Villa Rides is directed by Buzz Kulik and adapted to screenplay by Robert Towne and Sam Peckinpah from the biography of Pancho Villa written by William Douglas Lansford. It stars Yul Brynner, Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Herbert Lom, Maria Grazia Buccella, Robert Viharo and Frank Wolff. Music is scored by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Jack Hildyard.
Film is a fictionalised telling of a period in Pancho Villa's (Brynner) life, primarily his famous involvement in the Mexican Revolution at the start of the 20th Century.
The film that should have been a Peckinpah classic!? Maybe? There is no doubting that had Peckinpah been allowed to direct his own screenplay we would have got a far better, more brutal, Pancho Villa film. In fact if we just had Peckinpah's original screenplay intact and someone like Robert Aldrich to direct, then that surely would have given us a mean and moody biography of one José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (AKA: Francisco Villa or Pancho Villa)? Film history tells us that star Yul Brynner was most displeased with the portrayal of Villa as written on Bloody Sam's page. Brynner wanted, and got eventually, his Villa to be an heroic Robin Hood type man of the people, a romanticised revolutionary as it were. Not the driven bastardo prone to acts of horror and sneak tactics that Peckinpah envisaged for the film.
Brynner laughably cited Peckinpah's lack of Mexican knowledge as reason for getting him off the film, laughable because Peckinpah was married to a Mexican and visited the country regularly! So Peckinpah was off, sold his screenplay to the producers, which was remodelled considerably by Robert Towne & Brynner, and he took much of the ideas from the writing for Villa Rides to craft his masterpiece a year later, The Wild Bunch. In to the director's chair came Buzz Kulik and Brynner got to don a toupee and portray Villa the way he wanted. Although, thankfully, Peckinpah's edginess does manage to flit in and out of the finished product.
Viva Villa! You can't fight for the revolution if you are dead.
What remains for viewing is far better than some would have you believe. True, it's no Western/War classic, some of the politico posturings fail to make a mark because they are not expanded on, and one yearns at times for some Peckinpah grit, grue and grim machinations. There's also casting issues, for although I actually don't mind Brynner as Villa because he attacks the role with fanciful relish, he is generally miscast, while Mitchum manages to get by on laconic charm rather than have a character worthy of putting effort into. But if you can forgive the obvious missteps then it's a good two hours of rip-snorting entertainment.
It's always a question of money with you Gringo.
Kulik (Sergeant Ryker) keeps things lively and proves adept at action directing. The battles scenes are high on quality, particularly for the engagement at Conejos, where stunt men and horses are flung around the place, explosions puncture the air, the artillery on show resplendent as it deals out damage. Hundreds of costumed extras cut a swathe through each other, a plane and a train impact greatly on proceedings, while potent scenes involving the bad things that men do add fuel to the loud expressive fire. Jarre's score is fabulous, Latino flavours mix with high energy thunder to bounce off the burning sun with aural pleasure, while Hildyard keeps the Spanish locales vibrant in colours. Then there's Bronson stealing the movie with his portrayal of Rodolfo Fierro, a man who enjoys killing and tormenting the enemy, with dark humour also etched into his make-up.
Fanciful, fun and fiery, with flaws enough for sure, but still a good time to be had for the genre faithful. 7/10