Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.

The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that sage old aphorism more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico ever since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself at war with several contending rebel forces – most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa. The three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for several things: its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion, and – north of the Rio Grande, at least – its unusual film deals. Specifically, it’s remembered for the bizarre contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this deal, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras – in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold.

In one sense, even at this early date, there was nothing especially surprising about Pancho Villa (or anyone else) inking a deal that allowed news cameras access to the areas that they controlled. Newsreels were a coming force. Cinema was growing rapidly in popularity; attendances at nickelodeons had doubled since 1908, and an estimated 49 million tickets were sold each week in the US by 1914. The idea that each entry guaranteed access to a whole programme of films had been born, so the customers flocking to the movies expected to see some news alongside the melodramas and comedy shorts that were the staples of early cinema – the more dramatic the better. And there were obvious advantages in controlling the way in which the newsreel men chose to portray the Revolution, particularly for Villa, whose main bases were close to the US border.

No, what made Villa’s contract so odd was its terms, or at least the terms it was said to have contained. Here’s how the agreement he reached with the Mutual Film Company is usually described:

In 1914, a Hollywood motion picture company signed a contract with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in which he agreed to fight his revolution according to the studio’s scenario in return for $25,000. The Hollywood crew went down to Mexico and joined Villa’s guerrilla force. The director told Pancho Villa where and how to fight his battles. The cameraman, since he could only shoot in daylight, made Pancho Villa start fighting every day at 9.00am and stop at 4.00pm – sometimes forcing Villa to cease his real warring until the cameras could be moved to a new angle.

As a tale, it sounds a bit outlandish – not to say unworkably impractical. But it quickly became common currency.  Indeed, the story of Pancho Villa’s brief Hollywood career has been retold so often it’s been turned into a movie of its own. [Rocha]  It sometimes includes elaborations; it is said that Villa agreed that no other film companies would be permitted to send representatives to the battlefield, and that, if the cameraman did not secure the shots he needed, the División del Norte would re-enact its battles later. And while the idea that there was a strict ban on fighting outside daylight hours is always mentioned [De Los Reyes p.113], that prohibition is sometimes extended; in another, semi-fictional, re-imagining, Villa tells Raoul Walsh, the early film director who certainly did travel to Mexico to shoot newsreels: “Don’t worry, Don Raúl. If you say the light at four in the morning is not right for your little machine, well, no problem. The executions will take place at six. But no later. Afterward we march and fight. Understand?” [Bethell p.459]  Whatever the variations in the story, though, it ends the same way. There’s always this sting in the tale:

When the completed film was brought back to Hollywood, it was found too unbelievable to be released – and most of it had to be reshot on the studio lot.

This post is an attempt to uncover the truth about a little-known incident – and, as it turns out, it’s a story that is well worth telling. But, researching it, I found that the tale of Pancho Villa and his binding contract informs the broader and altogether more significant question how just how “true” other early newsreels are. So this is also a post about some fundamental issues that affect all historians, whether they’re writing books or shooting documentaries. And it’s about the borderlands where truth meets fiction, too, and the problematic lure of the entertaining story. Finally, it deals in passing with the odd way that fictions can become real, if they are rooted in the truth and enough people believe in them.

So… Understanding the Mexican Revolution means realising that it was an unusually early example of a 20th century “media war”: a conflict in which the opposing generals duked it out not only on the battlefield, but also in the newspapers and in cinema scenarios. At stake, in this particular instance, were the hearts and minds of the government and people of the United States – who could, if they so wished, intervene decisively on behalf of one side or the other. Because of this, the Revolution also saw propaganda evolve from the crude publication of rival “official” claims into more subtle attempts to control the views of the journalists and cameramen who flooded into Mexico seeking news. The result was a rich stew of truth, falsity and fanciful reconstruction as reporters struggled to report. Most, after all, were monoglot Americans; most were inexperienced, and almost all were at least as much interested in making a name for themselves as they were in unpicking the impenetrable tangle of half-baked policies and shifting allegiances that distinguished the Federales from the Villistas from the Zapatistas.

“There was plenty of bias…”

There was plenty of bias: in general, in the form of prejudice against the despised Mexican “greasers”, and in particular as well; several American media owners had extensive commercial interests in Mexico, and William Randolph Hearst, who controlled vast tracts of land in northern Mexico, wasted no time in pressing, through his newspapers, for American intervention when his estates were plundered by Villa and he lost 60,000 head of cattle. [De Orellana pp.17, 80]  There was eagerness to file ticket-selling, circulation-boosting sensation, too; Villa himself was frequently portrayed as “a monster of brutality and cruelty” – particularly later in the war, when he had the temerity to cross the border and raid the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Much was exaggerated. One contemporary magazine noted, with a jaundiced eye:

“Battles” innumerable have been fought, scores of armies have been annihilated, wiped out, blown up, massacred and wholly destroyed according to the glowing reports of commanders on either side, but the supply of cannon fodder does not appear to have diminished appreciably… Never was there a war in which more gunpowder went off with less harm to the opposing forces.”

