The background of Villa Rides is more interesting than the film itself. It was a late-60s studio Western that was definitely trying to capitalise on the success of Spaghetti Westerns at that time, and especially the subgenre of the ‘Zapata Western’: films that used the Mexican revolution as their backdrop. It’s safe to say that the reason the Italians latched onto the genre was that the South in Italy was more left-wing, while the North was more fascist, and it gave them a chance to say something about Italian politics, without saying a word about Italian politics.
Villa Rides is in that tradition, and in fact, Sergio Leone was reportedly offered the director’s chair at one point. However, Leone did not like the idea of casting Yul Brynner as Pancho Villa, which is fairly understandable.
When you read the Villa Rides backstory, it becomes one of those great film ‘what if?’ stories. Sam Peckinpah wrote the script, and was initially set to direct. His original script was far less sympathetic to Pancho Villa than the film that was eventually made. Brynner, however, thought Villa was this great freedom fighter instead of the scoundrel that Peckinpah had written. The conflict between the two of them led to Peckinpah being removed from the project. Robert Towne, who at that point was just becoming known, came in to do a quick rewrite. Towne had done some uncredited work on Bonnie and Clyde, and that wasn’t so far removed.
Clearly it was a very compromised movie from the get-go, with Brynner hopelessly miscast in the leading role. He looks far more like Zapata than Villa, and it’s all pretty ludicrous never mind the fact he is Russian and not Mexican. You needed someone like a Peckinpah, who would have done something interesting with the character of Villa and maybe get a Mexican actor to play Villa? On the plus side, Peckinpah got to do The Wild Bunch instead, so it turned out OK for him, and also for the world of cinema.
The film itself is not that interesting. There are so many great stories about Villa that you could do, but there’s no real conflict here that grabs your interest. Instead, it’s a rudimentary Western plot. One of the problems with trying to make a spaghetti Western in Hollywood in 1968 is that, yes, the boundaries around violence are being broken down post-Bonnie and Clyde, but they can’t get away with what the Italians could, so it’s toned down.
Robert Mitchum plays an American gun-runner who ends up joining up with Pancho Villa. They leave a swath of havoc in their wake as they cross Mexico. Mitchum is actually terrible in it, which is almost unheard of for him. He apparently did not get on well with anyone involved with the film, and he spoke quite honestly about it, as he was known to do. He and Brynner despised each other, and reportedly Mitchum could not understand why Charles Bronson, who plays Villa’s right-hand man and executioner, Fierro, was famous. It’s also the first film where Bronson sports his trademark moustache, and the first of many films where Bronson’s wife, Jill Ireland, appears with him. Bronson is probably the best of the 3 in the cast.
So in sum, Villa Rides is a mediocre late-60s Western that could have been something quite special. They got Buzz Kulik instead of any of the great people considered, who was just an OK television director. Kulik was probably best-known for directing quite a few Twilight Zone episodes, and the TV movie Brian’s Song. His last credited theatrical feature was The Hunter, which was Steve McQueen’s last film (he was also an uncredited director on The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, although he was fired from that project.)
The disc from Signal One does not include any extras but is a dual format release.