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Even more noteworthy is the film's writing talent. The ambitious newcomer Robert Towne had done various Roger Corman movies and a polish on Bonnie and Clyde, while the respected Sam Peckinpah was reeling from a directing career stalled after the disaster of Major Dundee. What they concocted for director Buzz Kulik is a crazy quilt of serious themes and cynical spaghetti violence, with a gundown or a battle never more than a few minutes away.
Synopsis: Using a 'borrowed' airplane, American Lee Arnold (Robert Mitchum) runs guns to the Federales. A local blacksmith repairs the plane's landing gear, allowing Lee to meet the lovely Fina (Grazia Buccella). Federale officer Ramirez (Frank Wolff) rapes Fina and executes eight men including her father before Pancho Villa (Yul Brynner) counterattacks. Relieved of his money, Lee is prepared for execution by Villa's second in command, Fierro (Charles Bronson). But Villa bargains with Lee for his services as an aerial spotter and bombardier in a major battle. When Arnold complains that Villa delayed attacking the village to give the people more reason to hate the Federales, the General compensates by marrying Fina, restoring her honor. Unfortunately, Villa has married many women in the same way. More problems come from Villa's political rival General Huerta (Herbert Lom), who plots to ensure that Villa's army is wiped out in battle. The naïve President Madero (Alexander Knox) orders Villa not to cause trouble. Pancho takes a town without firing a shot, only to be arrested and put before a firing squad. Villa is convinced that his beloved President will intervene, but Madero is hundreds of miles away in Mexico City.
Villa Rides! is a big scale action film that falls short of greatness. Peckinpah's script was reportedly dismissed by star Brynner, and rewritten by Robert Towne into a primer about the ruthlessness of revolution. It's loud and violent and more concerned with revolutionary politics than characterization. Pancho Villa is a popular outlaw leader who thinks that mass slaughter is a necessary tool of revolt. He foolishly invests his faith in President Madero, allowing the hateful General Huerta to get the upper hand. By the finish Villa has lost an entire army and his worst enemy is in the President's palace in Mexico City. The solution? Ignite another grass-roots revolt against the usurper. The Mexican people will follow the charismatic Pancho Villa wherever he leads.
All of this is told through the experience of Robert Mitchum's Yankee aviator Lee Arnold, who wants a fast buck but keeps getting sucked into Pancho's idealistic battles. Like a fly on the wall, Arnold witnesses mass hangings and executions while never being particularly important to the plot. His girlfriend is raped and his money stolen, and he spends more than a little of his time hoping that Charles Bronson's trigger happy General Fierro won't use him for target practice.
The impressive production musters hundreds of costumed extras, an armed battle train and exciting aerial sequences with Arnold's WW1 pursuit plane. The pyrotechnics and stunt horse falls are expertly done. Top talent like ace British cinematographer Jack Hildyard put a gloss on all technical aspects, and the cast is quite capable. Director Buzz Kulik gets the job done without showing a great deal of style, however: the money is on the screen but many scenes are perfunctory at best. It perhaps comes down to Kulik's direction of actors, and the basic casting. Yul Brynner's Pancho Villa never seems the least bit Mexican, an observation that also fits Charles Bronson no matter how good he looks in his Mexican costume. Herbert Lom always creates a superior slimy villain, but the interesting actor Frank Wolff plays a Federale officer without even trying a Mexican accent, making the film seem inauthentic from the very beginning. An unexpected casting success is Alexander Knox, a specialist in stuffy English authority figures. Knox is a compelling President Madero, and has a fine time play-acting in a black beard, mustache and wig.
Robert Mitchum made movies either for love or money, and Villa Rides! would seem to be in the latter category. Mitchum's never less than good but he invests little in his character. The curiously non-violent Lee Arnold might have been more interesting if played by a less formidable personality. As he's surrounded by actors half his weight, we keep wondering why Mitchum doesn't stop cowering and punch their lights out.
Charles Bronson's Fierro delights in shooting Federale prisoners for fun and amuses himself by keeping Robert Mitchum off balance with offhand death threats. Fierro is the kind of character who shoots men just to avoid small talk. He even tries out the old 'kill three men with one bullet' trick. As the main love interest, Italian actress Grazia Buccella (After the Fox) has little opportunity to make a strong impression. Seen dancing briefly is Diana Lorys, remembered from Jesus Franco's Spanish horror film Gritos en la noche. Finally, continental star Fernando Rey The French Connection) has a prominent bit as the leader of a firing squad set to execute Pancho Villa.
Villa Rides! is easily differentiated from spaghetti westerns about revolution. 'Committed' Italian directors like Sergio Sollima invariably turned out simplistic morality tales pitting noble peasants against vile capitalists. Peckinpah and Towne's more complex revolutionaries are just as cynical and ruthless as the Federales. The Federales display bright red flags and are called the 'Colorados', encouraging the notion that Villa is fighting communists. Historically speaking, the communists and anarchists involved in the Mexican revolution would definitely have been part of the rebel coalition. Could Franco's Spanish government have mandated the red flag / communist association as a precondition for the use of their army?
The film ends with a slightly awkward coda in El Paso, Texas, where Pancho and his cohorts attempt to re-enlist Lee for another go at overthrowing the third largest nation in North America. John Ireland makes a brief appearance along with the pretty Jill Ireland. Ms. Ireland left her husband David McCallum for Charles Bronson during the filming of The Great Escape. She and Bronson would marry a few months after the release of Villa Rides!.
Legend Films' DVD of Paramount's Villa Rides! is a very good enhanced transfer of elements in fine shape. The only funky shots are the barely-adequate blue screen composites that insert Mitchum into the airplane in flight. Another highlight is Maurice Jarre's spirited, classy score. It's not as lively as his work on The Professionals and some of the more lyrical passages clash with the violent subject matter, but Jarre's music is a definite plus. No extras are included. Unlike most of the other Legend releases, the cover graphic uses original poster art.
For more information about Villa Rides, visit Legend Films. To order Villa Rides, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson