The Professionals: Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin are at the top of their game in this rousing ‘Men on a Mission’ Western adventure

Director Richard Brooks’ all-star cast 1966  film, The Professionals, starring  Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster is the kind of  intelligently written, beautifully photographed, western adventure that just isn’t made anymore.

The Professionals is a rousing adventure story set on the Mexican-American border in the year 1917. It’s  about four mercenaries who are hired by an arrogant, wealthy rancher J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to retrieve his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), from the clutches of a Mexican revolutionary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance)- the bloodiest cutthroat in Mexico. And keeping in line with the ‘Men on a Mission ‘ template of the film, each of the mercenaries  possess a specific skill.  Henry “Rico” Fardan(Lee Marvin)  is a weapons specialist, Bill Dolworth( Burt Lancaster)  is an explosives expert, the horse wrangler is Hans Ehrengard(Robert Ryan), and Jake Sharp(Woody Strode) is a traditional Apache scout, skilled with a bow and arrow. The all-star cast, ‘Men on a Mission’ movies were very popular in the 1960s. Though, it was with the success of The Magnificent Seven(1960) that these kind of films came into vogue, the template was mostly applied to World War II films like Guns of Navarone(1961) and The Dirty Dozen(1967). The Professionals is based on the novel A Mule For Marquesa by Frank O’Rourke, and adapted for the screen by writer/director Richard Brooks. Brooks started out as a screenwriter, co-writing Key Largo with John Huston. Then he went on to become an accomplished director in his own right, with films as varied as Cat on a Hot tin Roof and Lord Jim. Brooks was an old-fashioned, screaming director who drove his cast and crew to exhaustion, and with Nevada’s blistering desert being the main location, it turned out to be a tough shoot. There was also tension between the stars, particularly between Marvin and Lancaster, who did not get along off-screen, though it did not affect their on-screen performances. But in spite of all these problems, a very entertaining and well made film emerged from the collaboration of these temperamental personalities.

The mid to late 1960’s was a period of enormous change in Hollywood. The era of the big studios had ended. The production code was crumbling, thus bringing more adult content and more gritty realism into movies. Though Brooks was an old fashioned studio era director, this film that came out in 1966, see him adapting to the changing times. Apart from his penchant for dark characterization and salty dialogue, Brooks included graphic violence, a twist ending; and perhaps for the first time in a western, a glimpse of frontal female nudity in this film, though its shot from long range as a POV through a binocular. Brooks has written a very intelligent screenplay that emphasizes character over huge action set pieces, even-though the film has plenty of great action scenes. Every character, including the chief villain Jesus Raza, are multi dimensional as opposed to the cardboard cutouts you find in other westerns. But the narrative structure of the film is in line with the great, old-fashioned Hollywood adventure movies. The action scenes are also shot in true classical style as opposed to the avantgarde style of shaky camera and jump cuts that had started invading American movies by then. Thus the film merges as an interesting and very successful amalgam of the old and the new, and traditional and modern. The film is a precursor to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which also detailed the struggles of a bunch of gringos south of the border, and set in the same time period.

The film begins, as it usually does in  these Men on a mission films, by introducing each of the Professionals one after the other.  Each character gets an opening vignette showcasing their specific talent as their names appear on the screen beside them. Interestingly, the top-billed star, Burt Lancaster, appears the last in the credits, and he’s shown running out of a lady’s bedroom in his long johns being chased by her husband. The film then moves quickly towards setting up the plot: Grant gets in touch with Fardan, Ehrengard and Sharp about the mission and then Fardan insists on the participation of Dolworth. Fardan refers to Dolworth as an equalizer; his skills with explosive devices will give them an even chance of succeeding against Raza. Fardan and Dolworth have a past history with the Mexican revolution and Raza, thus giving a personal dimension to the mission.. Both have fought under the command of Pancho Villa and  have a high regard for Jesus Raza as a soldier. But as cynical revolutionaries turned perfect professionals, they have no qualms about killing him now.  According to Grant’s story, Raza has kidnapped Maria and locked her up in his Mexican fortress guarded by more than 150 of his men. He has demanded a ransom of 100 thousand dollars for her, but Grant choose to pay the four professionals 10 thousand dollars each to get her back safely. The professionals accepts Grant’s contract  and crosses into Mexico to rescue Maria.

It goes without saying that the hotshot quartet of professionals will succeed in their mission. But before they could get to Raza, they have to overcome several attacks from Mexican bandits on their way. Right from the start, they smell something fishy, as they find a group of bandits waiting for them across the border; as if they have been set up. The dry, dusty, arid, sunbaked landscape is also unforgiving, at one point knocking out Ehrengard, who cannot understand how human beings can survive under these circumstances. Fardan tells him that only ‘men of steel’ like Raza can live on this land. Ehrengard’s love for animals also get them into trouble, as in one instance, after they repel an ambush from the bandits, rather than killing the bandits’ horses, they let the horses go at Ehrengard’s insistence. The horses draws more bandits towards them, and Dolworth has a close brush with death, before he’s saved by the rest. They finally get close to Raza’s fortress, wherein they find Raza leading an attack on a government train, which is followed by random looting and killing of the soldiers. With the help of a sympathetic goat-farmer, The Professionals manage to invade Raza’s fortress and, putting their specific skills for destruction to good use, they manage to rescue Maria.

(Spoiler Alert) if you have not seen the film and your film viewing experience will be spoiled by the revelation of a major plot twist, then go to (End of Spoilers)

But then comes the twist in the plot: Maria refuses to go back to her husband and wants to stay on with Raza.  Her story goes that the rich, old Grant had basically ‘purchased’ her from her parents when he was down in Mexico, thus separating her from her longtime lover, Raza. She wasn’t kidnapped, rather she ran away from Grant to be with her lover. This revelation comes as a shock to the Professionals. The mercenaries are in a quandary about how to handle such a delicate situation. Being professionals, they are supposed to act with their heads rather than their hearts. So, despite the ever-romantic, Dolworth, insisting that they walk away from the mission, Fardan, sticking to their professional code, insists on taking Maria back with them. But even a sworn professional like Fardan cannot bring himself to kill Raza. They just knock Raza unconscious and leave by taking Maria with them, even as the fortress is being rocked by all kinds of explosions that Dolworth and Sharp has rigged. Raza is soon back on his feet and relentlessly pursues the foursome and Maria all the way to the border. The Professionals successfully designs several stratagems to evade and defeat Raza and his men; the last of which involves Dolworth single-handedly holding a pass against Raza’s men, giving the rest sufficient time to get Maria back into U.S. territory. In the ensuing battle at the pass, Dolworth manages to kill all of Raza’s men and severely wound Raza. But Dolworth, having realized the depth of the love between Raza and Maria, brings Raza along with him to meet up with the rest of the gang, who are now safely back on American soil and are waiting for Grant to arrive. Fardan is surprised to see Dolworth accompanied by Raza, and as Maria tends to Raza’s wounds, Fardan and Dolworth cryptically argue about their future course of action. Grant arrives with his men and The Professionals deliver Maria back to her husband, who elatedly declares that the contract has been completed. But when he sees that she is accompanied by a wounded Raza, he asks his men to kill him. The Professionals, who are now free of the contract, comes to Maria and Raza’s aide and helps them in escaping back to Mexico. Leaving an angry Grant (mouthing abuses) behind, the foursome also ride behind Maria and Raza back into Mexico. Thus, The Professionals do find a way to honor their contract, as well, as to do the morally right thing.

(End of Spoilers)

The most striking aspect of this film is the spectacular outdoor photography by the legendary cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, who was just coming up as a DP at the time. He would go on to have a long career, photographing films as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid(1969) and American Beauty(1999).  He makes the barren & ‘dead’ landscape of the film come alive in vivid colors. This is an extremely handsome looking film, with each red, craggy rock formation framed beautifully to look like a painting. There are also some great action scenes involving horses and trains, which are superbly shot and edited. Add to that Maurice Jarre’s fantastic score that mixes Mexican folk tunes with lush, rousing orchestration, and we get a perfect western adventure film. Conrad Hall won an Oscar Nomination for his work in the film- one of the three nominations the film had that year; the other two was for Richard Brooks’ direction and screenwriting. This film, like a lot of Westerns and ‘Men on a Mission‘ films, is a retelling of the old myths. Just like another ‘Men on a Mission’ movie, only set during WWII, The Guns of Navarone, we can find elements of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in this film. Maria is Helen, Raza is Paris and Grant is Menelaus. The foursome who crosses the ocean (of fire) to rescue Maria stand in for the great Greek warriors like Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, etc. And as in Iliad, the foursome burns down Raza’s fortress, which is a stand in for Troy, to rescue Maria. And like Odyssey, we have Dolworth’s Odysseus stranded in the desert on their return from the epic mission; there’s also a feisty Mexican temptress named Chiquita, like Calypso, who unsuccessfully tries to ensnare Dolworth.

