'The Cisco Kid' Walks Between Two Worlds : Television: Filmmakers get back to their roots in the TNT movie, following the footsteps of a legendary hero.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rebellious black stallion had finally let Jimmy Smits mount him and the six child actors playing Cheech Marin's brood were primed to pay their father a tearful goodby when the first raindrops fell.

A clap of thunder sent the cast and crew of Turner Network Television's made-for-TV movie "The Cisco Kid" running for the cover of an adobe house in this mountain village, their sixth location in as many weeks.

"That's the way it's been, always trying to beat something--the rain or the dark," said Marin, who plays sidekick Pancho to Smits' Cisco. He laughed and added: "We ride for hours. Every day I wake up with new bruises. Had I known, I would have asked for more money."

After more than a month of 20-hour days, hailstorms and saddle sores, the "Cisco Kid" stars were getting punchy. But just past the jokes was a sense of purpose--Chicano filmmakers who have come to Mexico to work with colleagues here in revising the legend of a 19th-Century Californio's role in helping Mexico regain its independence during the French occupation.

The $6-million project, which premieres on TNT Feb. 6, brought together: Smits, "L.A. Law's" brooding, idealistic Victor Sifuentes; Marin of the Cheech & Chong comedy team and, more recently, "Born in East L.A.," the tongue-in-cheek saga of a Chicano's sojourn in Mexico; Luis Valdez, who directed "La Bamba" and "Zoot Suit"; and Moctesuma Esparza, who along with partner Robert Katz produced "Gettysburg," "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez."

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Mexicans with extensive international credits, such as cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, handled much of the film's technical side and supporting roles.

"This is a collaboration of Chicano and Mexican filmmakers to portray both our history," Esparza said.

That attitude permeated the set, where about the only English spoken was the actors' lines and a few phrases of show-business jargon that crossed the border along with the first Hollywood movie-makers to film in Mexico.

Valdez brought his wife and teen-age sons along for the entire filming and encouraged other members of the cast and crew to invite their families to the set. Villagers who wanted to watch the filming were welcomed and often offered small roles, giving the production the atmosphere of a family outing.

A new purpose is also evident in the movie's story line. In this version, the character based on an O. Henry story, "The Caballero's Way," remains the Wild West adventurer brought to the screen by actors Stan Dunn, Warner Baxter, Cesar Romero and Duncan Renaldo. But this Cisco has the added dimension of a man in search of himself. He was born in California when it was still part of Mexico but made a fortune as a '49er in the Gold Rush and fought in the Civil War as an American. He travels to Mexico on a secret mission from the U.S. government to supply guns to Mexican rebels.

"Cisco is probably the first Chicano," said Smits, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. "There is a whole question of identity, 'Where do I belong?' "

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That question was reflected in the costuming that production designer Joe Aubel developed for Smits. In early scenes, he wears high boots and a leather belt typical of a Civil War veteran, along with striped trousers used on the border during that era. As Cisco travels farther into Mexico, he dons the black charro , or Mexican cowboy costume that identifies the Cisco Kid character the way the Lone Ranger is known by his mask.

"The costume evolves as he finds himself," Aubel explained. Cisco's clothes become part of exploring his Mexican side, as does his friendship with Pancho. "Pancho fulfills a part of him that he is trying to tap into," Smits said.

That portrayal of Pancho--radically different from the slovenly buffoon shown in earlier productions of "The Cisco Kid"--attracted Marin to the script that Michael Kane co-wrote with director Valdez. "What has really shifted is who Pancho is in relation to Cisco," Marin said. "He is the revolutionary, the idealist."

Scenes being filmed on one recent day were crucial to establishing the relationship between gun-runner Cisco and freedom fighter Pancho--compatriots separated by a border.

Aubel covered a tin roof with red tiles to transform the Telesforo Sanchez family home into the house where an 1860s Pancho lived with his wife, Rosa (Yareli Arizmendi, who played the eldest daughter in "Like Water for Chocolate"), and their six children. Over a tequila breakfast, Pancho and Rosa try to persuade Cisco to join the insurgency against the French occupation.

"You're a lucky man, Pancho," Smits tells Marin. "You have a home, a good wife, children--lots of them--and a country to fight for."

"It's your country too, isn't it?" Arizmendi asks.

"It used to be," Smits replies.

Director Valdez said, "We used the French intervention to give Pancho a background, a political context."

It was also a chance to inform viewers, Esparza said.

"Most Americans don't know that the French invaded Mexico and attempted to establish a monarchy," he said. A Mexican victory against enormous odds in an 1862 battle of the insurgency against the French occupation is the fete that is celebrated every May 5 as Cinco de Mayo.

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The 15-minute downpour that the cast and crew experienced here was a mere inconvenience compared to other weather problems the movie suffered. A week earlier, the Mexican army was sent out to rescue the production troupe. A hailstorm had caught them on a desert mountaintop in the middle of a battle scene.

"We had 50 horses freaking out," Marin recalled. "It was scary because all you can do is stand there and get rained on."

Besides the impromptu rescue, Mexican soldiers played a crucial planned role in "The Cisco Kid." Both the French and insurgent troops seen in the movie are really Mexican cavalry, with a few cowboys thrown in to increase the numbers. "Where else are you going to find people who can ride in formation?" asked Esparza.

The Mexican government also cooperated in easing the way for gun and gunpowder permits, difficult to obtain here.

The production roamed throughout the country, from the colonial city of Zacatecas to the desert village of Sombrerete to the organ pipe cactus region known as Los Organos.

"These images are not going to be the images American audiences have typically seen of Mexico," Esparza said. "We are going to show lush, green countryside. . . . We are trying to create a three-dimensional aspect of history while we entertain."

That historical aspect was brought home to Valdez during one location shot.

"In Sombrerete, we were shooting across the street from a house with a plaque that said 'Benito Juarez slept here,' " he recalled. His voice was tinged with the awe he still felt at having retraced the steps of the hero who freed Mexico from the French occupation and introduced reforms, such as the separation of church and state, that are central to government in Mexico today.

"I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with Mexican crews," the director said. "This has been a watershed year."

Such a watershed, in fact, that Valdez even shaved the mustache he has worn for 35 years in order to play a cameo role of Juarez. "He is one of the great democratic heroes of the Americas," Valdez explained. "I have identified with him since I was a kid."

As for the lost mustache, Valdez said: "At 18, I started to grow a mustache to emphasize my Mexican heritage. . . . It has become part of my permanent image. But now, I no longer need a mustache to affirm my Mexican heritage."

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