[Literary Digest, 16 May 1914; Katz p.323]

Pancho Villa (seated, in the presidential chair) and Emiliano Zapata (seated, right, behind sombrero) in the national palace in Mexico City, November 1914.

What is certain is that fierce competition for “news” produced a situation ripe for exploitation on the Mexican side. All three of the principal leaders of the period – Villa, Zapata and the Federal generalissimo Victoriano Huerta – saw advantages in manipulating American opinion, and each sold access, the opportunity for adventure, and eventually themselves to US newsmen. In exchange for granting permission for journalists to accompany their forces, they sought opportunities to cultivate their images – whether portraying themselves as suitably presidential or as socially responsible agrarian revolutionaries – and hence attempted to position themselves as worthy recipients of foreign aid.

It was Huerta who got things off and running, compelling the cameramen who filmed his campaigns to screen their footage for him so that he could censor it. [De Orellana pp.22-4]  But it was Villa who – operating with the great advantage of controlling territory butting up against the US border – did most to maximise his opportunities. The upshot, four years into the war, was the rebel general’s acceptance of the Mutual Film contract.

It was the New York Times (7 January 1914) that broke the news:

Pancho Villa, General in Command of the Constitutionalist Army in Northern Mexico, will in future carry on his warfare against President Huerta as a full partner in a moving-picture venture with [Mutual’s] Harry E. Aitken… The business of Gen. Villa will be to provide moving picture thrillers in any way that is consistent with his plans to depose and drive Huerta out of Mexico, and the business of Mr Aitken, the other partner, will be to distribute the resulting films throughout the peaceable sections of Mexico and to the United States and Canada.

Pancho Villa wearing the special general’s uniform provided for him by Mutual Films.

There is nothing in this first report, you’ll notice, to suggest that the contract was anything more than a broad agreement guaranteeing privileged access for Mutual’s cameramen. A few weeks later, though, came word of a major engagement. This was the Battle of Ojinaga, a northern town defended by a force of 5,000 Federales, and for the first time there were hints that the contract did include some special clauses. Several newspapers reported that Villa had only captured Ojinaga after a short delay occasioned by the need to wait until Mutual’s cameramen were in position. [De Orellana pp.47-8]

The rebel leader certainly proved himself willing to accommodate Mutual in lesser ways. The New York Times reported that he had meekly acceded to one of the film company’s more surreal requests, donning a comic opera general’s uniform run up especially for him. Villa had always preferred to dress casually for battle, favouring an ancient jumper worn under a dusty jacket that made him anything but the imposing figure conjured up by newspaper reporting. Mutual solved this problem by creating special outfit which Villa was required to change into when posing for them. As an extra twist, the uniform remained the property of Mutual, and Villa was forbidden to wear in front of any other cameramen. [New York Times, 14 February 1914]  There is also decent evidence that elements of the División del Norte were pressed into service to stage re-enactments for the cameras. Raoul Walsh recalled Villa gamely shooting take after take of a scene “of him coming towards the camera. We’d set up at the head of the street, and he’d hit that horse with a whip and his spurs and go by at ninety miles an hour. I don’t know how many times we said ‘Despacio, despacio,‘ – slow, señor, please!’ [Brownlow, War pp.101-02]

In some respects, Villa’s association with Mutual clearly benefited both parties. Walsh’s colleague Charles Rosher, who was Mutual’s lead cameraman, recalled one typically trying incident: “Villa tried hard to be a director. He told me to film the funeral of a general. Villa’s enemies, the Federal forces, had executed him by tying him to the tracks and driving a train over him. The funeral spread over three days. I didn’t have enough film for half a day. So I cranked the camera without any film in it. It was all I could do. I didn’t want to be shot.” [Brownlow, Parade p.224]  But, that said, there is little evidence that Villa made any attempt to “direct,” or censor, the remainder of Mutual’s output. The mysterious contract between the rebel leader and Mutual Films, likewise, proves to have been a good deal less proscriptive than it’s popularly supposed to have been. The only surviving copy, unearthed in a Mexico City archive by Villa’s biographer Friedrich Katz, turns out to lack all the eye-opening clauses that have made it famous: “There was absolutely no mention of reenactment of battle scenes or of Villa providing good lighting. What the contract did specify was that the Mutual Film Company was granted exclusive rights to film Villa’s troops in battle, and that Villa would receive 20% of all revenues that the films produced.” [Katz p.325]

A contemporary newspaper speculates on the likely consequences of the appearance of newsreel cameras at the front. New York Times, 11 January 1914.

