" You’re nothing but a pair of dancing shoes! "
— Judy Garland (to Fred Astaire), Easter Parade

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The films in this set are not strictly speaking a trilogy but three films united by a common setting, namely the revolutionary period in Mexico from 1911 to 1920. Across the arc of these films, the Mexican revolution plays an increasingly important role. That period in time also provides a vehicle for director Fernando De Fuentes to present modern morality plays. Some knowledge of that time will be helpful but is not critical to understanding or enjoying these films which are foremost about people in time of war.

Prisoner 13

Chronologically Prisoner 13 (1933) is the first of the three and the least connected with the Mexican revolution per se. The setting could be any Latin country during a time of revolutionary turmoil and/or military rule. Who the particular political players are is irrelevant. There is one pointed moment when, as a firing squad is at work, the commanding officer shouts “Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!” but it wasn’t clear to me if that was supposed to be a genuine or ironic cry. The execution is a mindless and mechanical proceeding. The main point is that a group of civilians have been rounded up and are shot by a military firing squad. Which side was shooting and which side was being shot seems irrelevant.

The affable Alfredo del Diestro is the Colonel who is charged with rounding up the suspects and confirming they are the right people. One of those unfortunates is a young man whose family has the wherewithal to buy his freedom. The Colonel is bribed to let the boy go but at a high personal price. There are thirteen prisoners on the execution order, so thirteen people must be shot. The Colonel orders that an appropriate-looking substitute be snatched off the streets. What he doesn’t know is that it is his son (who he hasn’t seen in 10 years) who gets collared. The moral is, perhaps, “What goes around, comes around.”

El Compadre Mendoza

Next up is El Compadre Mendoza (1934). This film is specifically set in the Mexican revolution. In El Compadre Mendoza, De Fuentes moves the action outside and opens up the film. I was reminded at times of some of Eisenstein’s work, particularly 10 Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr). There is that kind of quasi-documentary look that made me think some of the extras in the cast had really been there back in the day. There is a pair shots of first one column of troops and then later their opposites approaching the hacienda and, apart from the uniforms (or lack of them) they are essentially the same soldiers.

Once again, Alfredo del Diestro is the main character, this time as Mendoza, an apolitical hacienda owner who sits astride the fence between the two warring factions. He is not cynical so much as practical, and as one or another band of horsemen approach, his butler carefully places the appropriate and politically correct portraits up on display. But neutrality is not an option and eventually Mendoza betrays a friend and, in doing so loses more than he might have saved. Seeing del Diestro go from comic mode to tragic is impressive. The moral is: “Sitting on the fence makes you a target for either side... especially when one side is pretty much like the other.”

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa

Lastly is Let’s Go With Pancho Villa (1936). It’s interesting that as the war moves further into the past, it moves forward as the main subject in this film. Events are remembered, place names are dropped, old songs sung and legends are retold with, I think, considerable nostalgia. The scope of this film is the largest of the three with grand cavalry charges and great battles fought and won with heroic actions... all the stuff of fond memories insulated from harsher realities by time. Let’s Go With Pancho Villa becomes simply a buddy movie similar in form to All Quiet on The Western Front or Full Metal Jacket, where we follow our group of friends into war. One by one they are killed until at last there are only two left. On the eve of the big battle one contracts small pox and the other is ordered to shoot him. The executioner then is turned out by Pancho Villa himself, who fears the last of the group is also infected. If there is a moral here it’s perhaps that in war, everyone is expendable.

There is a note of sadness in the endings of all three films. At least, that’s how it ought to be. Instead, there is an amazingly bad ending in Prisoner 13. It is an ending that would be bad in a lesser film but Prisoner 13 is sufficiently good to make it even worse ... if that’s possible. One wonders what kind of pressure De Fuentes was put under to tack such a misstep onto the end of an otherwise sound drama.

DVD Extras

None

Picture and Sound

These are antiqued films with authentic blemishes. Most notable is an awful scratch during one of the great cavalry charges in Let’s Go with Pancho Villa. It’s too bad that the most noticeable problem had to be in that exciting segment.

How to Use these DVDs

I recommend seeing them in chronological order, but since they are not really related to one another, any order is fine.