VILLA RIDES! (1968) blu-ray review
written by: Robert Towne and Sam Peckinpah (from a novel by William Douglas Lansford
produced by: Ted Richmond
directed by: Buzz Kulik
runtime: 125 min.
U.S. release date: May 29, 1968
DVD/blu-ray release date: october 18, 2016
With the recent remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and HBO’s reimagining of “Westworld”, there may be some who are curious about actor Yul Brenner’s career, since his name is synonymous with the original releases of those both those properties. I found myself drawn to “Villa Rides!”, because of a newfound curiosity in Brenner and also due to the actors he teams up with in his return to the western genre here. It’s a loud and ambitious movie that was written by the likes of Robert Towne and Sam Peckinpah, both of whom are adapting William Douglas Lansford’s novel Pancho Villa, about the Mexican revolutionary general. Based on that and Brenner’s top-billing, you can guess who’s playing Villa in this movie from Buzz Kulik – a guy who directed nine episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, “Brian’s Song” and Steve McQueen’s last movie “The Hunter”.
Because there can’t be a Hollywood movie solely focused on the Mexican revolution (circa 1913) without a white dude horning in, “Villa Rides!” introduces us to gun-running Texan, Lee Arnold (Robert Mitchum), who “borrowed” a plane from El Paso to deliver guns to the Federales (called the Colorados here, for some reason). He’s got no beef with what they do with the weapons, he’s solely in it for the money. After he collects his payment from General Ramirez (Frank Wolff “Once Upon a Time in the West”), Arnold realizes his landing gear is in need of repair and is pointed to the local humble village in search of a blacksmith to assist him. Arnold is told by the General that his opposition is the revolutionary outlaw named Pancho Villa and his followers, but once he gets to know the blacksmith and his alluring daughter, Fina (Grazia Buccella “After the Fox”), he begins to see who the bad guys really are.
Arnold befriends the blacksmith’s family and is caught up in a sudden raid on the village, led by the General (he DID warn the gringo to get in-and-out quickly) who winds rapes Fina and hangs eight villagers, including the blacksmith. The story is seen from the gateway perspective of Arnold so far, who is depicted as a non-violent self-serving pacifist who’d just to collect his money and fly home.
However, when the nearby Francisco “Pancho” Villa (Yul Brenner) learns that Arnold is the one who’s been supplying Ramirez with weapons, he has his right-hand man, Fierro (Charles Bronson, in his first role wearing his trademark mustache) lock up the gringo with his captured Colorados, stripping him of the payment from the General. Upon further thought, Villa changes his mind about Arnold, realizing Arnold’s pilot skills could serve him well in his battle against the General and his Colorados. Arnold agrees, knowing it’ll keep him alive and also since his newfound understanding of the political climate has him siding with Villa and his gang, despite his dislike of the trigger-happy Fierro. However, he does share his building resentment for Villa after learning that the outlaw could’ve prevented the hangings and rape of the girl he Arnold is sweet on. Villa’s responds by having a local priest marry Fina – apparently his answer to any sexual assaulted woman he encounters, designed to now make her “honorable”.
Villa has a lot more on his mind though. As a loyal supporter of President Madero (Alexander Knox “The Longest Day”) who cozily resides in his Mexico City palace, Villa is conflicted by his president’s backing of Villa’s supposed ally but technical rival, General Huerta (Herbert Lyon “A Shot in the Dark”), who is determined to not only eliminate the Colorados, but Villa and his army as well. Little does Villa and his president know that Huerta is secretly plotting against them, ensuring that Villa will be eliminated. Despite the president ordering Villa to fall in line and take orders from Huerta, the stubborn and resilient winds up in front of a firing squad, hoping to be rescued by his beloved president.
Originally, Peckinpah was hired to write and direct “Villa Rides!”, but Brynner apparently hated the character’s portrayal in Peckinpah’s screenplay. According to Brynner, the characterization of Pancho Villa was too similar to the brutality of his opponents and not enough of a hero for the people. There were several unused scenes from Peckinpah’s screenplay, one of which involved Villa hanging a boy as well as the character’s mental breakdown after being captured by Huerta. Brenner wasn’t having any of that. When Towne rewrote the script, it was more to Brynner’s pleasing, characterizing Villa as someone passionate for Mexico’s downtrodden and a bandit who justifies his immoral/murderous behavior.