The notion of a contract that called for war to be fought Hollywood-style, in short, is nothing but a myth, though that need not mean that no sort of more advanced co-operation between the Mexicans and Mutual was considered desirable. The New York Times warned at the time that the agreement added “an extremely incongruent note” to the Mexican war, and hazarded that “if Villa wants to be a good business partner… he will have to make a great effort so that the cameramen can carry out their work successfully. He will have to make sure that the interesting attacks take place when the light is good and the killings are in good focus. This might interfere with military operations that, in theory, have other objectives.” [New York Times, 8 January 1914]  A Spanish-language newspaper, similarly, condemned Villa for “speculating with the blood of Mexicans.” [De Orellana p.46]

That no such compromises seem to have actually occurred in practice, and that the Mutual contract seems to have outlived its usefulness for both parties within a matter of weeks, actually says something very interesting about the early days of war photography, however. As early as the end of February, it seems, Mutual switched its attentions from shooting documentary footage to creating a fictional movie about Villa which would incorporate stock shots obtained by the newsreel men for added authenticity. This movie, The Life of General Villa, was actually completed, and its production probably explains how those rumours that Mutual’s newsreel footage “had to be reshot in the studio lot” got started. The movie premiered in New York in May 1914, and turned out to be a typical melodrama of the period. Villa was given an “acceptable” background for a hero – in real life he and his family had been sharecroppers, but in the Life they were middle-class farmers – and the drama revolved around his quest for revenge on a pair of Federales who had raped his sister, a story that, again, bore at least some resemblance to the real events of Villa’s life. [De Orellana pp.61-2, 71]  The point was that it also came closer to conforming to what its target audience demanded from a movie: close ups, action and a story.

It’s not actually that difficult, examining contemporary sources, to understand why Mutual had its sudden change of heart. Villa had kept his side of the bargain; the company’s cameramen had secured the promised exclusive footage of the Battle of Ojinaga. But when the results of these initial efforts reached New York on 22 January, they proved disappointing. The footage was no more dramatic than that filmed earlier in the war without the benefit of any contract, and, crucially, real scenes of combat were still lacking:

The pictures do not portray a battle; they show among other things the conditions in and around Ojinaga after the battle which was fought in and about the town… also… the trenches that had been dug by the Federals. There was a good view of the police station of Ojinaga and the little Plaza of the stricken town… Other things shown on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande were the train of captured guns and ammunition wagons, the review of the ‘army’ before General Villa, the captured Federal prisoners, the wretched refugees on their way to the American side.

[Moving Picture World, 24 January 1914]

American film-maker L. M. Burrud poses for a publicity shot showing him “filming in action.”

The original Mutual contract, in short, had proved to be good for little but placing the limitations of the early film-makers into especially sharp focus. Hitherto, newsreel cameramen had fallen back on the excuse that their inability to secure sensational action footage was a product of specific local difficulties, not least the problem of gaining proper access to the battlefield. At Ojinaga, granted the best possible conditions to shoot and the active support of one of the commanders, they had failed again, and the reason why is obvious: the other side failed to co-operate. For all Mutual’s boasts, contemporary movie cameras were heavy, clumsy things that could only be operated by setting them up on a tripod and hand cranking the film. Attempting to use them anywhere near a real battle would be little short of suicidal, and though at least one rival cameraman put out a publicity photograph which showed him “filming in action,” protected by two Indian bodyguards armed with rifles and stripped to their loincloths, his still was as fraudulent as much of the moving footage brought out of Mexico. The only “action” that could safely be obtained consisted of long shots of artillery bombardments and the mass manoeuvring of men on distant horizons.

Newsreel men and their bosses at home in the United States responded to this problem in various ways. Pressure to deliver “hot” footage remained as high as ever, which meant there were really only two possible solutions. Tracy Matthewson, representing Hearst-Vitagraph with an American “punitive expedition” sent to punish Villa’s border raids two years later, returned home to find that publicists had concocted a thrilling tale describing how he had found himself in the middle of a battle, and bravely

turned the handle and began the greatest picture ever filmed.

One of my tripod bearers smiled at my shouting, and as he smiled, he clutched his hands to his abdomen and fell forward, kicking… “Action,” I cried. “This is what I’ve wanted. Give ’em hell boys. Wipe out the blinkety blank dashed greasers!