The ‘Western is considered’ the most moral of all film genres, where there is always a clear demarcation between good and evil. But the twist in this story practically turns the moral universe of the film upside down. The people whom we thought were good guys at the beginning become bad guys and vice versa. This is expresses eloquently by Lancaster’s Dolworth in the most poignant lines in the film: “Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning, the good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?“. It’s one of the more modern touches provided to the traditional western template but then again, the director manages to preserve the moral code of the genre by the end, without compromising the integrity of the film or its characters. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this film for me. The other thing is the characterizations; the characters are rather grand genre archetypes, but Brooks manage to fill them out with an inner life. These are all over-the-hill types, who wants to get back for one last job that would pay for their possible retirement. They are cynical, disillusioned, but still courageous, resourceful, and steadfastly sticks to a moral code.  Fardan, the leader of the group, used to ride with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough-Riders; then he got into the Mexican revolution; after a while, disillusioned with the revolution, he dropped out and took to prospecting for gold for more than a year., only to return empty-handed. Now he’s teaching at the Military Academy for $40 a month. Dolworth, the eternal Ladies’ man, who was Fardan’s partner in gold prospecting, has to be sprung from jail, where he was cooling his heels for gambling with money he didn’t have. Ehrengard and Sharp also have their own issues, the former looks tired and jaded from all the ranching he has been doing, while the latter still has to pick up small-time criminals of the Native tribes to make a living.

The actors portraying them are all in their 50s, except for Marvin, who’s just 42 but looks much older. And without a doubt, the life blood of this film is its stars. One of the main reasons a film like this cannot be made today is that we just don’t have actors like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster or Jack Palance anymore.  Each dripping with pure, earthy machismo, and at the same time, projecting a sense of loss and vulnerability. Each one having an individual style; they were not method actors, but a kind of ‘real’ actors, who brought their  real life experiences to their performances. All of them came from a military background, having served in World War II (and other wars), We see how convincing they are in the usage of firearms and projecting that tough lifestyle. All actors are superb in the film, with Jack Palance being particularly good, giving an unusually restrained performance.

But the film belongs to Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. This film was a sort of comeback for Lancaster, whose box office clout had gone down considerably in the previous decade after he started doing a lot of experimental movies in America and Europe. His last big hit was the 1957 ‘Wyatt Earp’ Western, Gunfight at the OK Corral. In the interim, he made some great artistic films like Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry(with Richard Brooks for which he won an Oscar), Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, John Frankenheimer’s The Train and Seven Days in May; they won him great critical acclaim, but were not box office successes. The Professionals returned Lancaster to his roots: the role of the adventurous, lovable scoundrel with a million dollar smile that he patented with star-making performances in films like The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz and such. Lancaster, who was 52 years old when he made this film, would give heroes half his age a run for their money in matters of physical agility and fitness. He did most of the stunts himself, and his his athleticism in the final shootout, where he runs, jumps, climbs cliffs, ride horses even while shooting rifles and guns, is extraordinary to say the least. From here on, Lancaster would concentrate on doing more and more Westerns like Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is coming. On the other hand, Lee Marvin was hitting the peak of his career when he made this film. He had just won an Oscar for his performance in Cat Ballou. He was on a hot streak with back to back successful films: The Man who shot Liberty Valance, The Killers, The ship of Fools, Cat Ballou,  that would see him transform from a villain to a popular action hero. He would follow this film up with The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank. The Professionals allowed Marvin to showcase  his  prowess with firearms that he mastered when he was a Marine It also continued the  trend in his work that began with 1964’s The Killers, where  he plays a man, void of either sentiment or family, and who pursues a mission or goal with singular purpose.  He would continue to play this character with great success in films like The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank and Prime Cut. The film also showcases his yen for minimalism as an actor: always speaking tersely, and wherever possible, substituting gestures for dialogue. But when he finally speaks the lines, they are laced with a sardonic edge that make them memorable. This film has some highly quotable dialogue written by Richard Brooks.  Marvin gets to speak the final lines in the film which is perhaps the best of them. After being called a ‘Bastard‘ by the furious Grant, Marvin’s Fardan retorts:

“Yes Sir, In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you’re a self-made man.”

Well, it’s not just these kinds of films and actors that have become extinct, they just don’t write dialogues like that anymore either.


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