Pancho Villa — hero, villain, military genius, or bandit? A little of them all, posits Villa Rides!, a western action film starring Yul Brynner in the title role, supported by Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Herbert Lom, and a probable toupee.
Director Buzz Kulik isn’t particularly well known, in part because most of his work was for television. Despite this, he boasts a rather hefty filmography of mostly lesser action flicks and TV movies (Brian’s Song being a notable exception). Villa Rides!, though, is not only very entertaining, but a rare Western on his filmography.
While Pancho Villa is the thematic focus at the film’s center, it’s aviator and gunrunner Lee Arnold (Robert Mitchum) around whom the plot revolves. Arnold, a fictional character loosely based on a historical personage, is effectively the audience surrogate used to introduce us to Villa, with their complex relationship revealing different aspects of Villa’s personality.
At the onset, the mercenarial Arnold is supplying Colorado forces with stolen weapons to combat the notorious bandit Pancho Villa. Following a shipment in which his plane is damaged, Arnold visits a Mexican village to contract help with the repairs, in the process befriending a kind blacksmith and his family, even romancing the man’s beautiful daughter. The villagers support Villa, providing some new moral context to the struggle. Shortly after, Colorado forces – the very same group to whom Arnold just sold guns – raid the village on a spree of rape and murder, shattering the lives of Arnold’s new friends and forcing him to reassess his stance in the struggle.
Pancho Villa’s forces arrive to dispel the raiders, but they’re no more inclined to show Arnold mercy, knowing that he has supported their enemies. But Villa, recognizing the value of having an airplane and its pilot in his arsenal, spares his life. And thus begins a complex and quarrelsome relationship of distrust and mutual admiration between the two men.
Rounding out the triangle of leads is Charles Bronson as Villa’s right-hand man Rodolfo Fierro. An amoral, trigger-happy gunslinger, he takes an immediate disliking to Arnold, and the developing camaraderie of Arnold and Villa only serves to deepen his sense of rivalry. Fierro considers Arnold selfish and lacking in principle, while Arnold sees Fierro as a wantonly cruel murderer. Neither are wrong.
These moral quandaries create one of the film’s more interesting aspects. While at times lighthearted and adventurous, the film doesn’t seem to shy from darker material, or the moral deficiencies of its characters. There’s a vicious rape that takes place just off-camera, and many of the bandits’ kills – such as those of unarmed POWs – are basically murder. Villa himself is portrayed as both bandit and hero, and one of the major moral dilemmas is that he deliberately allowed the village of the film’s first act to be raided. He patiently waited to step in until many innocents had died, knowing that thirst for revenge would steel the villagers’ resolve and make them loyal to him. Astonishingly, the film was actually toned down from an even more vicious and cruel vision to have been directed by Sam Peckinpah, who co-wrote the script.
The film is mostly centered on the characters and only has a few action beats, but the major battle sequence is an impressive one, a large-scale clash featuring both both cavalry and aerial combat, and a 100% real plane crash stunt.
My only real criticism of the film, other than the crime of hiding Yul Brynner’s glorious dome under an apparent toupee, is that the character of Arnold is so flimsy. There’s a “two steps forward, one step back” angle to his character development. Sometimes he shows incredible courage, other times he’s a total weenie. There’s not much logic to which are which. He’s terrible at picking his battles, showing defiance when it matters little, yet failing to fight for the love of a great woman whom, frankly, he doesn’t even deserve.
Overall, though, I found Villa Rides! pretty enjoyable, even better than expected, with special attention to the memorable score by Maurice Jarre which deserves great praise. The film doesn’t provide much context to the political implications or motivations of the Revolution, perhaps assuming the audience knows about the historical aspects than I do. In one sense this is negative – a lack of meaningful context, after all – but the film focuses on the characters instead, and the lack of distraction is not necessarily a bad thing.
I’m not sure what the appeal of this film might be to casual viewers. But fans of westerns, or of the three primary actors involved, would do well to check this out. Despite its flaws, I certainly enjoyed it and am glad to have it.
A straighforward, barebones release packages in a flat-spined Blu-ray case. The cover features the very cool original poster art but is otherwise unadorned.
No special features or extras are included. Kudos to Olive for including subtitles, though, addressing a common complaint I have about many of their releases.
The film’s video quality is a bit soft, but in line with expectations of a film of this vintage.