Wallace Beery was a complicated man. He was (from what I have read of him) a nasty customer in many ways - he skirted the edge of the law on several occasions. But he was an entertaining performer, in both drama (CHINA SEAS, THE CHAMP) or comedy (DINNER AT EIGHT, A DATE WITH JUDY). Although his Oscar (in the first tie vote in Academy history - with Fredric March in DR. JECKYL AND MR. HYDE) was for THE CHAMP, in some ways his most sympathetic role was as Pancho Villa in VIVA VILLA.
It is rather curious that this film, the first really serious sound film to study the Mexican Revolution, picked up on Villa as the hero, rather than Francisco Madero, the original leader of the revolution in 1910. Madero appears in the film (played by Henry B. Walthall, in a good performance), but it is Villa's story (or what passes for it). He was more colorful than the unfortunate Madero, now best recalled for his murder in 1913 by General Huerta. Villa was a highly successful bandit (a model for Alfonso Badoya's great bandit in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRES), who did support some amount of social reform for the lower classes - but he never was as committed to it as his southern rival Zapata. In fact, when Villa finally ended fighting the government, he retired to a large landed estate he had acquired.
But he had great color...for good or bad. On one occasion he was giving an interview to a newspaperman, when he noted a drunken soldier who was making too much noise, so that he could not hear the newsman's questions. Quietly, without looking vicious or nasty, Villa took out his gun and shot and killed the soldier. He then resumed the interview with the horrified newsman. Villa was like that. He considered his killing someone like that natural. He was an odd man, very childlike at times, very cunning (to a point rather clever as a military strategist), and highly murderous when angered. He loved women, and would "marry" many to satisfy their scruples if they hesitated having sex with him. This led Theodore Roosevelt to make the rather loopy comment that Villa was an evil murderer and bigamist.
Villa was also the last man in history (prior to Osama Ben Laden's tools) to attack the continental United States. Angered that President Woodrow Wilson stopped supporting him and his men in 1916, Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killing several Americans. The failure of the Carranza government to arrest or catch Villa led Wilson to blunder into Mexican affairs by sending General John Pershing and a large armed force into northern Mexico to catch Villa. Villa led Pershing a merry chase, and finally the Americans had to withdraw in humiliation. Actually that was his highpoint as a public figure. Within two years his army was in ruins and he had to surrender to the government forces. He retired to his ranch, only to be assassinated by personal enemies in 1923.
Beery was not the only actor to play Villa. Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas both played the role in films too. But the Beery film is best in making the Mexican into a tragic hero. He is an overgrown child, who needs a father figure to bring out his best side (briefly found in Madero), and does not fully know when he does wrong. But he also has a sense of right and wrong: witness his willingness to humiliate himself before his enemy General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut), to save lives - only to find that Madero has pardoned him already. Later, when he learns that Madero was betrayed and murdered by Pascal, he captures the General and gives the latter a brutal punishment, but one that the audience fully supports.
His friendship with the John Reed character (Stu Erwin as Johnny Sykes) shows that he was capable of being a more reasonable man, but was troubled by his behavior and his failures. He never did fully deliver the reforms to Mexico that he had pledged Madero he would bring. In the end, as he lays dying, Sykes is there to comfort him - telling him how Mexico will honor his memory. But he dies crying the line in the "summary" line above - what had he done wrong indeed!
Not the historic Villa, but a worthy portrait of a fascinating man.
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