ideal climate for presenting at least a vicarious look at war for those safely distant from the realities of the conflict. Until 1917, when the United States entered the European “Great War”, U.S. audiences were positively thrilled to follow the conflict “south of the border” at movie houses and theaters. Pancho Villa, as everyone knows, signed a contract with The Mutual Film Company, to have a film made about his life and struggles. That film played throughout the United States, at “premiere” venues (sometimes charging the then outrageous price of $2.00 a ticket — about $50 today) for a glimpse of Villa and his army.
While “The Life and Times of Pancho Villa” is probably the best known film of the era, there were others, and Villa was not the only caudillo to recognize the propaganda power of the new media. Zapata, Obregón, and even Victoriano Huerta cooperated with foreign film crews: Huerta, perhaps ahead of his time, offered to rent out the entire Federal Army to film directors seeking to make epic war pictures Made mostly by U.S. companies, while we see today only clips and segments of the films, the stories they told reflect the contemporary U.S. perspective of Mexico… while, simultaneously, creating impressions of Mexico that last to this day. The creative and progressive upheavals of the Revolution were washed out by cannon fire and lost in a wilderness of cactus and desert landscapes. Although some European directors also tried to tell the story, they too, imposed their own meanings on the Revolution. A Dutch film of 1916, with a pro-British slant, played up the story of the Zimmerman Note, and portrayed Mexico not as a nation fighting for its own identity, but as a pawn in the European conflict.
And then… with audiences turning their attentions away from Mexico… or — having seen the Mexico projected by what was then “mass media” forgot all but the stereotypes. The films themselves were forgotten, and — their commercial value reduced by changing audience demands — scrapped.
Directed by Gregorio Rocha, and produced by the University of Guadalaja, “Los rollos perditos de Pancho Villa” explores the search for the missing Villa film through archives and collections in Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Europe. Along the way, researcher Frank Katz uncovers scraps and pieces of other unknown films, telling the story of the story of the imaginings of the seminal event in Mexico history.
Sombrero tip to Tony VillaZapata, who uploaded this film in four videos.