The Mexican Revolution is brewing, and American pilot Lee Arnold (Robert Mitchum) is gun running to the army as they try to stave off the opposition from the rebels, the highest profile of whom is Pancho Villa (Yul Brynner), a man who commands incredible loyalty not only from his own troops, but from the peasants who feel they have been oppressed for too long. Arnold is none to bothered about that, he just wants his biplane's wheel repaired so he can get out, but he's about to play a bigger part than he reckoned...
Villa Rides was one of the many movies that director Sam Peckinpah was meant to make, but was thrown off after various disagreements, although he retained a screenwriter's credit. The man who actually adapted his script was Robert Towne, soon to be a major name in seventies Hollywood, but when you know he called this a textbook example of how not to make a movie, then you'll be aware that few involved in the production side were enormously pleased with the manner in which this progressed or indeed turned out.
As was often the case, star Brynner was used to getting his own way on his vehicles, and asked for the script to play up Villa's heroic side and forget about that masses of people he ordered killed, or killed himself for that matter. Which explains the caption at the beginning talking up their subject as one of the greatest revolutionary heroes of all time or whatever, certainly Villa was responsible for improving the lot of the common Mexican in his day, but you couldn't help but wish this could have been closer to Peckinpah's original concept that emphasised the darker aspects of the fighter as well as his good points.
It's not as if Brynner couldn't have played him that way, yet he was very protective of his image, which meant a lot of rewriting on his movies to please him (though he did wear a wig this time). Not helping was the fact that the story kept being distracted by the Arnold character, who for a Mitchum role had interesting but not really capitalised upon weaselly characteristics which were then ironed out to make him an American everyman, far less vital to the overall tale of the revolution than this made out. Actually, the man you most wanted to know about was Villa's second-in-command, a ruthless warrior called Fierro, played by a certain actor who was about to be very big indeed.
Charles Bronson, for it was he, was already a recognisable name (he gets the "And" credit in the opening titles), but mainly a huge star in Europe rather than North America. Here, however, he proved what he could do for your movie in a tough guy role, stealing every scene from under the noses of his co-stars - and under his own nose was the newly-grown 'tache that he would wear for the rest of his career. Obviously on his way to bigger things, Bronson provided the best reason to watch this, as even fans of Brynner and Mitchum would concede that they did not have as many memorable scenes as he did, whether shooting prisoners personally because he enjoys it, or sending off a telegraph message to the effect that if his boss is not released, his enemies will have him to answer to (no idle threat, you can believe). Villa Rides was one of the last of the old Hollywood Westerns: Europe was introducing a new brutality to the form that Peckinpah would pick up and run with in next year's The Wild Bunch, which is closer to the film this should have been. Music by Maurice Jarre.