Villa, Walsh and War – or, a reflection on history and war reporting, part 1


Some years ago, I somehow got myself into a workshop on investigative journalism for TV. The course had been organised by a major university in my hometown, and it was definitely not intended as a motivational event for third-year undergraduates with limited journalistic experience and vague intentions about their future. Most of the people that attended the course with me were already pursuing a career in media, and the convenors were all established journalists that regularly collaborated with either one of the two major Italian television groups.

Attending the workshop was a fascinating, if a bit daunting, experience. While  my colleagues asked technical questions about filming equipment and networked with abandon, I listened quietly from my chosen corner of the dimly-lit classroom. I felt a bit like a boy that, after being discovered spying on a newsroom meeting headed by Charles Foster Kane, had been given by the big man himself the opportunity to stay if he kept silent.

Yeah, I know, I'm exaggerating it a bit...

Yeah, I know, I’m exaggerating it a bit…

Whereas little of what was said and shown during the workshop has stayed with me in later years, I have always remembered with clarity the talk that a war correspondent gave us on the third day. Grizzled, heavy-set and dressed in the same multi-pocket travel gilet he probably wore on the field, he started by sharing with us the main lesson he had learnt during the years spent between the Middle East and Chechnya : “If you want to do a good job as a war reporter, you must reflect on what you’re doing – especially if you work for television. Just by being there with a camera you are probably going to alter what you see. It’s an age-old lesson, but it’s one that some colleagues tend to forget quite easily”.

(I know, he probably wore a suit and never uttered those precise words, but – in a shocking contradiction of the main arguments and themes of this article – I won’t let accuracy get into the way of storytelling)

“And if you really want to meet deadlines and you’re not too particular about the quality of your work, you’ll end up staging or re-enacting events, both for your employers and those who follow you back at home. You’ll play with perspective, you’ll show the right faces, and you’ll magically change reality”.

He substantiated this last statement by showing us a slightly surreal news report on Christmas trees in occupied Kabul, made by an Italian journalist a few months after the start of the 2001 war in Afghanistan. The report, built around what was probably the only Christmas tree in the area (technically not even on Afghan soil, as it stood in the courtyard of the Swiss embassy) heavily implied that a (genuinely Christian?) festive atmosphere could be felt in the Sunni capital.

On a more serious note, he later spoke at length about the Second Intifada, discussing how the awareness of the potentially deceitful nature of war reporting had been exploited to unprecedented extremes over the course of the  conflict. He showed us a documentary he had realized about Muhammad al-Durrah, a Palestinian boy of 12 killed by gunfire in front of a cameraman working for tv channel France 2. Muhammad and his father were pinned down by the crossfire between Palestinian demonstrators and the Israel Defence Force on a road junction in the Gaza Strip. The footage filmed by the freelancer shows both father and son first desperately trying to stay in cover and then being hit by several rounds. As the ‘smoking gun’ of the perpetrator has not been caught on camera, al-Durrah’s death has become subject of intense controversy. To date, after an initial admission of guilt by the IDF, there is no official truth about the affaire. There is factual proof: a boy was shot and killed on camera. But the meaning of this proof is – paradoxically – open to interpretation. Did the IDF shoot a child and exploited the confused footage of his death to deny responsibility? Did the Palestinian demonstrators stage the boy’s death, to create a new martyr for their cause? Or maybe Muhammad and his father were just accidentally hit by a stray salve of bullets? Had France 2 been sincere in broadcasting Muhammad’s death, or had it altered the footage to place guilt on one side rather than the other? The war correspondent had his own precise opinion about how things had transpired, but he deliberately introduced us to all the possible meanings of what should have been a ‘straightforward’ document.

The relatively simple idea that visual evidence of conflict could be open to interpretation was, at the time, quite new to me, which accounts for the fact that I still have a vivid memory of the talk. As the workshop convenor said, it’s an old truth, but it’s also a slippery one. Even if you’re just playing the passive part of an observer, you can be fooled into capturing an image that has been staged in response to your presence (what the correspondent called the ‘propaganda of suffering’) or create more or less consciously a new meaning for a scene just by cropping a photograph or – as Susan Sontag has stressed – by adding a caption to it [1].

