Friday, December 26, 2008


“Blackboard Jungle” director Richard Brooks produced one of the most exciting, exceptionally made western actioneers of the 1960s with his epic shoot’em up “The Professionals.” Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster headed a top-notch cast in this Columbia Pictures’ release that co-starred Jack Palance, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Ryan, and Ralph Bellamy. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science nominated “The Professionals” for three Oscars. Although he had already received an Oscar for Best Directing for his 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” Brooks received bids for Best Directing again and Best Screenwriting, adapted from another medium, principally Frank O’Rourke’s novel, “A Mule for the Marquesa,” while ace lenser Conrad Hall got the nod for Best Cinematography. Hall went on to shoot “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as well as “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” The Academy nominated Hall ten times for Best Cinematography and he won three times, on “Butch Cassidy,” “The Road to Perdition” and “American Beauty.

Set in the early twentieth century, this atmospheric oater ranks as one of the best soldier-of-fortune sagas ever filmed. Primarily, Hollywood filmmakers preferred to confine their westerns to the late nineteenth century, largely between the end of the American Civil War and the official closing of the frontier in 1890. As early as 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a biographical opus about the infamous exploits of rebel leader Pancho Villa, Jack Conway’s “Viva, Villa” with Wallace Beery. Indeed, many B-westerns, some starring John Wayne and Bob Steele respectively, shifted their settings back and forth from the old frontier to contemporary frontier, but Hollywood rarely made a western set between 1900 and 1920 until the 1950s. Some of the most prestigious examples include Eli Kazan’s “Viva, Zapata!” with Marlon Brando, George Sherman’s “The Treasure of Pancho Villa” with Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland, Richard Fleischer’s “Bandido” with Robert Mitchum, and Robert Rossen’s “They Came to Cordura” with Gary Cooper.

“The Professionals” occurs on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. By the time that “The Professionals” came out, European filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone had discovered the narrative advantages of these twentieth century outings. Chiefly, the level of violence escalated because combatants could deploy water-cooled machine guns to mow down the opposition as well as larger artillery pieces, automatic firearms, and hand grenades. Sam Peckinpah made what is probably the greatest post-frontier western in 1969 with “The Wild Bunch” starring William Holden and Robert Ryan. In director Ralph Nelson’s “The Wrath of God” (1972), Robert Mitchum played an Irishman on the run in Mexico who totes around a Thompson submachine gun in a suitcase.

Oil baron and railroad tycoon J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy of “His Girl Friday”) summons three individuals: Henry ‘Rico’ Fardan (Oscar winner Lee Marvin of “Cat Ballou”), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan of “The Tall Men”) and Jacob Sharp (Woody Strode of “Spartacus”) and offers them $10-thousand dollars a piece to rescue his beautiful trophy wife Maria (drop-dead gorgeous Claudia Cardinale of “The Pink Panther”) from a despicable Mexican bandit chieftain Jesus Raza (Jack Palance of “Shane”) who has kidnapped her and taken her back to Mexico to a remote stronghold fortress a 100 miles into a desert hellhole. Each of these soldiers-of-fortune possesses a specific talent. Fardan is a weapons expert and tactician who fought in the Philippine campaign and rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. Currently, Fardan earns $40 dollars a week demonstrating automatic weapons for the military. African-American Jacob Sharp is the most dependable scout and tracker in the territory who is a specialist with rifle, rope and longbow. Hans Ehrengard is an ex-cavalryman, cattle boss, bull-whacker, and pack master. He supervises the loading of the equipment. Ehrengard has a great compassion for horse flesh and this characteristic jeopardizes the mission at one point. When Grant assembles the horses and brags about them, Ehrengard explains that they will need more than speed to complete this mission. “You’ll have to make them do,” Grant states. “I can make them go, Mr. Grant, but I can’t make do.” When Grant describes their adversary as “the bloodiest cutthroat in Mexico,” Fardan reacts with faint surprise because he has “the highest respect” for Raza. As it turns out, Raza and Fardan are old friends who fought together with Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution.

