Cinema and the Mexican Revolution.
A Filmography


You may say the war is over;
now we all mingle together,
honest people and bandits.
General Francisco Villa

Paco Ignacio Taibo II says that the above quote was the only statement grudgingly wrung from Pancho Villa by the journalists attending the luncheon held on August 4, 1920, in San Pedro de las Colinas, Coahuila, seven days after the signing of his pacification.

Perhaps any revolution, not only the Mexican Revolution, is the moment when “honest people and bandits” take their truest place, radically separate and confront each other. In the Mexican case, the “bandits” set sail for Europe in vessels with strange names such as Ypiranga: they went into exile in Paris, Madrid or New York, waiting for “things to get back on track” to recover their haciendas and businesses; they conspired for Victoriano Huerta to restore “order and progress” by criminal means; they blessed the federal army, on which they pinned their hopes. The “honest people” took up arms, died in combat or survived the revolutionary war to see “honest people and bandits” mingle again, as they returned to their towns and affairs to mull over their memories. What is the place of film in this story? How many cinematic images did the Mexican Revolution bequeath us? How many recreate it with any fidelity? Which are able to evoke its complexity?

The filmography offered by the Filmoteca de la UNAM on the occasion of the Centennial of the Revolution registers 519 titles; 134 national and 86 foreign documentaries, as well as 156 national and 143 foreign fictions. Most of the foreign titles come from the country which most closely surveyed the course of our Revolution: the United States. It is quite probable that many titles have eluded our research, even though we take care to document everything and do not adopt any criteria of exclusion; we include the works of renown professionals as well as those produced by scholars and amateurs.

The merit of this filmography is that it brings together previous efforts by researchers of the stature of Emilio García Riera, Aurelio de los Reyes, Margarita de Orellana, Mario A. Quezada and the archivists at the Filmoteca de la UNAM, who have devoted many years to documenting films about the Revolution. Thus, this collection is a compilation adding a few recent titles, plus what was hidden from those who preceded us in making filmographies of the Revolution, but is now readily accessible thanks to the Internet.

Many of the films mentioned here have disappeared –unfortunately, a great many of the documentaries made at the time—and perhaps are gone forever. All that is left of them is what was written in newspapers and cinematic memoirs of the period: sometimes only the title under which they were shown. Some are awaiting recovery and restoration in forgotten corners and archives. There are many researchers all over the world devoted to this task.

The cinema of the Revolution is an album with many pictures. Hundreds of movies made by Mexicans and foreigners have dealt with the subject for all kinds of  purposes and from the most extreme points of view. On the whole, we can distinguish three main approaches: as newsfeed, filmed at the time of the events; as documentary, once the events occurred attempts to reconstruct the facts; and, finally, fictional films, which nourish from the Revolution as a topic for their plots. This multicoloured mosaic includes anything from images filmed by the direct witnesses, such as Jesús H. Abitia, Salvador Toscano, the Alva brothers, Julio Lamadrid, Lealand J. Burrud, Herbert M. Dean, Carl von Hoffman and William Fox, to the most outlandish versions, such as that in which the mysterious masked wrestler La Sombra (The Shadow) seeks Pancho Villa’s alleged  buried treasure.

The Revolution has been the object of derision and exaltation, of demagoguery and critical examination, of fooling around and of tragedy; cinema has viewed it through the lenses of melodrama, tragedy, comedy, adventure; and, on notable occasions, with a serious and documented historical perspective. Many cinemas have told many revolutions. They all must be thanked for recalling, with all their biases and distortions, that crucial moment, essential to Mexico’s history, in which the armed masses subverted the social order to vindicate their existence and aspirations.

Practically all of the “caudillos” of the Revolution were aware of the power of cinema and wished to use it in their favor: Francisco I. Madero was able to take advantage of the skills of Salvador Toscano and the Alva brothers to project his image after signing the agreements of Ciudad Juárez in 1911. In 1914, Pancho Villa signed the famous exclusive contract with the Mutual Film Company, which served to present a favorable image of his cause in the United States and provided him with fifty thousand dollars he used for supplies for his División del Norte army. Huerta tried to use cameramen from the United States, such as Frank Jones and Fritz Arno Wagner, to illustrate the supposed power and professionalism of the federal army that went from defeat to defeat. Venustiano Carranza used the services of filmmaker George D. Wright, a US citizen living in Mexico, who was an active propagandist for the “First Boss”. Álvaro Obregón had renown photographer Jesús H. Abitia along with him on his eight thousand kilometer campaign trail.

Perhaps only the Zapatista south remained isolated from these cinematic strategies. According to Armando Bartra, the media policy of the Southern Liberating Army decided on Marciano Silva’s “corridos” (songs) printed on very thin paper, which can still be bought in the small town markets of Morelos, Puebla and the State of Mexico. And if there are any film images of insurgent Morelos remaining, it was thanks to the cameras that accompanied President Madero when the “Apostle of Democracy” traveled to Cuernavaca to unsuccessfully try to convince Emiliano Zapata that land was not the most urgent issue of the Revolution. The other motion picture images of the Zapatistas belong to the high point of the Revolution, and perhaps for that reason were inevitable: they witness the arrival to the country’s capital of the Convention armies, with Zapata and Villa at their heads, in the somewhat rushed and unnatural rhythm of 18 frames per second.  