…Then somewhere out of that tangle of guns a bullet cuts its way. “Za-zing!” I heard it whistle. The splinters cut my face as it hit the camera. It ripped the side open and smashed the little wooden magazine. I sprang crazily to stop it with my hands. But out of the box coiled the precious film. Stretching and glistening in the sun, it fell and died.

[De Orellana p.84]

This “the dog ate my homework” excuse, as it might be termed, could only be used once, however, so for the most part newsmen supplied an altogether neater solution of their own, and for most a trip to Mexico meant contenting themselves with creating their own dramatic footage to meet the insatiable demand of audiences at home. Which is to say that they carefully “reconstructed” action scenes that they or someone else had witnessed – if they were moderately scrupulous – or simply made scenarios up from scratch, if they were not.

The real point to make here is that no distinction was made between “real” and “reconstructed” footage, and, so far as the movie audiences of the day were concerned, the two were one and the same. Thus, while the practice of deliberately faking of footage was widespread throughout the Mexican war, more for reasons of practicality than anything else, and many of the pioneer film-makers who travelled to Mexico to capture the conflict were remarkably open about it in their memoirs, comparatively little mention was made of it at the time. Indeed, those who flocked to the cinema to see newsreels of the Mexican war (which all the evidence suggests were among the most popular films of the period) were actively encouraged to believe that what they were seeing on screen was very much the “real thing”. This benefitted the film companies, which engaged in vigorous competition to advertise their latest reels as unprecedentedly realistic. To take only one example, Frank Jones’s early War with Huerta was billed as “positively the greatest MEXICAN WAR PICTURE ever made… Do you realize that it is not a Posed Picture, but taken on the FIELD OF ACTION?” [Moving Picture World, 30 May 1914]

The reality of the situation was exposed a few months later by Jones’s rival, Fritz Arno Wagner, who travelled to Mexico for Pathé and later enjoyed a distinguished film career in Europe:

I have seen four big battles. On each occasion I was threatened with arrest from the Federal general if I took any pictures. He also threatened on one occasion when he saw me turning the crank to smash the camera. He would have done so, too, but for the fact that the rebels came pretty close just then and he had to take it on the run to save his hide.

[Moving Picture World, 18 July 1914]

A tiny handful of cameramen were luckier, and, given precisely the right circumstance, it was actually possible to obtain useful action footage. Another newsreel man who filmed the early stages of the revolution later told the film historian Robert Wagner that

street fighting is the easiest to film, for if you can get to a good location on a side street, you have the protection of all the intervening buildings from artillery and rifle fire, while you occasionally get the chance to shoot a few feet of swell film. I got some great stuff in Mexico City, a few days before [Diaz’s immediate successor as President, Francisco] Madero was killed. One fellow, not twenty feet from my camera, had his head shot off.

Even then, however, the resultant footage – although suitably dramatic – never made it to the screen:

But, do you know what – the darn censors would never let us show the picture in the United States. What do you suppose they sent us to war for?

[De Orellana, p.22]

The best solution, as more than one film unit discovered, was thus to wait for the fighting to die down, and then enlist any nearby soldiers to produce a lively but sanitised “reconstruction.” There were sometimes hidden dangers in this, too – one newsreel man, who persuaded a group of Mexicans to “fight” some invading American soldiers, only narrowly escaped with his life when the Mexicans realised they were being portrayed as cowards being soundly thrashed by the upstanding Yankees. Feeling “that the honour of their nation was being besmirched, [they] decided to change the story and defend themselves, firing off a volley of bullets. A real fight then ensued.” [De Orellana p.69]

A still from Victor Milner’s wildly successful reconstruction of the US Marines’ assault on the post office at Vera Cruz, April 1914.

There were other, safer, ways of completing an assignment, though. Victor Milner, a cameraman attached to the US Marine force sent to occupy the Mexican port of Vera Cruz early in the war for reasons too petty and too complicated to recount in detail here, made it ashore to discover that the troops had already secured their objectives and that any opportunity to film real fighting had been missed. Soon afterwards, however, he had the luck to run into an army friend who, in civilian life, had been “in the public relations business and was anxious to get some good publicity for the Navy and Marines.

He got together with the local commanders and they staged the greatest replay of the storming of the Post Office that you can imagine. I am sure it was far better than the real thing… The pictures were a newsreel sensation and were shown as a scoop in all the theatres before any of us got back to the States. To this day, I don’t think anyone in the States was aware that they were a replay, and the shots were staged.

[Brownlow, War p.101]

Frederic Villiers prepared for war, 1897.