Grant shows Fardan the ransom letter, and Grant’s Hispanic liaison, Ortega (Joe De Santis of “The Last Hunt”), informs Fardan that Raza has mobilized about 150 gunmen. Fardan advises Grant to pay the ransom, but Grant doesn’t think that he will get his wife back even after he pays up. Grant tries to sell Fardan and company on his audacious scheme to rescue his wife. “It’d take a battalion at least a month, but a few daring men, specialists, led by you, could do it in one bold, swift stroke.” Fardan shakes his head. “What we need is an equalizer,” Fardan points out. “Name him,” Grant demands, and Fardan shows Grant a message that he received from one of his closest pals, Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”), who is currently stewing in jail with nothing but his Stetson and his long johns. Lancaster’s introduction early on (he’s caught in bed with another man’s wife) is amusing. Dolworth is a wizard with explosives “with a delicate touch to blow out a candle without putting a dent in the candleholder.” “Eight hundred dollars will bail him,” Fardan stipulates. “But can he be trusted,” Grant demands. “I trust him,” Fardan assures the tycoon. Grant bails out Dolworth and Dolworth appreciates Fardan’s intervention. “What’s the proposition,” he inquires as Fardan hands him a bottle of whiskey. “You won’t lose your pants, your life maybe, but what’s that worth.” Dolworth gulps some whiskey, “Hardly anything at all.” Dolworth is surprised when Fardan tells him about Raza kidnapping Grant’s wife and even more so by the ransom demand. “What makes a wife worth a hundred thousand dollars?” Dolworth muses. “Some women can turn men into boys,” Fardan observes, “and boys into men.” Dolworth grins, “That’s a woman worth saving.”

Suspicious things begin to happen no sooner than our heroes leave Grant’s headquarters. They are told to ride by night and camp out by day. They encounter a group of bandits and have to shoot it out with them. Fardan explains to his companions that he has situated in the mountains above the pass where they will meet the bandits that if the bandit leader removes his sombrero and covers his gun with it to open fire. Indeed, the lead bandit takes off his hat and passes it across his six-gun as he bids our heroes to “go with God.” Fardan and Dolworth cut loose while Jacob and Ehrengard fire away from their concealed positions in the rocks above the pass. Afterward, our heroes bury the dead bandits and Dolworth wants to shoot the horses that the desperados rode. Ehrengard objects. Fardan explains that the horses will head back to the camp, but Ehrengard opines that they will head north to the river. Fardan lets them go and they finish burying the bandits. Dolworth rides ahead to scout and runs into more bandits who know about him and his colleagues because the horses came back with empty saddles. Fardan and company rescue Dolworth just before the bandits carve him up. Not long after, they find the fortress that Raza and his small army have occupied. Raza’s men are mounting the machine guns that they took from the Mexican army train. Our heroes rendezvous with a Mexican goat herder Padilla who provides the milk that the lady, Senorita Grant, drinks at the stronghold. He is eager to help the Americans rescue Maria because he raised her on the milk of his goats when she was a child. Fardan lays out his plan. Dolworth will plant explosive charges that will simulate a French 75mm howitzer barrage and Jacob will unleash arrows with sticks of dynamite attached to them. When the bandits rush to defend the walls, Fardan and company will slip in “and rescue little red Riding Hood.” Diversion is their only plan because they cannot shoot their way in and out.

When our heroes do make their move on Raza’s stronghold, they get the surprise of their lives. Nevertheless, between Dolworth’s dynamite that blows the water tower to smithereens and Jacob’s dynamite laden arrows, our heroes manage to slip in and escape and hit the trail back to the border. They take the train that Raza’s men had hijacked, but the hard-bitten bandit and his henchmen are constantly at their heels every bit of the way back to the border. Richard Brooks doesn’t waste a moment in this splendidly staged, tightly-edited, sharply-scripted western that bristles with memorable as well as quotable dialogue, feisty performances and some provocative commentary on contemporary subjects like the emerging war in Vietnam. During one scene, while our heroes watch Raza and his men capture a government train, Dolworth and Ehrengard discuss the Mexican revolution and Fardan’s participation in it. “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution?” Ehrengard inquires. “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning of time,” Dolworth philosophizes, “the good guys against the bad guys. Question is who’re the good guys?” Celebrated “Doctor Zhivago” composer Maurice Jarre furnishes a lively, flavorful orchestral score that enhances the action and captures the time period. “Time” magazine in its review called “The Professionals” . . . “a thinking man’s western.” The ending is simply terrific.

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