Guest Writer: John Schulian
It is a sign of the times that our movie heroes no longer go traipsing off to Mexico to scratch their itch for unlikely nobility, filthy lucre, or good old-fashioned trouble. The show-me-your-papers crowd in Arizona would have us believe there are so many illegals heading north that even celluloid mercenaries looking south of the border better stay home lest they be trampled. Myself, I’d suggest that the abundance of lead being slung in Mexico’s drug wars makes telling stories about brave yanquis, especially the contemporary variety, about as plausible as having Madonna sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Once, however, the land of Villa welcomed Humphrey Bogart so he could die a greed head’s death in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and Robert Mitchum, fresh out of a very real jail, as he tracked down a missing Army payroll in “The Big Steal.” You should know about “The Magnificent Seven,” of course, just as you should “The Wild Bunch”: two classic Westerns that sprang from the idea of American bad men finding something good inside them under Mexican skies, the former ending with a triumphant ride out of town, the latter with a fireball of dark glory. And then there is a hugely entertaining Western that is too often forgotten, “The Professionals,” which is about early 20th Century mercenaries who are crazy brave but not stupid. Four of them, to be exact: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, each possessing more testosterone by himself than there is in all of Hollywood today.
Lancaster was a former circus acrobat who did his own stunts and, legend has it, could handle himself in a street fight. Marvin fought his way through World War II as a marine in the Pacific, and, with a mug like his, he must have put up his dukes a few times as a civilian, too. Ryan boxed in college (and was nothing less than splendid in the fight racket noir “The Set-Up”). Strode played football at UCLA, broke the NFL’s color line (alongside college teammate Kenny Washington), wrestled professionally, died a righteous death in “Spartacus,” and, though he was 52 when “The Professionals” was released in 1966, looked like he was made of steel cable.
You could hunt for a long time and not find a cooler cast, and I say this without having mentioned Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale, who are in it, too. They were gathered together by Richard Brooks, one of those filmmakers whose biggest movies you may remember – “In Cold Blood,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Blackboard Jungle” -– but whose name has pretty much been washed away by time. Brooks wasn’t a powerhouse like John Huston, for whom he wrote “Key Largo,” nor was he the directing equal of a Huston or a Howard Hawks. He was a former newspaper reporter whose ideas and passions bounced all over the place, the way they must have when he worked general assignment. He found the inspiration for “The Professionals” in a Frank O’Hara novel called “A Mule for the Marquesa,” and it became one of only three Westerns on his resume. Maybe Brooks should have made more; “The Professionals” earned him Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay. But even so, every time I watch it, I come away thinking it was the cast that had all the fun.
The story they find themselves in is strictly meat and potatoes. With the fires of the Mexican Revolution reduced to dying embers, railroad baron Ralph Bellamy summons Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan and Strode to present them with a problem he expects them to solve: The bandit chieftain Jesus Raza, played by Palance, has kidnapped Bellamy’s wife, the fetching Ms. Cardinale, and he wants our heroes to rescue her. They know Palance from the old days. They’ve fought beside him but they’ll fight against him because that’s what hired guns do. And so, once the money is right — $10,000 a man upon La Cardinale’s return — they set out to do it again.
There’s no great overarching truth here that I can see, no haunting message of the kind that Sam Peckinpah used to send about time passing men by. What Brooks does is simply spin a yarn that gets off the launching pad because the railroad baron is a liar. Everything else about the movie is pure entertainment of the pre-CGI variety, starting with a dandy opening sequence in which Brooks establishes all of his heroes in less that a minute: Marvin is the weapons expert, Ryan the horseman, Strode the tracker, and Lancaster the guy who goes out the window in his long johns when he gets caught loving up another man’s wife. He’s by far the most corruptible of the bunch, but he’s also a damn good explosives man. And then there’s that killer Lancaster smile, as broad as the windshield on a Peterbilt. No way he gets left behind.
Funny thing is, even though Lancaster packs the most charisma in “The Professionals,” the best lines in Brooks’s taut, engaging script come from Marvin’s mouth. Early on, Bellamy points at a photo of him as a young man and says, “Your hair was darker then.” “My heart was lighter,” the silver-thatched Marvin replies. When our heroes realize they’ve been gamed by Bellamy, it’s Marvin who tells Lancaster, “Amigo, we’ve been had.” Later, they’ll realize that Palance and Cardinale have been playing them for suckers, too. But their reward for getting past all the treachery is the moment when Bellamy, beaten and cuckolded -– has any actor ever had more female co-stars stolen from him? -– calls them “bastards.” “Yes, sir,” Marvin says. “In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.”
The only one of the movie’s stars who gets short-changed is Ryan, who has little to do and hardly anything worthwhile to say. He deserved better, and got it three years later in Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Marvin and Lancaster banter back and forth while hatching clever plans, and there’s a particularly evocative moment when, as they’re about to square off with a gang bandits, Marvin tells his old running mate, “Same set-up as Durango.” With a single line of dialogue, Brooks has told us volumes about them. As for Strode, he’s such a mesmerizing physical presence that he renders dialogue almost unnecessary, whether he’s scaling cliffs or shooting flaming arrows. Palance looks right, though not particularly Mexican, playing a rebel. Cardinale, an Italian import who doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, wears a peasant blouse in the last act that is enough to make any red-blood male bug-eyed. There seems to be no way it can possibly withstand the pressure it’s under. The fact that it does may, in some quarters, be regarded as a tragedy of epic proportions. But “The Professionals” hews to the Western movie tradition of keeping females in their clothes. I love it just the same.
I love it for the swagger and certainty of its heroes, for its gunfights, train robberies, and canyon passages. I love it, too, for Maurice Jarre’s jangling score and cinematographer Conrad Hall’s shot of sweating dynamite before the explosion that Lancaster and Marvin think will set Cardinale free. There’s a well-worn feel to much of it, I’m not denying that, but to me, watching “The Professionals” is like putting on a favorite pair of Levi’s, faded, frayed and so soft and comfortable that I never want to take them off.
And yet, when people ask about my favorite Westerns, I rarely remember to include it on my long and rambling list. The obvious choices -– “The Searchers,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Unforgiven,” you know the rest — are there, and I throw in “Will Penny,” “7 Men from Now,” even “Rancho Deluxe” to make things interesting. But too often “The Professionals” doesn’t get a call unless it’s as an afterthought, and I don’t understand why. After all, it’s not just one of my favorite Westerns, it’s one of my favorite movies, period. The blank I draw seems like a variation on always hurting the one you love. For years–no, decades, because time is no longer on my side–I’ve backed and filled and called people a day later to tell them I should have mentioned “The Professionals.” But I’ve never felt I’ve properly atoned for my forgetfulness.