That, far more than the efforts of the Mutual film teams, actually sums up the experiences of most newsreel men in Mexico. What strikes me as especially interesting about all this is that Milner, and other film-makers sent south after him, were responding entirely on their own initiative to the insurmountable pressure to produce “real” footage in circumstances that simply did not permit any such thing. They were neither experienced enough, nor thoughtful enough, to know much about how other cameramen had dealt with the same problems in other theatres of war. Yet the early history of newsreel cinema is replete with examples of cameramen responding in precisely the same way to the same set of challenges. Pretty much the very earliest “war” footage ever shot, in fact, was faked in circumstances that broadly mirror those prevailing during the Mexican Revolution.

The few historians to take an interest in the prehistory of war photography seem agreed that the earliest footage secured in a war zone dates to the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, and was shot by a veteran British war correspondent by the name of Frederic Villiers. It’s difficult to be too certain about this because the war is an obscure one, and though Villiers – a notoriously self-aggrandising poseur – wrote about his experiences in sometimes hard-to-believe detail, none of the footage he claimed to have shot appears to survive. What we can say is that Villiers (who for all his faults did at least walk the walk nearly as conscientiously as he talked the talk) was an experienced reporter who had covered nearly a dozen conflicts during his two decades as a correspondent, and certainly was in Greece for part of the 30-day conflict. He was a prolific, if limited, war artist as well, so the idea of taking one of the new ciné cameras to war probably came naturally to him.

If that’s so, the notion wasn’t too obvious to anyone else in 1897; when the Englishman arrived at his base at Volos, in Thessaly, trailing his cinematograph and a bicycle on which to get about, he discovered he was the only cameraman covering the war. According to his own accounts, at least, he was able to get some real long-distance shots of the fighting, but yearned to obtain something more visceral, and  obtained what he required in typically resourceful fashion, passing through the Turkish lines to secure a private interview with the Ottoman governor, Enver Bay, who granted him a safe passage to Athens:

Not content with this, Villiers asked the governor for confidential information: “I want to know when and where the next fight will take place. You Turks will take the initiative, for the Greeks can now only be on the defensive.” Not surprisingly, Enver Bey was staggered by his request. Looking at Villiers steadily, he said at last: “You are an Englishman and I can trust you. I will tell you this: Take this steamer… to the port of Domokos, and don’t fail to be at the latter place by Monday noon.”

[Bottomore p.13]

Armed with this exclusive information, Villiers’s record of the war continues, he arrived at Domokos “on the exact day and hour to hear the first gun fired by the Greeks at the Moslem infantry advancing across the Pharsala plains.” [Ibid]  Some battle scenes were shot. Since the photographer remained uncharacteristically modest about the precise results of all his labours, however, we may reasonably conclude that whatever footage he was able to obtain showed little if any of the action. That seems to be implicit in one revealing fragment that does survive: Villiers’s own outraged account of how he found himself scooped by an enterprising rival who had apparently ventured no closer to the front than Dover.

The images were accurate, but they lacked cinematic appeal. When he got back to England, he realised that his footage was worth very little in the film market. One day a friend told him that he had seen some wonderful pictures of the Greek war the previous evening. Villiers was surprised since he knew for certain that he had been the only cameraman filming the war. He soon realised from his friend’s account that these were not his pictures.

‘Three Albanians [then part of the Ottoman army] came along a very white dusty road toward a cottage on the right of the screen. As they neared it they opened fire; you could see the bullets strike the stucco of he building. then one of the Turks with the butt end of his rifle smashed in the door of the cottage, entered and brought out a lovely Athenian maid in his arms… Presently an old man, evidently the girl’s father, rushed out of the house to her rescue, when the second Albanian whipped out his yataghan from his belt and cut the old gentleman’s head off! Here my friend grew enthusiastic. ‘There was the head,’ said he, ‘rolling in the foreground of the picture. Nothing could be more positive than that.’

[De Orellana p.11]

Much the same sort of results – “real,” long distance battle footage trumped in the cinemas by more action-packed and visceral fake footage – were obtained a few years later during the Boer War, setting a pattern that later war photography would follow for decades (and which was famously repeated in the first feature-length war documentary, the celebrated British production of The Battle of the Somme (1916), which mixed genuine footage of the trenches with fake battle scenes shot in the altogether safe environs of a trench mortar school behind the lines, and which played to packed and uncritically enthusiastic houses for months.) Some of these deceptions were acknowledged; R.W. Paul, who produced a series of shorts depicting the South African conflict, made no claim to have secured his footage in the war zone, merely stating that they had been “arranged under the supervision of an experienced military officer from the front.” Others were not.  William Dickson, of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, did travel to the Veldt and did produce

footage that can legitimately be described as actuality – scenes of troops in camp and on the move – though even so many shots were evidently staged for the camera. British soldiers were dressed in Boer uniforms to reconstruct skirmishes, and it was reported that the British commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts, ‘consented to be biographed with all his Staff, actually having his table taken out into the sun for the convenience of Mr Dickson.’

