Seeking publicity for his cash-strapped revolution, in 1913 Pancho Villa invited an American movie studio to tell his (highly romanticized) life story and film his troops in (real-life) action against the Mexican army. While no print still exists of groundbreaking results -- the most expensive (and first feature-length) movie of its day, the first movie to feature live battlefield footage, and a film that turned the tide of public opinion in the US -- the story behind the movie makes for a great story of its own.
The audience's surrogate on the scene is a weightless junior studio executive (played by a Tim Matheson look-alike Eion Bailey) who is saddled with most of the film's clunky expository dialogue and obligatory reservations about turning Villa into a hero. But an impassioned, rough-and-tumble Antonio Banderas embodies the bravado of the title role perfectly, without shying away from his ruthless Robin Hood's brutality and hypocrisy as he sacks the haciendas of rich land owners while making deals with millionaire movie producers, whose commercial concerns begin to usurp Villa's cause.
Director Bruce Beresford ("Double Jeopardy") turns in terrific battle scenes and achieves a respectable level of authenticity in this fascinating tidbit of cinematic and political history. (DVD includes an informative commentary by writer-producer Larry Gelbart and a behind-the-scenes featurette.)
DVD RATING: ***
THE FILM: ***
-- By Rob Blackwelder