Leaders and films by Alvaro Sanjurjo Toucon

in 21st Guadalajara Film Festival

by Alvaro Sanjurjo Toucón

The relationship between political, and sometimes revolutionary, leaders and the movies, is brought back to the screen in the Mexican documentary Acme & Co., presented at the XXI Guadalajara International Film Festival. This interaction does not refer to films about these personalities, but to the fact that some of the already famous or lesser-known leaders took part in films, either acting as themselves, playing a role, or even as extras.

Acme & Co., directed by Gregorio Rocha, portrays the life of the Padilla brothers, exhibitors during the silent movies era, and producers of the film Pancho Villa´s Revenge (La venganza de Pancho Villa). This film was created from a previous American version, with an altered title and content. The production’s most interesting feature is that the Padilla brothers added some new scenes to an American movie about an outlaw called Pancho López, a character undoubtedly based on the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, even if this is not made explicit. The new scenes included some special scenery, but also some takes where Pancho Villa and the Mexican troops were filmed in action.

Pancho Villa, as shown by the Padilla brothers, is different from the character depicted by the American movie, and it somehow revived a special place he already had on the big screen. According to the Mexican historian Margarita de Orellana (in her detailed research into North American movies and the 1911 Mexican Revolution), Villa performed for several American movie makers who went to Mexico during the revolution and recorded some interesting material, later manipulated to follow the interests of Hollywood producers. It is even suggested that Pancho Villa–perhaps trying to make some American money, perhaps willing to be immortalized on the screen–would schedule some of his battles at times when the daylight allowed the cameramen to obtain better takes.

However, it is stated that in the American recording of Villa’s deeds, the battle scenes look more authentic than the real ones. It is even suggested that Villa re-enacted some of the most dangerous battle scenes, after those battles had taken place, to ensure a safer environment for the cameramen, momentarily turning ferocious soldiers into harmless actors.

And this strange world, imaginary and real at the same time, also emerges from Padilla´s pioneering work in Pancho Villa’s Revenge, whose origin is explained in Acme &Co..

Among the various on-screen rulers and revolutionary leaders in Acme & Co. includes Generals Francisco Franco, Millán Astray and José Sanjurjo in Fco. Gómez Hidalgo’s La malcasada (1926), a film in which these Spanish fascist military allies play themselves as members of a Spanish bourgeoisie who are willing to perpetuate their power.

There are similar examples of historic figures performing for the camera missing from Acme & Co. and have yet to be told, including the work of a young Fidel Castro (not yet a revolutionary) as an extra in such George Sidney films as Bathing Beauty (1944) and Holiday in Mexico (1946). This was the same Fidel who later appeared in Mexican films as an extra, but this time with his future revolutionary mate, the young Ernesto Che Guevara.

Francisco Franco was attracted by the cinema, and apart from playing a minor role in La malcasada, he wrote the script of Raza under the pseudonym Jaime de Andrade. Fidel Castro was attracted by the cinema and actively supported the Cuban revolutionary films, but very little is known about his participation in Mexican and American movies. Pancho Villa was attracted by the cinema, even though the reasons for his doing so are still debated. This interest of political leaders acting in the movies, whether in starring or supporting roles, has been frequently remarked upon in the last century, and we can also mention Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and in a more indirect way, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who influenced several of Frank Capra`s productions. Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger could also be mentioned in this article, which is just a slight approach to a major topic, now revisited by Acme & Co.