[Chapman pp.36-7]

Modern cinema historians, it seems, generally distinguish fake footage from the real thing by examining the perspective. Reconstructions are typically betrayed because “action occurs towards and away from the camera in common with certain ‘actuality’ films of the period such as street scenes where pedestrians and traffic approach or recede along the axis of the lens and not across the field of vision like actors on a stage.” This, John Barnes notes in his study Filming the Boer War, suggest a deliberate attempt at deception on the part of the film-makers. [Barnes p.73]

In closing, it may be noted that careful study of the sort pioneered by Barnes is scarcely necessary in the final example of war footage I want to look at, clips purporting to show victorious American naval actions off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Here, too, the “reconstructed” footage that appeared was not a deliberate, malicious fake; it was, once again, produced as a response to the frustration of being unable to secure genuine film of real battles. The scale and complexity of naval warfare, however, put realism still further beyond the reach of the poor and ill-equipped, if imaginative, film-makers forced to confront the problem.

The crudest but most charming of the two known solutions was produced by a New York film man by Albert Smith, founder of the prolific American Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn – who, according to his own account, did make it to Cuba, only to find his clumsy cameras were not up to the task of securing usable footage at long distance. He returned to the US with little more than background shots to mull over the problem. Soon afterwards came news of a great American naval victory over the motley Spanish fleet. It was the first time an American squadron had fought a significant battle since the Civil War, and Smith and his partner, J. Stuart Blackton, realised that there would be huge demand for footage showing the Spaniards’ destruction. Their solution was low-tech but ingenious:

At this time, vendors were selling large sturdy photographs of ships of the American and Spanish fleets. We bought a sheet of each and cut out the battleships. On a table, topside down, we placed one of Blackton’s large canvas-covered frames and filled it with water an inch deep. In order to stand the cutouts of the ships in the water, we nailed them to lengths of wood about an inch square. In this way a little ‘shelf’ was provided behind each ship, and on this ship we placed pinches of gunpowder – three pinches for each ship – not too many, we felt, for a major sea engagement of this sort…

For a background, Blackton daubed a few white clouds on a blue-tinted cardboard. To each of the ships, now sitting placidly in our shallow ‘bay,’ we attached a fine thread to enable us to pull the ships past the camera at the proper moment and in the correct order.

We needed someone to blow smoke into the scene, but we couldn’t go too far outside our circle if the secret was to be kept. Mrs Blackton was called in and she volunteered, in this day of non-smoking womanhood, to smoke a cigarette. A friendly office boy said he would try a cigar. This was fine, as we needed the volume.

A piece of cotton was dipped in alcohol and attached to a wire slender enough to escape the eye of the camera. Blackton, concealed behind the side of the table farthermost from the camera, touched off the mounds of gunpowder with his wire taper – and the battle was on. Mrs Blackton, smoking and coughing, delivered a fine haze. Jim had worked out a timing arrangement with her so that she blew the smoke into the scene at approximately the moment of the explosion…

The film lenses of that day were imperfect enough to conceal the crudities of our miniature, and as the picture ran only two minutes there was no time for anyone to study it critically… Pastor’s and both proctor houses played to capacity audiences for several weeks. Jim and I felt less remorse of conscience when we saw how much excitement and enthusiasm was aroused by The Battle of Santiago Bay.

[Smith pp.66-8]

Still from Edward H. Amet’s film of the Battle of Santiago (1898)

Perhaps surprisingly, Smith’s film (which has apparently been lost) does seem to have fooled the not-terribly-experienced early cinemagoers who viewed it – or perhaps they were simply too polite to mention its obvious shortcomings. Some rather more convincing scenes of the same battle, however, were faked by a rival film-maker, Edward Hill Amet of Waukegan, Illinois, who – denied permission to actually travel to Cuba – built a set of detailed, 1:70 scale metal models of the combatants and floated them on a 24-foot-long outdoor tank in his yard in Lake County. [Kekatos pp.405-17]   Unlike Smith’s hurried effort, Amet’s shoot was meticulously planned and his models were vastly more realistic; they were carefully based on photographs and plans of the real ships, and each was equipped with working smokestacks and guns containing remotely ignited blasting caps, all controlled from an electrical switchboard. The resulting film, which looks unquestionably amateurish to modern eyes, was nonetheless realistic by the standards of the day, and “according to film-history books, the Spanish government bought a copy of Amet’s film for the military archives in Madrid, apparently convinced of its authenticity.”  [De Orellana p.13]

