Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Professionals

Richard Brooks’s 1966 Western The Professionals does not have the same level of notoriety as a revisionist Western that the works of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah have, but it deserves an important place in the history of the genre nonetheless.

In particular, it sets the stage for the two great revisionist westerns that were to come a few years later: Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. For the former, The Professionals introduced Claudia Cardinale to American audiences and gave Woody Strode his first great role, post-John Ford. With the latter movie, the relationship is much more complex. Both take place around the same time and place: revolution-era Mexico in the early part of the 20th century when new technology was quickly bringing an end to the era romanticized in traditional Westerns. Both follow a group of aging, amoral mercenaries. And both movies show what an awesome weapon of destruction the machine gun was. Like both movies, it’s a violent, often cynical film that challenges the conventional morality of the genre. However, it gets overshadowed by the later films because it lacks their unique style and extreme violence, but it still shows that the leap from, say, the John Ford Westerns of the late ’50s/early ’60s to the revisionist Westerns of the late 60s is not as great as one might imagine.

While Leone’s and Peckinpah’s films are undeniable classics, The Professionals has the advantage of being a much tighter and leaner film. Within just the opening credit sequence, we get pretty much everything we need to know about the four main characters: Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin) makes his living demoing machine guns for the U.S. Military, Jake (Woody Strode) is a badass bounty hunter, Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) is a cattle hand who punches out a dude for punching a horse, and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) has to hustle out of a lady’s bedroom window in his union suit when her husband comes home early.

The four characters are brought together by Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy), a rich cattle baron who wants the men to rescue his wife, Maria (Cardinale) from the clutches of her ruthless Mexican kidnapper Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). It turns out Rico and Dolworth both have a history with Raza: the two Americans served as mercenaries in Raza’s gang, serving on the side of Pancho Villa. Grant claims that Raza is demanding $100,000 ransom for the bride, and the cattle baron offers the four men $10,000 each for her save retrieval.

Marvin and Lancaster make for an interesting combination of leads. Rico is an honorable soldier and leader of the group who follows a strict moral code; Dolworth is a corruptible, selfish rogue in it for the money. Both actors were on distinctly different career trajectories when they made this movie. Marvin was approaching his career apex, just coming off of his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou and coming up on The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank. Lancaster was just past his peak as a leading man but still exhibiting the charm and physical presence that he was known for. But there is a big difference between this Burt Lancaster and the one that worked with director Brooks just five years earlier in Elmer Gantry. He’s restrained, almost as if he’s letting Lee Marvin’s more subdued acting style run the show. I like to think that Lee Marvin exerted some kind of gravitational force that pulled other actors toward his style.

Rico and his men pursue Raza into Mexico, and on the way, they have some violent run-ins with Raza’s men. They also decide to booby trap a narrow mountain pass with dynamite in order to assist later in their escape. They eventually catch up to Raza as the banditos raid a Mexican Army train. Raza personally executes all of the soldiers. Rico and Dolworth, who have experience with both the revolutionaries and the Mexican Army, don’t condemn these actions. We see here, then, how this film undermines the conventional morality of the genre: we have been considering Raza’s gang “the bad guys,” but we find out that there are degrees of evil, and the Army is guilty of atrocities much greater than anything Raza has conceived.

Once they find Raza’s hacienda, Rico formulates a plan to rescue Maria: Rico and Dolworth will infiltrate the building, and Jake will fire dynamite-laden arrows to create the illusion of a military attack. However, when they sneak into Maria’s room, Rico and Dolworth discover that the situation is more complex than they originally thought: Maria is Raza’s willing companion and lover. But, since they were hired to do a job, Rico coldcocks Raza and Dolworth flings Maria over his shoulder as mass chaos erupts outside the hacienda.

At this point, the film takes yet another morally complicated turn. Rico and his men realize that they are not the rescuers–they are the kidnappers, and Maria wants nothing to do with Grant. Still, Rico decides to continue with the job because his strict moral code dictates that he cannot go back on his word to Grant that he would complete the job.

Raza persistently follows Rico’s men, even when he’s slowed down by the booby-trapped pass. As a last resort, and a shot at redemption, Dolworth agrees to stay behind and ambush Raza while the other three make their way to the rendezvous with Grant. The climactic shootout between Raza’s gang and Dolworth is amazing, though it lacks the spectacle of the hacienda raid. Dolworth chips away at Raza’s men, and at Raza himself, but the two former allies also express a mutual respect and even liking for each other. Both injured, the two chat back and forth about the good old days in La Revoluciòn. Yet another revisionary theme emerges here: revolutions are fought by adventurous men for the love of adventure, which is completely separate from any political component the revolution might have. Therefore, men like Raza can continue the fight long after its loss is inevitable, and men like Dolworth can switch allegiances at their convenience.

Though the movie contains a lot of revisionist elements that would later be exploited during the height of the New Hollywood era in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s still in many ways a Hollywood production. For example, Lancaster’s shot at redemption at the end is fairly predictable for his type of rogue. Also, the film has a beautiful, sharp visual style, which is the work of the great cinematographer Conrad Hall. But in every other way, this is a film that should be talked about in the same breath as the works of Leone and Peckinpah. Perhaps it’s because director Richard Brooks did not specialize in this genre the way that Leone and Peckinpah did that this movie doesn’t get the props it deserves. Also, Brooks would go on to make his masterpiece–In Cold Blood–the following year, which would immediately become a landmark of the New Hollywood. That, too, may have overshadowed this great film.

On a side note, there’s a story about the making of this movie that I just love. Much of the film was shot in the desert outside Las Vegas, so the cast and crew stayed in Vegas hotels during shooting. One night, Lee Marvin and Woody Strode wrecked the famous smiling cowboy lighted sign by firing arrows into it from their hotel window. Now, there are several historical events I wish I was present for. This one ranks somewhere below Bob Dylan’s electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival but a few notches above the Nativity.

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2 thoughts on “Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Professionals”

  1. Today’s bit of useless trivia: Burt Lancaster was originally cast in the role that Lee Marvin ended up playing. The director was of the opinion that Lancaster was dull when playing authority figures, but lots of fun when playing rogues, and so he created a new character to fill that function and shifted Lancaster over to it.

  2. Dear Doctor K,

    As it happened, I went to teach in Las Vegas at UNLV in the summer of 1964 and I can’t tell how many times I heard that story of a drunken Lee Marvin shooting arrows at the “Howdy Partner” neon sign on Fremont Street.. I am glad to see the story has reached legendary status. The location where the film was made is called the Valley of Fire, a truly spectacular place that rivals Oak Creek canyon in Arizona. After several yrs in Vegas I moved to Tucson where my wife got a job teaching at U of A. Lee Marvin lived in Tucson for a number of yrs and I used to see him occasionally at a drug store. He had the skinniest damn legs; it made me wonder how he could get away playing all those nasty he-men. One day while I was having lunch he came into the eatery with some of cronies. While they had lunch he regaled them with stories about Russia as he had just come home after making “Gorky Park.” It was a shame he died so young, only 63.

    Jerry Pfaffl

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