La Venganza de Pancho Villa (ca. 1930), which was named to the National Film Registry in 2009 is an eerie text. It is haunted by images from two national cinematic traditions and most insistently by the persona of revolutionary hero/border bandit, Pancho Villa who appears in the film in the bodies of Anglo American actors playing Villa-like characters and in documentary footage and photographs as himself. The film’s maker Felix Padilla (who worked with his adult son Edmundo on the project) repurposed reels of American and Mexican silent films that he had in the collection of films he used in his itinerant exhibition business to create his own “bio-pic” of Villa. Here Villa and his men confront American forces—a confrontation that never actually happened. As spectators we’re asked here and throughout the film to identify with Villa and his men. In complete contradiction to the source text Padilla uses, their assault on American forces and the deaths of American soldiers are positioned as a triumph rather than an outrage. This alternative reading is underscored by the bilingual intertitle that reads (in Spanish) “The Villistas destroyed the entire regiment” and (in English) “The Americans die like heroes.”
The film is also haunted by the history of race relations in the U.S.-Mexico border. In the short sequence that comes after this battle sequence, Padilla has repurposed Hearst Newsreel footage for comic effect. Black American soldiers captured at the Battle of Carrizal, a battle between the U.S. troops including members of the African American 10th cavalry regiment and carrancista troops. Here Padilla leaves to the side the delight that the skirmish must have brought Villa who had no love for Carranza, and instead mobilizes intertitles to designate these men “to joke “those who didn’t lose their lives lost their pants.” Though it is true that they are American soldiers, their racial identities point to an often unacknowledged and rarely visualized history of race in the border region that extends beyond a white-Mexican binary. The joke itself turns on the juxtaposition between visual and verbal representations of their abjection. This sequence (as well as others in the film that depict gendered violence) complicates the film’s anti-imperialist message.
good ol' Pancho
Pancho Villa is such a compelling character through which to look at the border — equal parts loved and hated, hero and villain — I almost think an entire week could be devoted to him. So I'm not surprised Padilla built this compilation film around him. Mostly I find this film to be a great media representation of the border as perspective: the repurposing of footage for different aims — in fact, the complete opposite aims — as an adroit instance of "looking from the other side." I'll definitely have to check it out.
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