The Legend of Pancho Barnes isn’t much like your usual queer film festival documentary. In fact, its actual “queerness” is entirely ambiguous, but its subject: aviator, cross dresser and entertainer extraordinaire Florence “Pancho” Barnes, makes it all worthwhile.
Directed by Amanda Pope, it’s a thoroughly entertaining look at a very unconventional life. If all you know of Pancho Barnes comes from Kim Stanley’s portrayal of her in The Right Stuff, well, you’ve come to the right place.
There’s really no “legend” to speak of here, as the film is a straight-up documentary about our heroine. We begin with her childhood, circa 1905.
As a tomboy, Florence was a disappointment to her wealthy, Victorian mother. She originally played the part of the good girl, marrying a reverend, and having a son, but soon enough, she broke away with tradition. Like most of the things she did in life, she broke away in the biggest, most spectacular ways possible.
Her adventures run the gamut from the bizarre to the truly inspiring: she ran away from home and dressed as a man to become a crewmember on a “banana boat” serving the Mexican revolution, stuffing a handkerchief proudly in her pants. She became a pilot, purchasing and testing new aircraft, participating in early air races, even serving as the first female stunt pilot, in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood epic Hells Angels.
A true aviation pioneer in a field of mostly men, she held her own — and broke a few records in the process. One early film shows her receiving the honor of being “one of the best pilots to ever wear pants." She owned her own fleet of airplanes and participating in dangerous “air walking” flight shows.
She even broke the woman’s speed record, besting the legendary Amelia Earheart.
Later, she purchased a ranch in the Mojave Desert and turned it into a world-famous resort (The “Happy Bottom Riding Club”), and kept company with all the test pilots at the local Air Force Base. She was a friend to movie stars, entrepreneurs, Air Force Generals, and it seems, everyone in between.
The bullet point treatment really doesn’t do justice to the force of personality on display here. She was loud and lovable, totally butch, and possessed a salty vocabulary that would’ve made a sailor blush.
Perhaps best of all, she was absolutely unafraid to be herself at a time when women were encouraged to live quiet lives in the shadows of their husbands.
The picture looks and feels much like a History Channel special — “talking heads” interviews with experts and friends are intercut with archival footage and photographs. Legendary pilots like Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to break the sound barrier) and Buzz Aldrin (better known as Neil Armstrong’s crewmate for the first lunar landing) are aboard, as are aviation historians, surviving friends and family, and Barnes biographers.
The production is clean and well polished, and top rate talent was hired for narration and voiceovers. Tom Skerrit weaves the narrative, while the always-lovely Kathy Bates fills in the voice of Pancho herself, her slight drawl and friendly manner intact. All new footage is crystal-clear HD, with the usual flashy titles and photo-melding motion graphics.
The polished veneer is nice, but, given the large budget and total access to such close friends, it’s disappointing to note that one key question is never addressed: Was Pancho gay or bisexual? Considering her butch appearance, occasional cross-dressing, and closeness to high profile queer folks (including actor Ramon Navarro), a bit of insight into her sexuality would’ve been appreciated. Without much to go on, some have speculated that she was bisexual, though Legend only offers the barest hint of an attraction to women — and otherwise ignores the question entirely.
Perhaps we’ll never know, but given her general gender bending and message of female empowerment, it’s safe to say that the film does have a place in the LGBT screen canon.
Gay or straight, anyone with a pulse can appreciate Pancho’s sense of humor and joie de vivre. To spite her first husband (the stern Reverend), she’d buzz over his church as he gave Sunday services, in one of the most hilarious “up yours” moments in history. She took four different husbands at one time or another — all of them handsome young men (in fact, the last was the same age as her son).
She certainly wasn’t shy about sex: she actually said that flying made her feel “like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $100 bills."
Equally appealing is the aura of proto-feminism that surrounds the production. Pancho was a strong women in an era of withering flowers, a big, loud, gutsy lady who stood out in every crowd. Instead of ignoring her early tomboy instincts and being a good little Victorian girl, she went her own way. When she speaks about her time onboard the Banana Boat, she proudly speaks of how her handkerchief “packing” gave her the “best looking balls on the boat."
Every real life pilot who speaks in the film mentions what a talented flier she was — coming from legendary figures such as Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin, that means quite a bit. She excelled is business as well, and had close ties to military higher-ups, making her one of the very first women to break an impressively high glass ceiling.
At one hour, the film is breezy and short, with a clipped pace that doesn’t allow the filmmakers to delve particularly deeply into any one topic. Perhaps this is for the best — Legend is continually exciting and fun, keeping in the spirit of Pancho herself.
Check out the film’s official website at panchobarnesfilm.com