Looking back across a hundred years or more to the early efforts of Edward Amet, Frederic Villiers and Charles Rosher, what seems most striking is not Ahmet’s ability to fool the Spanish government with his 1:70 models but the way in which so much of what was done in Greece, Africa and Mexico continues to be echoed in news footage shot in the last decade, the last year, last month. War was large and dangerous then, and it is larger and more dangerous today. While it remains so, cameramen will always be tempted, often for the best of reasons, to indulge in reconstructions – and the shade of Pancho Villa will ride again.

Afterword: lying and the camera

The Sikander Bagh (Secundra Bagh) in Cawnpore, scene of the massacre of Indian rebels, photographed by Felice Beato

“The camera was not supposed to lie,” I write, in reference to the early years of cinema. But, of course, the camera had lied ever since it was invented. “Reconstruction” of battle scenes was born with battlefield photography. Matthew Brady did it during the Civil War. And, even earlier, in 1858, during the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, or war of independence, the pioneer photographer Felice Beato had notoriously scattered the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground of his photograph of the Sikander Bagh in order to enhance the image. The real question is how readily those who viewed such pictures accepted them. For the most part, historians have been very ready to assume that the audiences for “faked” photographs and reconstructed movies were notably naive and accepting. A classic instance, still debated, is the reception of the Lumiere Brothers’ pioneering film short Arrival of the Train at the Station, which showed a railway engine pulling into a French terminus, shot by a camera placed on the platform directly in front of it. In the popular retelling of this story, early cinema audiences were so panicked by the fast-approaching train that – unable to distinguish between image and reality – they imagined it would at any second burst through the screen and crash into the cinema. Recent research has, however, more or less comprehensively debunked this story (it has even been suggested that the reception accorded to the original 1896 short has been conflated with panic caused by viewing, in the 1930s, of early 3D movie images) – though, given the lack of sources, it remains highly doubtful precisely what the real reception of the Brothers’ movie was. [Gunning p.114; Loiperdinger]  All in all, it seems safer to assume that early movie audiences were not significantly more naive than we are; certainly contemporary film magazines frequently acknowledged the re-enacting of footage from the Mexican Revolution.

Envoi: The last words of Pancho Villa

I asked my daughter if she’d heard of Pancho Villa. She replied: “Wasn’t he the guy who came up with those really cool last words?”

If 14-year-old schoolgirls in London have picked up the commonly-told account of the rebel’s final moments, it’s plainly vastly more pervasive than the tale of Villa’s entanglement with the film industry. For those who aren’t familiar with it, though, the story goes that after a former Villista, Alvaro Obregón, became President of Mexico in 1920,

Villa retired to his hacienda in Canutillo, began farming and ranching… Villa kept a low profile and was seemingly friendly with Obregón, but soon the new president decided the time had come to get rid of Villa once and for all. On July 20, 1923, Villa was gunned down as he drove a car in the town of Parral. Although he was never directly implicated in the killing, it is clear that Obregón gave the order, perhaps because he feared Villa’s interference (or possible candidacy) in the 1924 elections.

The murder was carefully planned, and Villa was cut down by a group of several assassins. Fatally wounded, he is nonetheless supposed to have “died imploring a journalist: ‘Don’t let it end this way. Tell them I said something.'” [Guthke p.10]

Sadly for posterity, there is no contemporary evidence that Villa said anything of the sort. His vehicle was hit by 40 bullets; he himself was struck by nine explosive (dum-dum) rounds, and – scarcely surprisingly – was “killed instantly.” [Katz p.766]  The famous last words, then, are another myth, but, like the legend of the Mutual film contract, they do say something about Villa the legend – if not about Villa the man.


John Barnes. Filming the Boer War. Tonbridge: Bishopsgate Press, 1992.

Leslie Bethell (ed.). The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Stephen Bottomore. “Frederic Villiers: war correspondent.” In Wheeler W. Dixon (ed), Re-viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Kevin Brownlow. The Parade’s Gone By… Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

___________. The War, the West and the Wilderness. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.

James Chapman. War and Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

Aurelio De Los Reyes. With Villa in Mexico on Location. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1986.

Margarita De Orellana. Filming Pancho: How Hollywood Shaped the Mexican Revolution. London: Verso, 2009.

Tom Gunning. “An aesthetic of astonishment: early film and the (in)credulous spectator.” In Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Karl Siegfried Guthke.  Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Friedrich Katz. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Kirk Kekatos. “Edward H. Ahmet and the Spanish-American War film.” Film History 14 (2002).

