Jaral de Berrio, Mexico — It was nearly 90 years ago, in the formative years of cinema, when a film crew from the then movie capital of Fort Lee, N.J., descended on a tiny, war-torn Mexican border town. They were there to capture the star power of revolutionary general Pancho Villa, shooting battle scenes that were choreographed with the full and richly compensated cooperation of the leader himself.
Called "The Life of General Villa," the 1914 movie made history as the first to get live battle scenes on film -- and for setting a Hollywood precedent in manipulating events and people to heighten dramatic effect. The movie has been lost for decades -- but it has remained an object of fascination among historians and film buffs.
Now Hollywood has returned to film a movie titled "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" about the making of the 1914 movie, only this time with Antonio Banderas in the title role and Bruce Beresford directing a Larry Gelbart script on a $23-million budget, the most HBO has ever spent on one of its made-for-cable TV movies.
The Gelbart script focuses on mutual manipulation and its modern echo: how Villa and the Mutual Film Co. used each other for their own ends and how history got tweaked as a result. Mutual got its movie and Villa projected his image as Mexico's Robin Hood to U.S. audiences.
It's the script's "movie within a movie" and the 1914 film's blurring of entertainment and reality that drew both Banderas and Beresford into the project, each saying they wouldn't have been interested had it been just another film biography.
In fact, Banderas' original plan for when "Pancho Villa" was in production last fall was to be rehearsing for his Broadway debut in the Broadway musical "Nine," preparation for which he had cleared four months off his schedule. But the Gelbart script made him "destroy that plan"; he found other time to rehearse, since he remains in that role, which earned him a Tony Award nomination this year.
"I read it, read it again, and I knew I had to take it," says jeans- and sweatshirt-clad Banderas, interviewed at a San Luis Potosi hotel last November on a day off from filming. His participation made HBO's day: Without Banderas' star power, the Villa movie's chances of going forward were slight, producers admit. It premieres on HBO Sept. 7.
Like an invading army, the production with its phalanx of caterers, costumers, battlefield extras and technicians took over this little town and its 18th century hacienda an hour's drive southwest of San Luis Potosi. Outdoor scenes, including revolutionary battles, were shot here and at historic locations in and around nearby San Miguel de Allende.
The movie amounts to a high-stakes gamble because of the tricky theme and the historical sensitivities involved in any movie about Villa, a highly polarizing character here. He was at once a brilliant military tactician, a murderous bandit, an insatiable womanizer and a revered champion of the poor. The movie's principals are prepared to be second-guessed.
The trim, athletic Banderas is ready for some flak, at least in his physical portrayal, making no attempt to resemble the roly-poly Villa.
"Some people say I don't look like Pancho, he was fatter than you, stuff like that. But we're not trying to make a wax museum version. We are trying to describe the personality of this man relating to the very special event of shooting a movie and how it affected him," Banderas says.
A little controversy wouldn't bother HBO, which is hoping that the Banderas-Beresford-Gelbart troika produces international buzz. Flush with expanding revenue from video, DVD and, sometimes, theatrical releases of their productions, cable TV companies like HBO, TNT and Showtime are wagering greater and greater sums on marquee names that a decade ago were seen only in theatrical films. In fact, HBO spent $125 million on Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's mega-miniseries "Band of Brothers."
The movie was shot in such a way that it can be shown on the almost square TV image as well as the more rectangular theatrical format, just in case. Banderas' deal with HBO includes the rights to distribute the movie to theaters in Spain and Italy.
These days, Villa is remembered primarily for his audacious invasion of Columbus, N.M., in 1916, the first foreign incursion into the United States in a century. What's been forgotten is that in the early years of the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910, Villa was immensely popular as a star in U.S. newsreels.
Villa was a bandit in the border state of Chihuahua who, after being pardoned by Mexican President Francisco Madero, became one of the revolution's leading generals, known for his audacious tactics, brilliant cavalry maneuvers and solid popular support. He financed his battles by stealing cattle and extorting protection payments from businesses. Some of the money he used to buy arms in Texas, some he gave to the poor.