Fictional films tell of other revolutions. Everything goes here: from battles that serve as a backdrop for the ceremonial gestures of screen stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Indio Fernández, Pedro Infante, María Félix, Dolores del Río and Silvia Pinal, to the cinematographic prowess of Gabriel Figueroa, who was determined to show that the Mexican Revolution took place under the most beautiful skies in the world. Struggles and sacrifices that are endorsed by “corridos” sung around the glow of campfires. Film endings in which haughty narrators explain to the spectator that all that bloodshed, so much sweat and tears, was finally justified by social security, splendiferous schools, highways, dams and other public works built by the regimes springing from the historical struggle of 1910. And in the predominant US version, the Revolution is nothing more that a Mexican “señorita” cornered by a lascivious “greaser” in a sombrero, with two cartridge belts crossed over his chest, guns and sabers, who is saved by a handsome young and blonde “Americano”, unquestionably of Hollywood stock.

But the movies about the Mexican Revolution also give rise to many readings. For example: Friedrich Katz ends his book Pancho Villa, by evoking the young Austrian socialists that converted Viva Villa! –the caricatured biography of the revolutionary, narrated in the tone of a Western by Howard Hawks and Jack Conway in 1934 –into a weapon in their fight against the fascist regime.

Hundreds of them gathered at the Kreuzkino, in the center of Vienna, where the film was being shown –according to the historian. When Villa appeared on the screen calling the Mexican peasants to rise up against their oppressors and yelling “Long live the Revolution!”, the Austrian audiences got up from their seats and yelled in turn: “Down with Schuschnigg’s dictatorship! Long live democracy! Long live the Socialist Party!”

Just as each spectator creates her or his own edition from the fragments of films about the Revolution seen over a lifetime to, finally, edit his or her own version, there are some who have tried to materialize their “movie” by weaving in their own fashion the pieces of other people’s creations. While searching for The Life of General Villa –one of the many lost films we referred to earlier—Gregorio Rocha found in the library of the University of Texas at El Paso a very damaged film. It was a get even film, created by Félix and Edmundo Padilla, silent film exhibitors in Texas, who, unsatisfied with the anti Villa portrayals offered by the films they themselves distributed, decided to make La Venganza de Pancho Villa (Pancho Villa’s Revenge), edited with fragments of those same films plus some scenes they shot using their own family and friends as actors with an overtly pro Villa text.

Finally, film has its limits, and no doubt the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, is not all that true. I don’t think there is a stronger, more moving cinematic image, that speaks more clearly of the Mexican Revolution, than the one given to us by dancer Nellie Campobello in Cartucho, the book compiling her childhood memories in Parral, Chihuahua.

Martín López had a card collection –wrote Campobello. On every corner, he would kiss them, cry over them and get drunk. Martín López was a Villista general, he had blue eyes and a skinny body. He would go into the cantinas, walk down the middle of the street, stop in doorways, always with the pictures in his hands; numb with pain he would tell the golden story of bullets. “My brother, here is my brother, look at him, ma’am. This is my brother, Pablo López; he was just executed in Chihuahua; this he is when he got out of the penitentiary, he has a bandage on one leg because he was wounded in Columbus –he would show the first card, with his skinny hand shaking and his blue eyes— here he is before the firing squad, he has a cigar in his mouth, look at him, ma’am, it looks like his crutch will break at any moment. DAMN BULLET HEAVY AS THE GRINGOS. If my brother Pablito hadn’t been wounded, they would never have caught him,” (and snot and tears would form, he would wipe them away with the dirty sleeve of his green coat, missing buttons. And he would go on showing his legacy, as he called it). “Here he is with a cigarette in his hand, he is talking to the troops, my brother was a man; see how he laughs? I have to die like he did, he taught me how Villistas should die. In this one he is about to receive the volley, so many people watching my brother die! Look, ma’am, here, in this one he is already dead. When will I die, so I can die like he did? (he would say, beating his head against the walls). My brother ended like a man, without selling the paths of the chiefs, up in the hills. Long live Pablo López! (he yelled with a coyote howl). Do you know what he did? (he said in a secretive voice). He asked for breakfast, oh, Pablito, you! (he would exclaim, laughing like a child). You know what else? He had them send a gringo away who was in the crowd, he said he didn’t want to die in front of a dog. Pablo López! –Martín yelled up and down the street, tripping over his feet numbed by alcohol – Pablo López! Pablo López!”

Miguel Ángel Berumen found a copy of one of those “cards” that Martín López showed with such pride and pain at the University of California, and included it in his book Pancho Villa, la construcción del mito (“Pancho Villa, Building the Myth”).

Special Collections, University of California at Riverside. Unknown author

Three years after his brother Pablo was executed, on the 13th of June, 1916, Martín López fulfilled his wish and died in battle against Carranza’s forces. As far as we know, no camera witnessed his death. As well as the López brothers, many of the men whose eyes continue to question us each time we look at the photographs and films of the Revolution, died in battle or were executed, being aware that they would die. Can we understand them?

Juan Manuel Aurrecoechea

La Dirección General de Actividades Cinematográficas es una Dependencia adscrita a la
Coordinación de Difusión Cultural de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
y su misión es rescatar, preservar y difundir el cine mexicano en beneficio de la comunidad universitaria y del público en general.