But what if the man or woman who holds the camera is not just passively ‘reporting’ – whether honestly trying to capture spontaneous documents or surreptitiously arranging re-enactments of what he saw, for reasons of convenience or because of technical limitations – but also intervenes more directly during a conflict? We know that wars can be fought with both guns and images – the al-Durrah affaire shows this quite clearly. I would like to argue, though, that the production and diffusion of propaganda for or against a certain side is not the only kind of reporting ‘intervention’ in war. Reporting for propaganda reasons may be seen as a reflexive activity, which features a conscious selection of the elements captured on the field and an awareness of the observer’s role in the conflict. So, what happens if there is a will to intervene on the part of the camera-carrying reporters which does not feature such a reflexive element? What happens if – as the war correspondent briefly suggested – a reporter is blissfully unaware of his part in a conflict, beyond his obvious role as an image collector?

Walsh and Villa make a movie

A couple of years later, while attending a course on Latin American History in London, I was asked by my tutor to prepare a small presentation on visual primary sources. After a few days of fruitless research, I stumbled upon something that reminded me of the half-forgotten workshop and the talk that the war correspondent had given us. The item in question was a copy of Raoul Walsh’s autobiography, “Each Man in His Time”, published in 1974 and detailing his experiences as a Hollywood actor and director. Chapter 7, in particular, grabbed my attention.

The chapter title is ‘Viva Villa!’, and it narrates Walsh’s adventures in Mexico as an employee of the Mutual Film Company in 1914 – a time when Mutual had D.W. Griffith, the celebrated director of ‘Birth of a Nation’ (in which Walsh played the part of John Wilkes Booth) on its payroll.

Mr. Raoul Walsh, ready to kill some Lincolns

Mr. Raoul Walsh, ready to kill some Lincolns

According to Walsh, he had been sent to Mexico to direct a movie about General Pancho Villa, one of the famed military commanders of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution. The extraordinary bit here is that the movie would star, by agreement, Pancho Villa himself and his Northern Division, in his “march on Mexico City to attack General Carranza” [2]. This now-lost movie, entitled ‘The Life of Villa’, would contain footage of the real Villa and his battles, interspersed with a fictional narrative about a ‘personal tragedy’ in the leader’s early years (the rape and murder of his sister by an officer of the Federal Army). Guess who would be playing the role of a young Pancho Villa? Yeah, Raoul Walsh again.

Mr. Walsh again, this time ready to kill some Federales (The image is used to illustrate a portion of the blog article. It has been resized and modified. Scan was taken at the British Library and is posted here in compliance with fair use regulations on criticism/review. © resides with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. Please, please, please don’t kill me, copyright people)

A wee bit of context for those who are not familiar with the period. The uprising of Francisco I. Madero against the de facto dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and the subsequent bloody struggle to determine the fate of Mexico’s people largely coincided with the rise of the first ‘actuality’ cinematograph newsreels. Pathé’s Weekly started on August 8th 1911; the Vitagraph Monthly of Current Event was launched in August 1911; finally, the Mutual Film Company showed for the first time its own Mutual Weekly in January 1913. The coincidence between the appearance of these early forms of video journalism and the Mexican turmoil led many U.S. cameramen and journalist to report on the warring factions in their Southern neighbour – especially after the events of the Decena Trágica (‘the ten tragic days’), during which Madero and his vice-president, Pino Suárez, were murdered and replaced in a bloody coup by General Victoriano Huerta – and thus to a growing interest of the American public towards the Revolution [3].