Brenner was set in his ways and used to getting what he wanted, famously used to butt heads with his costars. It’s reported that Mitchum didn’t get along all that well with the actor on the set. It’s also reported that Mitchum didn’t think all that much of Bronson, so you can imagine what a cheery set this must have been. Although Brynner is kind of limited in his acting ability (and that’s okay), he is, without a doubt, kind of limited and that’s okay – there is no denying his magnetic screen presence. Of course, believability in Brynner’s portrayal takes getting used to his appearance, since the typically bald and clean-shaven actor initially comes across like a costumer with his black hair and a Pancho Villa stache. Regardless, both Brynner and Bronson excel at portraying charismatic and manipulative, even sadistic, characters that we can both root for and abhor.
Mitchum is something else entirely. Again, he serves as our gateway character – introducing viewers to who’s who and what’s what. Having never seen “Villa Rides!” prior to this blu-ray release, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance – in character and appearance – to Han Solo and Indiana Jones. His moral code parallels the same arc we see Harrison Ford’s iconic role in the first “Star Wars” movie – a scoundrel in it for the money, but eventually won over by the plight of the rebellion. At the same time, he’s kind of dressed like Ford’s famous archeologist with his khakis, white shirt, leather bomber and brown fedora. It’s highly doubtful George Lucas was thinking of the character Mitchum is playing here when he created Ford’s most recognizable roles, but the resemblance is kind of uncanny.
Brynner and Mitchum make for a fine oil and water pairing, which helps their characters hesitant trust show on-screen. The scene where Villa explains why he deliberately delayed he and his men from coming to the villager’s rescue during the hangings stands out as a needed encounter between Brynner and Mitchum’s characters. Villa explains that he allowed Ramirez to hang the men in order to generate natural hatred for the Colorados and earn support for Villas’s agenda. It’s a crafty and cruel, leaving Arnold impressed and disgusted and Villa’s tactics.
The brutality in the film is never gratuitous but it is nevertheless unsettling in its situational casual manner. This is especially seen in a sequence where Bronson’s Fierro plays with the Colorado prisoners (and Mitchum’s Arnold), stating if they can run and make their way over a wall then they are free – unless they’re shot to death by Fierro. It’s a deadly and cruel game, but it’s also believable based on our familiarity with the war and western genres. As much as Arnold criticizes Villa’s approach, the revolutionary outlaw replies with a potent retort, “You know you amaze me, gringo. You run guns and you don’t carewho gets killed so long as you get paid. And you don’t have to watch. It must be a terrible thing, to kill men without hating them.” “Villa Rides!” may not get into the intricate nuances of the title character, but moments like these add unexpected dimensions to the role.
“Villa Ride!” isn’t all blatant cruelty and violence though, there are some character moments that serve to balance out the picture with some machismo humor that’s also typical of the genre. This can be found in one particular scene where Villa orders Fierro to accompany Arnold on a flight over their enemy to ensure that the gringo won’t just fly off. After giving the airplane a once-over, Fierro concludes he will not due it and tells Villa exactly that quite bluntly. Villa believes anybody can learn to fly a plane and hops in himself and after only a few minutes of instruction from Arnold, flies the plane about five feet off the ground for a hot second and then lands without a hitch to the applause of his soldiers. It’s a solid demonstration of Villa’s brazen courage and leadership strength.
It’s ironic and actually even more heroic than to portray Villa as something of a tragic character whose loyalty to his country finds limited by the tight leash that President Madero has him on. He winds up being a frustrated and conflicted rebel, akin to a loyal yet wounded dog whose master continuously beats him into submission.
Filmed in Spain and Mexico, “Villa Rides!” has some convincing sets and utilizes its geography well, especially a horseback battle scene against the Colorados wherein Armold’s aerial assistance is first put to use. The rest of the cast is rounded out by appearances from Fernando Rey (“The French Connection”), Julio Peña, Diana Lorys (“The Awful Dr. Orloff”), and then, six minutes toward the end, an unbilled John Ireland can be seen in a cafe with Jill Ireland (no relation). Jill would hook up with Bronson after this movie and eventually marry and star in several movies together.
It’s a delight to find that one of my favorite composers, Maurice Jarre, wrote the lush romantic score with certain jaunty theme that can be heard in various forms throughout. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard (known for his work on “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), who had previously lensed an action-adventure film with Brynner, “The Long Duel”, released the year before, does a fine job at capturing the aerial acrobats of Arnold’s piloting and allows viewers to easily follow the wide-open battlefields.
As usual with Olive Films blu-ray releases, “Villa Ride!” features a static menu with Chapter selections and a an option for English subtitles. The transfer here is quite crisp and vibrant and will sound great on the right home sound system. For loyalists of Brynner, Mitchum and Bronson and Peckinpah, “Villa Rides!” is worth checking out. They were certainly the draw for me here, not knowing what to expect. As a fan of war movies and the western genre, I wasn’t disappointed to see these actors together, despite the inconsistencies of Mexican accents and was pleasantly entertained.