From the Vaults — ‘Vamonos Con Pancho Villa!’

Vamanos con Pancho Villa
Note: This is an encore post from 2011.

“Vamonos Con Pancho Villa!” (“Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!”) is the surprisingly dark, roughly hewn story of six friends who call themselves “the lions of San Pablo” and join the Mexican Revolution as much for the adventure as the idealism. “Vamonos” is a study in the progression from loyalty to blind obedience and from courage to being tragically foolhardy.

The 1936 Mexican film was directed by Fernando de Fuentes from a novel by Rafael F. Muñoz and portrays Villa as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer who nonetheless is adored by his thousands of rag-tag troops. “Vamonos” is a bleak film of increasingly senseless violence and the alternative ending included on the DVD raises the bloodshed to the impossibly surreal.

Vamanos con Pancho Villa At right, writer Rafael F. Muñoz plays Martín Espinosa, who is shot to death while lighting bombs and throwing them at a fort.

When I subscribed to Netflix several years ago, I randomly chose early movies from nearly every foreign country that was listed   as a supplement to the usual Hollywood fare, assuming that most of these pictures would be subtitled (so far, so good). With a queue of several hundred films, I slowly worked my way through some early Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa before embarking on a string of Mexican productions.

This isn’t a film course, so I intentionally know little more about these movies than if I had wandered into a theater where they were playing. “Vamonos” arrived in the mail the other day and here we are. The battered quality of this obviously unrestored print is silent testimony to the popularity of “Vamonos.” The alternative ending is in even worse condition.

Vamanos con Pancho Villa
People hold out their hats so Pancho Villa (Domingo Soler) can fill them with corn. Today, I am giving you corn, but one day I shall give you land, he says.

Despite the title, Villa (Domingo Soler) is a minor player in the story. Except for an early scene in which he is handing out food to his hungry followers, he does little more than enter, give orders and leave, and although he is idolized by his troops,  we never see why. To the contrary, Villa becomes increasingly cavalier about men’s lives. Should they execute the musicians who were taken prisoner? Villa protests, but when he is informed that every unit already has a band, he gives permission as if he were throwing away a scrap of paper.

Vamanos con Pancho Villa

Miguel Ángel del Toro (Ramón Vallarino), whom Villa  nicknames  “Becerrillo” because of his youth.

Lack of character definition is one of the main problems of “Vamonos.” Of the six friends (including Muñoz, whose character is the second to die) only three are sharply defined: Tiburcio (Antonio R. Frausto) the natural leader of the group; Melitón Botello (Manuel Tamés) nicknamed Fatso, who serves as comic relief; and Miguel Ángel del Toro (Ramón Vallarino), who is  nicknamed  “Becerrillo” (“calf”) as a play on Toro (“bull”). The rest are just a few of the anonymous masses of men in sombreros and cartridge belts.

Vamanos con Pancho Villa
In their scope, some of the scenes in “Vamonos” are as impressive as anything in “Lawrence of Arabia.” The print is badly damaged, with deep scratches in the emulsion.

Neither the story nor the production is subtle. The blood flows freely and after some rudimentary foreshadowing with a scene in which the friends discuss heroes’ deaths and funerals, it’s easy to pencil out the rest of the story.

But to say that “Vamonos” is primitive is not to imply that it is crude. Some shots involving masses of men are as impressive as anything from “Lawrence of Arabia.” It is disarming to be watching a scene so rough it could be a documentary and suddenly realize that the camera is on tracks. The score, by the prominent composer Silvestre Revueltas, sums up the problems of the film. The playing (by the National Symphony Orchestra, no less) is so ragged in spots that it’s impossible to tell what the music is like.

Vamanos con Pancho Villa
In one of the most powerful images from the film, Villa examines Máximo Perea (Raúl de Anda),  who is mortally wounded when he captures an enemy machine gun by riding up on horseback and lassoing it.

Toward the end of the movie, the characters’ bravery descends into foolhardiness and beyond. Better to die in a version of Russian roulette than to be considered a coward. If a superior officer orders you to burn a friend’s possessions (and the friend – who is still alive) because he has smallpox, you obey. I am not an expert on Villa, so I cannot say whether these plot turns are accurate, but they are memorable.

The alternative endings offer drastically different conclusions to “Vamonos.” In the film’s current form,  Tiburcio is the sole survivor, still loyal to the cause even as he is left behind by Villa’s advancing forces. In the alternative ending, even he dies by the gun – but the adoration of Villa is passed to the next generation.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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