Martin Loiperdinger. “Lumière’s Arrival of the Train: cinema’s founding myth.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists v4n1 (Spring 2004).

Zuzana Pick. Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Gregorio Rocha. “And starring Pancho Villa as himself.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists v6n1 (Spring 2006).

Albert Smith. Two Reels and a Crank. New York: Doubleday, 1952.


13 thoughts on “Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa

  1. Actually, there’s one person who said that Felice Beato dug out and scattered corpses around, and had some interest in doing so. Does this aequate to be a ‘notorious’ act?

    • I suppose I might have said “notorious among historians of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8”. My information was drawn from David Harris, “Topography and memory: Felice Beato’s photographs of India, 1858-1859,” in Vidhya Dehejia, India Through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution 2000) pp.127-8, which observes: “Rather than appearing as merely documentary records, Beato’s photographs reveal as much as they obscure and cloud… Beato’s photograph of the interior of the Secunderabad seems emblematic of the problems now facing viewers as they attempt to confront and contemplate these photographs. Undeniably, this is a constructed image of military triumph and celebration. Today, the horror of such an image lies in the strangeness of its composition – in the unsettling juxtaposition of, on the one hand, the battle-scarred European-derived architecture and the picturesquely composed grouping of Indians, and, on the other, of the grisly remains in the foreground… How does the knowledge that Beato deliberately conceived and arranged this scene – that, in an aesthetic sense, he composed the scene – affect one’s understanding of his personal pathology as a photographer of war? What does the existence of such a photograph reveal about contemporaneous public taste?”

      Harris does not provide a source for all this, but consulting his other footnotes, it seems he drew his information from John Fraser, “Beato’s photographs of the interior of the Sikanderbagh at Lucknow,” Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research 64 (1981) pp.51-55. There’s also this, which notes: “A British officer, Sir George Campbell, noted in his memoirs Beato’s presence in Lucknow and stated that he probably had the bones uncovered to be photographed. However, William Howard Russell of The Times recorded seeing many skeletons still lying around in April 1858.” An Indian blogger, meanwhile, comments: “As far as the 1857 uprising was concerned, however, Beato arrived too late to be able to actually capture the events as they took place. Not easily dissuaded, he went from Lucknow to Delhi to Kanpur, in each place assiduously “setting the scene” so that he could recreate something of the immediacy of history as it happened. Beato’s most famous image, ‘Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2000 Rebels,’ is a stunning instance of this procedure – he actually ordered the exhumation of half-buried corpses so that he could pose the skeletal remains in the courtyard of Sikanderbagh. The photograph that resulted clearly achieved something of Beato’s desired effect – it was later wrongly captioned in London, suggesting that it had been taken on the very day of the assault in Sikanderbagh.” Now you’ve drawn my attention to this, I’ll call up Fraser’s paper next time I’m in the British Library and take a closer look. I see there’s also a second academic paper about all this, Zahid Chaudhary, “Phantasmagoric aesthetics: colonial violence and the management of perception,” Cultural Critique 59 (2005) pp.63-119, so I’ll check that out as well.

  2. Thank you.
    It is a strange picture. On one hand, I find unusual that people agreed to dug up the ‘half-buried’ bodies – and why where they ‘half-buried’?… and then what? Bury them all again? On the other those are *very* scattered remains, not even remotely like hundreds of unburied people. Dug out by scavenging animals perhaps?
    Since the British were quartered there for days after the massacre, it”s unlikely that they kept the corpses around or buried them under their own quarters. But where went Beato to find corpses? And why Sir Campbell couldn’t be sure of what really happened?
    Could the remains belong to some soldiers buried by their comrades at the beginning of the battle? Dug out by scavenging animals perhaps?

    …this blog is awesome.

  3. Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

  4. Stories like this are a good reminder that the past was just as complex and strange as the present.

  5. Having never heard this story before, except loosely, I found this very interesting. Thank you, Mr. Dash, for all your work on this.

  6. Victor Milner
    Terrific article, Mr. Dash, thank you for it. Victor Milner (ASC 1924, an Academy Award Oscar winner) worked for Pathé Weekly when he shot the Vera Cruz footage with the US Marines. Here’s a still of Milner at the Vera Cruz Water Works with his Pathé Professionelle Type X 35mm camera – note the “Pathe’s Weekly” bag over the camera’s film magazines, the purpose of which was to keep direct sun off the magazines.

    Interesting times and fascinating people, all…

  7. Fake news, propaganda, media manipulation, newscasters prostituting themselves for fame, power, and profit…nothing has changed, Pancho!

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