Posted by: dougery | February 6, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Two: The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966), directed by Richard Brooks and loaded with the biggest names in acting of its day, is a difficult film to assess. On one hand it seems a simple joy-ride of a western, nothing more than a studio (Columbia Pictures) assembling a star-studded cast and fitting them into a reasonably thrilling generic plot to sell a bunch of tickets. Which is to say that it feels an awful lot like the comicbook superhero franchise films that are released today. Westerns after-all, were a big money genre for Hollywood, as close to a sure thing as one could find. Poor studios of today, what with currently scraping the bottom of the barrel for brand recognition. This is why we’ll see features based on board games in the very near future, ugh.

Yet when you take a closer look there are some weird things going on here in terms of theme and characterization. Strange enough things that were it released today might bring down the ire of conservatives and tea-partiers, which is to say that in the end this film doesn’t exactly scan as pro-American Values. Now there are a lot of westerns that are sympathetic to revolutionary politics, but I’m willing to bet few cloak these sentiments under something like Burt Lancaster’s charismatic, ‘America-fuck-yeah!’ let’s-explode-some-shit grin. And very few that so baldly link the ‘true’ in True Romance to the almost religious ‘nobility’ of Radical Politics.

The opening frames, where ‘the professionals’ are introduced, is either a brilliant stroke of economical film-making or an extremely lazy way of rolling out the big names as character tropes. Lee Marvin is Henry “Rico” Fardan, your familiar grizzled pro with a gravely voice and a word weary cynicism (he’s in it for the money). Lancaster is Bill Dolworth, a lecherous dynamiter who spends quite a bit of his screen time either in his long underwear, ogling women, saving the day or all three. Woody Strode is Jake Sharp, an expert tracker who has ‘native Apache skills’ which seems slightly offensive because (of course) he’s the black dude so I guess its okay for him to play the ‘savage’? Robert Ryan’s turn as Hans Ehrengard is largely a plot device, in that he’s a horse wrangler and literally speeds along the group’s quest or slows it, as when he gets shot, which seems to happen a lot.

So there’s your professionals, hired by rich guy Anonymous Q Bankerdude to go down to lawless Meh-Hee-Co and rescue his trophy wife from some guy named Jesus (no, I’m not joking). It turns out Jesus, to nobody’s surprise, is Jack Palance. Palance is doing his best to pass as Mexican (reminding me of Sean Connery squinting in a dark wig as he pretending to be Japanese in You Only Live Twice), only Palance is doing so with a thick mustache and mad Spanish vocab skills. He spends much of the film riding a horse and looking constipated. Except when he is sexing up Claudia Cardinale (as Mrs. Maria Grant (Bankerdude’s ‘lost’ wife), where Palance is merely mustachioed and shirtless. And here we have the big twist of the plot, this is less a kidnapping as a ‘wife’ running off to be with her True Love. Turns out Bankerdude bought the rights to her which isn’t offensive at all.

Don't worry, she's not just a sex object, she's also a metaphor for the Mexican Revolution

All the while there are trains being robbed and bridges/water-towers being sploded, many many many horse chases, double-crossing goat-herders, and your omnipresent whiskey bottle. Which brings me back to my first point. Often The Professionals feels less like its own story and more like a plot that is quoting other westerns. Or, as I put it to a friend the other day, this movie is the equivalent of a late career album from a big name Rap star. The new material here is half-assed and the framework is largely there to support guest stars, only instead of Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne and Drake, here’s Palance, Marvin and Lancaster. Like the folks on a bloated non-essential rap album, these actors are going through the motions. They know what a western is supposed to look and feel like, they just don’t come off as if they believe in it this time around.

And yet there’s that prickly point that our heroes are former freedom fighters for the Mexican revolution under Pancho Villa. They willingly fought (obviously money was involved, but still) and put their lives on the line for, and my Mexican history isn’t great so bear with me, the radical politics of socialism. Now it would be one thing if they did this solely for cash. But late in the film we see the professionals have bigger hearts than all that. They turn down 10K a piece for the equivalent of True Romance. Revolutions themselves are often romanticized, you need look no further than to see how some folks in US Politics transform our founding fathers and willfully ignore or edit away their more sordid deeds. Yet this move, turning down the money, implicates our heroes a bit. One has to wonder what their involvement with Villa actually means. It couldn’t have just been about the money.

Then again this is a big action flick, and maybe we’re not meant to think so much. Just look at Burt’s eyes and easy smile believe him when he says “I was born with a powerful passion to create. I can’t write, can’t paint, can’t make up a song…” (Here his colleague interrupts and adds) “So you explode things,” and Burt finishes, “Well that’s how the world was born. Biggest damn explosion you ever saw. ” Maybe they fought because the fighting was there. Maybe they blew up stuff because it was fun. Or maybe they actually gave a damn.

Grade: “Ten-High Straight

Reading: All the King’s Men

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