We learned from JFK and especially from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line that there exists a small margin where a film is documentary and a where the same movie is a work of fiction. Obviously, a movie is a work of fiction if it is demonstrably or explicitly false: the author of the script made up a story, likely based on his experience or close cousins thereof, and this story receives a visual interpretation. There also exists movies more truth than fiction, whose story spine errs heavily in favor of honest, actual events, whose false parts are either included for narrative’s sake or to intentionally confound an audience. Some genres require more (horror/suspense), and others, less (period piece).
A film is either true, or as true as possible, or false with elements of truth, even if the truth is capital-T truth. All media needs some sort of relatable element, even a sliver of something to grasp. Otherwise, perhaps on purpose, the film will be nonsense incarnate and unwatchable. We can be sure, though, that no film is one-hundred-percent truth, even if it bills itself as documentary. Even primary sources, firsthand accounts of events that for certain happened, have fallibility: the human memory is imperfect.
So what do we make of a biography, supposedly based on a true person and on true events, that strays so far from an actual, cohesive narrative, that its subject becomes a symbol in name only? Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary and key figure to the Mexican independence movement around 1900, becomes caricature in the movie (supposedly) about his life and exploits as a Leader of Men in an unruly and capricious Mexico. What Viva Villa! does is neither paint the man as a hero or as a tragedy. Instead, it treats him as a hard-living oaf who happens to be skilled at rousing up excitement in other boorish, bloodthirsty Mexicans. For all his accomplishments, this movie asks its audience to remember none of them.
Director Jack Conway, a 20 year veteran director at this point in his career, chose to stage a shaky script with a visceral contempt. While the writers take responsibility for serious logical flaws in the narrative, the director can soften the edges with a somewhat loose interpretation, filling in nonsense gaps in environment and altering the perspective of a shot to reframe particularly daunting dialogue. Jack Conway either did not, or he chose to double down on some of the script’s worst offenses. These included:
- An unnecessary amount of time emphasizing that Pancho was illiterate. They build major plot points off this point, too. Not only is this lazy writing, it taints the man whose talents lay elsewhere as stupid first, rather than a man majorly misunderstood. “Aw, shucks” is a desirable personality trait, but it comes off as cruel when used solely as a plot device.
- Telling, often, and not showing, passage of time or distance in a compelling manner. Several times during the film, the director and his team of assistants and editors decided to overdub a montage scene with text, declaring the next scene and plot point of importance to be imminent. It makes the movie a chore to the audience. As a prologue/epilogue, text (see: Star Wars) can help define a scene in media res; as epilogue, text can send off the scene fittingly – especially if the audience desires more. The movie is old, yes, but very few others made this awkward choice.
- Severely under-developing, distracting supporting characters. Viva Villa! is ostensibly about Pancho Villa’s adult life, telling us a story (?) or entertaining us with violence (?), but to develop the character we need to understand his relationships – with his country, with his friends, lovers, enemies, and with his past and present selves. This idea is not unique to film, but it is more important to cut a two-hour film with more than filler sidekicks, irrelevant love interests, and flimsy villains. The best parts of Viva Villa! concern Pancho’s relationship with this adolescent self, the events that led him to develop his revolutionary spirit and how it changed his trajectory. We’re also unsure why he cares so much about Mexico outside of his presence there. Show us a son (even if fabricated), show us the land that bore his ancestors fruit, or show us true love. That his father was killed in Mexico by a cruel tyrant is not enough dramatic pull to make an audience care.
Either lie a little or lie a lot, but Viva Villa took too many liberties with the truth and ensured that we would recall none of them.
The Academy nominated twelve movies for Best Picture in 1934, the most it had ever done. After, it settled harmoniously on ten (except once) and then for 64 years on five. The expansive field sought to bring more prestige on a newly ubiquitous and affordable entertainment. Each year more theaters opened and more film producers found profit in making more films. The early years of Oscar were more a referendum on availability than on prestige. By limiting the nominees to five starting in 1944, the stifled supply reinforced its own narrative – a clever marketing strategy – by telling audiences that these were the absolute top films, according to the Academy. Certainly potential spots six through ten were also worthwhile, but that is facts laid bare. In 2008, the Academy again expanded the nominees to at least eight, this time focusing on a burgeoning and profitable inclusiveness. The fix was quick and a bit haphazard, but the prestige remains.
If historical record tells audiences anything, It Happened One Night rightfully won Best Picture in 1934. It remains one of three films to win all five “major” awards categories*, a list that includes 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. This is a 3% success rate (not a 3% chance that this happens – that number is much smaller given no other information, around 0.02%) in the last 90 years of the award, and it is even more impressive given the glut of movies nominated for Best Picture in 1934. Viva Villa! had almost no chance to win this award because its truth was neither honest nor universal, especially against It Happened One Night, and other greats like The Gay Divorcee.
*Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay