The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Last time I had a look at a political thriller and noted how the politics, in the classic style of the Hitchcockian McGuffin, acts as a powerful motivation for the characters inside the drama while remaining nothing more than a plot device in the eyes of the audience. The classic western rarely went down the overtly political route and tended to reserve its commentary for broader sociological and philosophical issues. Even in those cases, messages were, as often as not, delivered via implication and with the kind of subtlety which left it up to the viewer to decide how much or how little attention to give them. More direct political points could be said to appear in films set on the Mexican side of the border, and in particular those which make explicit reference to the revolution. The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955) plays out in such an environment, a number of the characters being clearly driven by their convictions and stating that fact on a few occasions, but this really isn’t the main focus of the movie, neither from the perspective of the figures on screen nor we who watch them.

The post-credits caption places the events in 1915, right in the middle of the revolution. Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) and Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) are under siege in wilderness and taking a breath, ruefully commenting on their fabulous wealth as the Federales creep ever nearer. Somewhat paradoxically, we find ourselves beginning at the end of the tale as follows on from his point is delivered via flashback. The machine-gun wielding Bryan is the classic mercenary figure, tough and bluntly proud of his own love for cash and corresponding disinterest in ideals. He’s introduced providing the firepower to facilitate the raids necessary to secure the finances Villa needs to stay in the revolutionary business. Despite professing a desire to retire and enjoy the profits of his toil, he finds himself drawn back into one more caper – all in the name of friendship. Castro is one of Villa’s colonels and Bryan’s fiend, and it’s hard to say no to an old friend when he asks you to help take a gold-laden troop train and then transport the spoils overland. Initially, the American seems to have been swayed principally by the rewards promised, but the presence of an idealistic woman (Shelley Winters), also from the US, and a shifty bandit (Joseph Calleia) who has a score to settle with Castro play an increasingly important role.

I can’t get enough of George Sherman’s work, particularly those films made in the 1950s. I find it addictive and entertaining, becoming progressively stronger and more complex as the decade wore on and building towards such beautifully realized pieces as The Last of the Fast Guns. I mention that movie here because not only is it arguably Sherman’s finest and most accomplished, but it also shares some features whose roots can be seen in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. The setting is, of course, the obvious link and a number of locations appear in both productions. There’s even something on the costuming of the leads – Calhoun is clad predominantly in black with Roland largely favoring white, which seems to be foreshadowing the completely black/white outfits adopted by Mahoney and (again) Roland in the later film. Still and all, it’s that theme of redemption which never ran far below the surface of any 50s western that draws the attention more. Sure there are some noble words on freedom and justice voiced by the characters (mainly Winters) but such proselytizing is rarely interesting or effective in my opinion, and I get the impression that neither Sherman nor screenwriter Niven Busch were all that enthused themselves. Instead, greater emphasis is given over to more personal motifs – loyalty, friendship and the discovery of something deeper and more meaningful within oneself.

Calhoun had a terrific run in westerns in the 50s and this film offered him an excellent showcase for his talents. The hard-boiled mercenary with one eye ever on the main chance  was the type he could carry off in his sleep, and the way that role then develops and becomes more textured as the story progresses shows that he had sufficient depth when called upon. I’m struggling to think of a part played by Gilbert Roland that I didn’t enjoy – the energy he invested in his characters is quite infectious and it’s easy to be swept along by his charm. Any film that saw him handed an expanded part is invariably worthwhile. On the other hand, I’ve rarely been all that taken with Shelley Winters – too often she was assigned needy and, ultimately, irritating roles. While that’s not the case  in The Treasure of Pancho Villa, she’s asked to play the kind of starchy and self-righteous woman who again fails to elicit a lot of sympathy. This is a weakness in the film for sure, however, everything is handily shored up by a great bit of villainy and duplicity from the typically excellent Joseph Calleia.

Generally, where possible, I like to make some comment about the availability of films which are featured on this site, not least because people often wonder about the relative merits of what copies are currently on the market. In the case of The Treasure of Pancho Villa, there is a DVD which has been released in Spain (also, I think there’s an Italian version – possibly the same print –  too) but the quality is frankly poor and it’s not a disc I’d be happy to recommend to anyone. I’ve heard rumors before that Warner Brothers in the US is working on a restored version of the title and I’d like to think that is true – this is a fine movie and it deserves to be seen in far better quality that what is out there right now. The setting in revolutionary Mexico almost immediately conjures up images of spaghetti westerns, and in turn the image of the lead with a machine-gun might well make you think of the likes of Django. Nevertheless, this is very definitely a western out of the classic mold, with all the sensibilities that implies – very enjoyable and highly recommended.

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46 thoughts on “The Treasure of Pancho Villa

    • I’ve been in the process of catching up for some time too, Sergio, so it’s still very much a work in progress for me. A lot of these films weren’t the easiest to see for ages, and some such as this clearly remain in need of a bit of care. However, recent years have seen greater availability and access although certain crime titles such as Larceny and The Sleeping City continue to elude me.

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        • I think I had heard or noticed that but haven’t investigated further. In the past I’ve heard it said that Llamentol release a lot (all?) of their Blu-rays on BD-R, which isn’t something I’d be all that comfortable with. Of course I may be mistaken here and no doubt someone will verify whether or not this is the case in due course.
          Mind you, there’s been so much material coming from so many sources lately that I’ve lost track to an extent of what’s available and/or what I want to pick up.

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          • I think you may be right – in many cases this is apparently flagged up on the packaging. I suspect this is a case for John Hodson (let’s just hope we don’t have an AR controversy brewing though, don’t think I can take much more dissing about 1.66:1 …)

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            • I’m afraid all that 1.66:1 / 1.75:1 stuff just leaves me glassy eyed and I tend to tune out of any discussion where it arises. It’s one of those cases where the difference appears minuscule to me and I simply can’t get worked up by it one way or another, not in the way chopped down scope irritates me. Each to their own of course.

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  1. The Llamentol LAST OF THE FAST GUNS is as you quite rightly state a BD/R and in fact a clone of the version on the Koch Sherman 3 disc set. Interestingly,the Llamentol website has been static for about 6 months now.
    I too have heard that Warner Archive are restoring several RKO 50’s Westerns including apart from Sherman’s film DEVIL’S CANYON, TENSION AT TABLE ROCK and GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING.

    The Sherman films from the mid 50’s produced some very interesting fare like REPRISAL! and THE HARD MAN to the aforementioned LAST OF THE
    FAST GUNS and the striking HELL BENT FOR LEATHER. In between all this was the Swashbuckler/parody SON OF ROBIN HOOD made in England. SON OF ROBIN HOOD has a most engaging cast and in the UK played top half of a double bill supported by the Regalscope Western FRONTIER GUN. The Fox MOD version of SON OF ROBIN HOOD was wretched and a 4×3 to boot, but I notice with interest that Park Circus has a 4K version available which some enterprising boutique imprint could lease.

    A neat choice for a RTHC piece Colin-who knows it may be enough to entice the elusive Blake back into the mix..I hope so. I tend to agree with you regarding Winters but having said that she is wonderful in LARCENY and WINCHESTER’73. Perhaps working with Dan Duryea raised her game…..”watch his left hand….”

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    • Fingers crossed for possible restorations of those titles you mentioned there, John.

      Winters seemed to get typecast as the whinny, needy type quite early on and struggled to get away from those kinds of roles afterwards – this one is different but still doesn’t do her any favors. I agree she was fine in Winchester ’73 though, and I very much hope that I get a chance to see Larceny one day as I always seem to hear good things about it.

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  2. Watched this one right after discovering the awesome LAST OF THE FAST GUNS, enjoyed it very much, love the ending. Sort of a proto-Spaghetti 🙂 This era of westerns is just the coolest, I’ve been eating up as many as I can.

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    • Good to hear you enjoyed it, although that’s not really surprising. The film does look ahead – visually for sure – to the following decade’s Euro westerns. Having said that, there isn’t that nihilistic sense, it’s still very much a classic western at heart.

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  3. As ever, an interesting choice, Colin, and a nicely-written review.

    Calhoun continues to grow in my personal esteem. A very decent actor for a start, plus he just made the kind of westerns I love. There are others among those I prefer to this film perhaps but TREASURE… is just fine too.

    Like Lesley Selander, George Sherman was just really good at making westerns in particular. He was a talent right from the get-go when he kicked off his directing career with classy series westerns at Republic (both The Three Mesquiteers and Don Barry). He quickly graduated to a higher budget and gave us some really nice movies. One of the best at this type of film IMO.

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    • Jerry, seeing as you mention Selander, I saw a review of a Blu-ray of his Fort Courageous the other day. Now I know that’s not the only one of his films to be released in that format – there is at least one more anyway – but I still thought there was something rather delightful about the idea of his movies being on the market in Hi-Def.

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      • It sure is, Colin, even if there are so many better Selander films that deserve the hi-def treatment.
        Talking of which, I take delivery of a BluRay player this week (at last). It is described also as a DVD upscaler so I am somewhat intrigued LOL.

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        • I think you’ll have a good time with your new Blu-ray player, Jerry – there are some lovely releases around and your DVDs get a new lease of life too. Of course some Blu-ray players are more difficult to make multi-region, even for DVD so, if you have some US region locked discs,, you should probably hold on to your old DVD player (presuming it’s multi-region) till you’re sure.

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          • Already ordered, Mike! I am treating myself to that Panamint release of “ABILENE TOWN” to start things off (it will be a modest start though; no way will I be double-dipping all over the place).
            What finally convinced me was the upcoming release of the Five Ranown films.

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            • Always keep meaning to pick that one up myself, Jerry, and actually forgot it had been released.
              And I think you’ve got the right attitude there – unlike what some people may claim, there is no need to buy everything you have again, or indeed any of it if you don’t feel like it. I stuck to some favorites which, crucially, experienced a significant upgrade in picture quality and those films whose earlier presentations were extremely weak/unsatisfactory.

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              • In fact, Mike, I think “ABILENE TOWN” is an under-rated film and a really good one in the Scott canon. The DVD I have is OK, as far as it goes, but this is one I really want to see in HD.

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  4. Regarding LARCENY, THE SLEEPING CITY and other missing Sherman titles mentioned, I might add that THE SLEEPING CITY was released recently on a very nice looking Universal Vault MOD disc-I guess with the way things are this is possibly the only way you will get the opportunity to see this very fine little Noir, especially as it would seem the Universal MOD series is no more. LARCENY, sadly is still in the missing list.
    Other interesting “lost” Sherman titles from his very productive Universal period include the very interesting TARGET UNKNOWN and the very controversial
    SWORD IN THE DESERT. I will not go into the “political” aspects regarding SWORD IN THE DESERT which was more or less banned in the UK. The Wikipedia entry for those interested details a catalog of controversy including a West End left wing cinema attempting to screen it receiving bomb threats and even Oswald Mosely brought into the mix. I have seen SWORD IN THE DESERT (at a “banned” season at London’s NFT over 20 years ago) and might add that British troops were lampooned rather than vilified. Political aspects aside it’s a very good thriller with a top flight cast. strikingly shot by Irving Glassberg. Sadly, the Euro labels that have deals with Universal (Koch,Elephant and Explosive) seem to ignore the sort of fare discussed above, hopefully that may change over time.

    Colin mentioned FORT COURAGEOUS the Selander Western released recently by Movinside, France. As far as I know this is the only one of Selander’s many Westerns to debut in high definition-a rather odd choice, I might add. FORT COURAGEOUS was an attempt by producer Hal Klein to see if, in the mid 60’s there was any life left in the black & white programmer Western…there wasn’t! Klein had an association with Bel Air pictures and the three or so cheap
    black & white Westerns that he made with Selander used lots of ex Bel Air talent. I certainly don’t expect a glut of Selander Westerns to suddenly appear on Blu Ray but a restored version of the ferocious THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK in color and widescreen would certainly be nice-especially as a color neg still exists. Just think about it THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK in blazing color and widescreen with a Toby Roan commentary-surely things can rarely get better.
    Interestingly the aforementioned Movinside have another rare Universal title debuting in high def Boetticher’s RED BALL EXPRESS.-so perhaps, over time
    they might be an outlet for the missing Sherman titles. Interestingly, Movingside have also (from Universal) licensed the Paramount titles OSS and THE VIRGINIAN (1946) for Blu Ray releases. My advice regarding Movinside fare wait for reviews on the likes of DVD Classik as their quality control seems somewhat suspect especially with their recent dire release of SIERRA BARON-not HD and 4×3 to boot! Movinside are I might add an “official” imprint-it’s just they don’t seem to have the same quality control standards of the other Euro imprints mentioned – hopefully, this will improve over time.

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    • I’ll probably get that release of The Sleeping City you mention, John, but I’m trying to take it easy as far as buying more new stuff is concerned just now.
      I’ve not seen The Yellow Tomahawk but I know you regard it highly and so my interest in it has grown over time – I certainly agree your suggestion/idea is an attractive one! Also, that’s interesting news about Red Ball Express, one of the few Boetticher films I still haven’t seen.

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      • A decent print of Red Ball Express was put out by Simply Media in UK about 3 years ago, l guess it’s the same as Universal Vault version. It’s a good film, with another strong performance from Universal main man Jeff Chandler.

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  5. I think you would like “THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK”, Colin. The star and the director are two good reasons plus it is a gritty, adult affair that deserves some TLC.

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  6. I too like the work of Calhoun in the 1950’s and same can be said of Roland. When Gilbert turned up in movies after his Latin lover days he complimented both the movie and the leading man from Calhoun to any number of stars like Kirk to Ladd and so on. Seems like a guy who had a great zest for life and someone it might have been nice to meet. As for Rory, here’s a funny story. A local radio sports guy here in Canada told a story one day that I got a laugh at. I believe he said he’s somehow related to Calhoun. He had an Aunt who while in Hollywood went to Rory’s house to introduce herself as a distant relative. He apparently answered the door and basically said “who cares” and shut it. end of story and the family reunion. Either way, I still like Rory on screen.

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  7. Thanks,as always for the edit on my previous post-
    I’ll get this ,.line breaks thing sussed one day! 🙂

    Regarding THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK it’s not without
    it’s cheesy elements especially Rita Moreno’s “jail bait”
    Indian maiden named Honey Bear” I kid you not.
    Honey Bear aside THE YELLOW TOMAHAWK has gritty
    combat scenes and makes some attempt to confront racial issues.
    The film also has one of Lee Van Cleef’s best early roles-he gets far
    more screen time than usual at this point in his career.

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    • I always like to see Van Cleef in these early roles. As you say, some were bigger than others but he’s generally good value and it’s just nice having him in any movie.

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  8. Looks like we’re all going to need deep pockets, including new Blu Ray man Jerry.
    The next big box set from Indicator is a Sam Fuller at Columbia seven film Blu Ray set, scheduled for June. Check their site for full details.

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    • Indeed, a very welcome bit of news, albeit not entirely unexpected. It’s the same set of films which Sony released in the US on DVD some years ago and more Sam Fuller in HD can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

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  9. Regarding the Blu Ray debate what I find so encouraging
    is the continuing amount of programmer Westerns appearing
    in that format,usually from Germany I might add.
    I’m referring to titles like STAR IN THE DUST,A DAY OF FURY
    RAW EDGE and NO NAME ON THE BULLET all essential
    purchases as far as I am concerned.
    Also it’s fine that more and more films starring Randolph Scott,
    Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy are appearing in high definition.

    While we have often discussed the various missing Universal
    titles I would also like to point out that there are several
    “Costume Adventures” from Universal on the missing list,several
    of which I have never seen,and would really like to.
    Firstly there’s George Sherman’s VEILS OF BAGDAD with Victor Mature
    sounds like an engaging romp and Mature excelled in this type of thing.
    Secondly there’s YANKEE PASHA with Jeff Chandler and
    Rhonda Fleming-again both actors were great in these sort of films.
    Lastly there is Joseph Newman’s KISS OF FIRE with Jack Palance
    another film very high on my “wants list”
    I don’t know if “Colonial Adventures” are viable in today’s increasingly
    P.C. World but ESC Editions,France are about to release a good one on Blu Ray
    BENGAL BRIGADE with Rock Hudson and Arlene Dahl.
    Finally,there’s also Alan Ladd’s only foray into the Foreign Legion genre
    DESERT LEGION with Arlene Dahl and Richard Conte.

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    • John, I’m a fan of these swashbuckler/period adventures – they’re simply fun movies, even if some are of lesser overall quality than others. Actually, I think those kinds of pictures would be well-suited to Blu-ray due to the frequently sumptuous visuals.

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  10. Regarding Mike’s Fuller/Indicator announcement I wonder if
    Indicator would consider a Joseph H Lewis Columbia set.
    I for one would love to see 7TH CAVALRY and A LAWLESS STREET
    in high definition along with MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS,THE UNDERCOVER MAN
    and THE SWORDSMAN..the latter a great Gothic Swashbuckler.
    Who knows,for our friend Jerry Indicator might even include one
    of Lewis’ Columbia B Westerns starring the likes of Will Bill Elliott.
    A question…is Lewis’ cult reputation as solid as Fullers?

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    • John, I think Lewis has a solid enough reputation, and I’d love to see a set along the lines you mention. With Indicator, as far as I can tell, a lot comes down to availability of high definition masters as they don’t create those themselves. I think a William Castle set, again along the lines of the old US DVD set from Sony, will appear at some point.

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  11. I very much enjoyed this review of course. I love what you wrote about Sherman–I guess “addictive” may explain why I’ve now seen something like 40 of his films. THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA is one of my favorites, in a group of half a dozen or so just below THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS and maybe even the best of those–I’ve seen it a number of times.

    As I know I’ve said a lot before, Sherman is one of my favorite directors of Westerns, especially in the 50s, the genre’s best period–and moreover, he has some wonderful films in other genres, from THE SLEEPING CITY to JOHNNY DARK, but he seems to connect most personally to the Western, either for the Indian cycle, in which he made such a strong, sympathetic contribution (TOMAHAWK, for example, or in later more intimate “prejudice” movies REPRISAL!), or to movies like this one, which shares the redemption theme with THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS (as you say, also with Roland) and another of his strongest DAWN AT SOCORRO (which preceded this and also stars Calhoun). I don’t claim that Sherman is an artist on the level of say, John Ford, or some others I might name. It’s more that he does so much over a very rich body of work, generally something beautiful or meaningful there in the individual ones and it just adds up to a lot in the end.

    And as you suggest he gets better. His earliest Republic and then Columbia were a good start and a long-running U-I contract even better up through to CHIEF CRAZY HORSE in 1955, but that period of independence that follows is especially good the next three years, when the films are on the same production level but he always seems personally very invested in them. These are not always better than some of the earlier ones but he just seem so much where he has been wanting to get to, and neatly, this finishes (after THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA, COUNT THREE AND PRAY, COMANCHE, REPRISAL! and THE HARD MAN) with a return to U-I for FAST GUNS. I’ve only seen half of the dozen films he made after that–they seem to be more checkered, and I believe that’s partly because the times were starting to go against this level of film, at least in the 60s (not to take anything away from John Knight favorite HELL BENT FOR LEATHER, again U-I, but I like that whole cycle of Gordon Kay produced later Audie Murphy Westerns).

    Your comparison to Spaghetti Westerns is not inapt with PANCHO VILLA, and you are quick to point out that it belongs with its own era of Westerns. I’d add that one difference beyond the stylistic (Italian Westerns are “mannerist” and not classical, and that even goes for Leone, much as I sometimes love him), so crucial an aspect in itself, is that even if characters are mercenaries in some of these 50s films (another one that strongly anticipates the Spaghettis in some aspects is VERA CRUZ, and there is also BANDIDO in the vein of this Sherman movie), the films themselves are not cynical like the Spaghettis characteristically are. The classic period goes to a different moral plane–and always goes there in the end; I don’t think Italian Westerns were ever much interested in redemption, one of many reasons I like them so much less when put alongside a film like this one.

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    • Blake, I liked the way you expressed the point about Sherman’s position as an artist. As with so many aspects, there are tiers involved. The fact we have people like Ford who occupy the highest echelons doesn’t mean that others should be dismissed on he grounds they didn’t attain the same heights – that someone like Sherman could and did produce instances of work, or passages within certain works, that have something personal to say is enough. And, the accumulation of such moments when his body of work is looked at then becomes even more significant.

      No arguments from me on the spaghetti western and its relationship to the classic version – I do like that term “mannerist” and think it’s most appropriate and rather neatly sums up the style employed. Sure we got cynical and even amoral characters in classic westerns, and the mercenary is a strong example of this, but their presence didn’t mean the films’ overall tone matched – the tone of the classic western is what largely set it apart and its view of humanity, filtered through the prism of art, is noticeably different.

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  12. Colin – Thanks for the review. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this film, but will look for it now. Director George Sherman is someone who turned out a lot of films I’ve enjoyed. But I did not give him enough credit or consideration until I saw a 1960 film of his called, FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, about a boy and his horse, which had a lot going for it.

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