There are a handful of iconic 1960s Westerns, count The Professionals among them. This was one of the first “pick a ragtag group and send them on an impossible mission” films.
Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster. That’s quite a crew.
Based on a book, it was written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, Blackboard Jungle).
Photographed by Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy, In Cold Blood), the film has nice color even though it feels grim and dusty. Brooks settled on the locations of Death Valley and Coachella Valley in California and Valley of Fire in Nevada. The red rocks provide a great visual backdrop.
Set in 1917, a wealthy man hires this group of mercenaries to travel into Mexico to rescue his young Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale) from Raza, a Mexican bandit/revolutionary. Simple enough story. Several of them know Raza and even fought along side of him in the Revolution, but these are different times. A good example is when they watch Raza capture a government train and execute all of the soldiers including hanging several from telegraph poles.
This is not freedom fighting, Raza is a bandit and murderer. The film poses a number of moral questions and blurs the line between between good and bad. All is not what is seems.
The professionals are not morally clean, they are former soldiers and have done many things for a dollar, but they are generally better than Raza. Grant, the wealthy man, made his money through ruthless business dealings.
Brooks, like John Ford, made his characters three dimensional. His heroes had dirty faces and his villains were not entirely bad.
Lee Marvin, who often played psychopaths and layabouts, is the group leader here, Fardan. Cool, logical and even-handed. Lancaster, who normally plays that role, is Dolworth, a scoundrel with a weakness for other men’s women. He’s the dynamite professional for this group.
Robert Ryan plays Ehrengard who handles the horses, and his respect for horse life complicates their situation when a bandit horse gets away. Woody Strode is Sharp, a scout and skilled bow hunter. Both skills prove very valuable.
Nearly the first half of the film covers their journey to Raza’s camp. It is an eventful trip as twice they are attacked by other bandits. This gives the viewer an opportunity to learn about each professional, their strengths and weaknesses. You see their skills and a sense of what they are up against. Raza’s capture of the train and his brutality underscores the Mexican landscape, as Dolworth explains the savagery of the government toward villages they come across. It is a complicated battle of who is more depraved.
The professionals capture the train and plan to use it after they can rescue Mrs. Grant. The other three go to Raza’s camp and devise a plan to get Mrs. Grant. As the bandits party the night away, they sneak into her room. Raza shows up and to their surprise, he is welcome overnight guess. Sharp makes sure there are plenty of explosions, dynamite attached to his arrows, to give Fardan and Dolworth a chance to get Mrs. Grant. They take her, but do not kill Raza, I guess because he didn’t do what he was accused of doing. So, Grant didn’t exactly tell them the truth.
The film has the occasional humor, but it is between the characters and is a matter of attitude. At the beginning of the film when Lancaster’s character is introduced, he has to jump out of bed and is only able to put on his long johns before the woman’s husband barges in. He’s still wearing only long johns when he meets up with the other professionals. Later, when he has been captured by bandits, he is stripped down to his long johns and hung upside down. Fardan, who rescues him, asks why he can’t manage to keep his pants on.
These aren’t just four random guys thrower together. We know the least about the Strode character, but there is respect between these four and a sense of honor. They are risking their lives for a paycheck, but the deeper they go into Mexico, the less it is about the money.
When they make it back to the train, bandits are holding Ehrengard hostage. Mrs. Grant is valuable to Raza, so the bandits are easily defeated. While they escape with Mrs. Grant, she is not a willing passenger. She even tries to bribe Dolworth by trying to seduce him, his natural weakness, but he doesn’t fall for it. She tells him to go to hell. He says that he’s on his way.
Raza pursues them and catches up with Dolworth, whose job is to stop them while the other professionals and Mrs. Grant get away. The bandits are defeated but Raza is wounded and captured. Dolworth takes Raza to meet up with the other professionals, and eventually with Grant.
The hand-off of Mrs. Grant to her husband does not go well. It’s obvious she doesn’t plan to stay with Grant, who figures he own her like a horse or train. Grant wants Raza to be killed, but the professionals won’t do it. In fact, they load her and Raza on a buckboard and sent them back to Mexico. Probably one of the few times Grant didn’t get his way. They laugh about it, even realizing they won’t be getting paid the $10,000.
The Professionals was one of the top box office films of 1966 and was nominated for three Academy Awards (director, script and cinematographer.
Brooks didn’t make many Westerns, only three by my count. In 1975, he made Bite the Bullet, a fascinating film of a cross country horse race. Brooks was and fashioned filmmaker, he wrote or adapted most of his projects, and they were character-driven stories.
The Professionals was very hip at the time, it was very adult, with a sophisticated flair. Brooks did not inject any contemporary editorializing into the film and no revisionist aura. He plays it pretty straight, although his points about war and putting too much allure in heroes is subtle but on the mark. Now, it seems like an old-fashioned Western, with a happy ending.