Walsh describes how he was sent to Ciudad Juárez to sign a contract with Villa and to deliver the money  that Mutual had promised him in exchange of the opportunity to film his campaigns (“five hundred dollars in gold”, as Villa had purportedly “shot the would-be promoter who offered him paper money” [4]). After a meeting with the General himself, Walsh is accepted as part of Villa’s contingent, and starts to shoot scenes about the victorious descent of the Northern Division towards Mexico City. The following extract from Walsh’s chronicle should be sufficient to explain why I was so amazed by the whole story. Walsh is narrating the aftermath of the Battle of Durango, during which his cameraman Aussenberg and himself haven’t been able to obtain enough shots of Villa’s troops in action. This is what happens:

“Ortega [Manuel, one of Villa’s lieutenants who serves as Walsh’s interpreter] stopped grinning when I told him I wanted the general’s consent to dress some of his men in federal uniforms and stage a mock battle with their comrades. “Mierda! They will shoot me or the others will shoot them”. He went away and presently I heard shouting among the soldiers who had marched in. Evidently my proposition was unpopular. Then I saw a man put down his rifle and walk reluctantly over to a dead federal and remove the bloody jacket. Under Villa’s eye others followed suit; soon we were looking at a hundred hybrids, federals from head to waist and rebels from there down. The northern men refused to wear federal breeches and boots. Caps and jackets were as far as they would go. I had to caution Aussenberg about his photography. The public would hardly accept government issue and bare feet. “Pan high. Just the action”. This time we used ditches on the edge of town because I wanted real gunsmoke. ‘Rebels’ and ‘federals’ were ordered to aim into the desert. I had Ortega give me a few dry runs. Then we shot ‘Carranzistas’ shooting at ‘Villistas’ and vice versa. This meant working close to the line of fire… our main problem was not bullets. It was keeping the federals from laughing. Once they got over their reluctance to don the hated uniforms, everything became a big joke to the Sonora men. I had never heard of troops under fire grinning like apes at one another or the enemy” [5]. The story goes on for several pages, reaching notable peaks when Walsh hires a group of prostitutes to cheer at Villa’s re-enacted triumphal entrance in Durango and when he opens the doors of the local prison to film the joy of the inmates at the arrival of the Northern Division.

You can picture my surprise when I read about this. A military leader relinquishing control of his troops to produce an adulterated account of his campaigns, to be later shown as a factual news report in a different country. It was beyond the staged photographs of the American Civil War, beyond the fake war movies made during the Spanish-American conflict of 1898, beyond anything I had heard on the subject so far [6]. I conducted  a quick – indeed, too quick – verification about Walsh’s account, and found confirmation in a recent, sort-of-officially-looking biography [7], in a series of monographs about early Hollywood directors [8], and even in an issue of Weider’s Military History [9]. Thus, I proceeded to prepare a presentation on Walsh and Villa, stressing the uniqueness of the situation and the amazing role that the actor and fledgling director had played in the context of the Revolution.

… and yet, everything I based my research on was false. Fake. Bullcrap. I won’t bore you with a detailed accounts of the inaccuracies with which Walsh peppered his account of the events – it’s sufficient to know that, by 1914, Villa was still fighting for Venustiano Carranza and not against him; that there was no battle of Durango in Villa’s campaign; that, even if there was an Ortega at Villa’s service, his name was Toribio, and he wouldn’t probably have been assigned as Walsh’s steward, being himself a notable revolutionary leader and Villa’s second-in-command. Even poor Aussenberg, the Austrian cameraman, had been fabricated out of thin air.

It doesn't look all that reliable, does it?

It doesn’t look all that reliable, does it?

How did I realise that and what did I discover next? If this hasn’t bored you out of your mind, stay tuned for the next part, where the whole thing will (hopefully!) start to make sense.

1. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 12.
2. Walsh, Raoul. Each Man in His Time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, p. 85.
3. de los Reyes, Aurelio. Con Villa en México. Testimonios de camarógrafos norteamericanos en la Revolución. Ciudad de México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1985, p. 38-9.
4. Walsh, Each Man, p. 85.
5. Walsh, Each Man, p. 96.
6. see Sontag, Regarding the pain, pp. 43-4; de los Reyes, Con Villa en México, p. 38; Bottomore, Stephen. Filming, faking, and propaganda: the origin of the war film, 1897-1902. PhD dissertation discussed at the University of Utrecht in 2007 (retrieved here:, chapters 6 and 7.
7. Moss, Marilyn Ann. Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011, pp. 31-7.
8. Bogdanovich, Peter. Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997, pp. 148-151; Schickel, Richard. The Men Who Made the Movies. New York: Atheneum, 1975, pp. 24-7.


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