The Professionals

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 31, 2013

The Professionals—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Ralph Bellamy (1966; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

This one takes place in the late western period just before World War I, when the American west was closing down and the action was in northern Mexico.  The professionals of the title are Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan and Strode, playing a band of mercenaries in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.  Marvin is an ex-military weapons expert and tactician, and Lancaster does explosives.  Ryan’s skill is with horses, and Strode is a tracker and bowman.  They’re not young, but they are very good at what they do, and for $10,000 each they take on a dangerous mission from which they are unlikely all to return. 


They are sent into Mexico to retrieve the beautiful young Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale) of J.W. Grant, an older mining baron (Ralph Bellamy).  She has been kidnapped for ransom by Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), whom Marvin and Lancaster know well from their days supporting Mexican revolutionaries.  Grant selects the Marvin, Ryan and Strode characters for the team; Marvin brings in Lancaster.  It still seems like a small group for the task, given the rough terrain and the odds against them.  But they are, after all, professionals.  And that’s a large part of the enjoyment provided by this film—watching them accomplish their task.  The question is what kind of transformation will take place, and the tension is not only in the action but in the frequent balancing of one code of behavior against another.

Marvin plays Rico Fardan, a version of the hard-bitten, ultra-competent military man he has done in other films (see, for example, The Dirty Dozen from about the same period).   In his period campaign hat with the flat brim and four creases in the crown, he organizes and directs the team, and he’s very good at it.  Note his use of a pump shotgun (a Model 1897 Winchester trench gun?).  Burt Lancaster was probably a bigger star than Marvin at the time, although Marvin was fresh off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou.  Lancaster had won his own Best Actor award for the lead in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, working with director Richard Brooks there, too.  Here, Lancaster plays Bill Dolworth, the womanizing explosives expert and Fardan’s closest friend on the team.  They have a lot of history together in revolutionary Mexico.  More inclined to think about what it all means than Fardan is, Dolworth has some of the movie’s best lines and Lancaster’s effervescent performance is the best in the movie.  Robert Ryan, always an excellent actor but seldom a lead at this stage of his career, is Hans Ehrengard, the horse wrangler and packmaster for the team.  He is the least physically robust of the group and often seems to care more about horses than about people.  His part also seems underwritten, especially for an actor as good as Ryan.  Jacob Sharp, the tracker and bowman, is the smallest role of the four, well-played by the quiet Woody Strode.  Jack Palance is good, but not entirely authentic, as the leader of this particular band of Mexican revolutionaries.  And sultry Italian actress Claudia Cardinale does what is required of her, looking beautiful and voluptuous.


The four professionals, plus Cardinale.

Since their employer is (a) a wealthy mining baron, and (b) played by Ralph Bellamy, he is inherently an unsympathetic character, and you know he’s not going to win in the end even if the team is successful.  When Fardan spells out the final terms of the deal, Bellamy spits out, “You bastard.”  In the movie’s final line, Fardan returns with:  “Yes, sir.  In my case an accident of birth.  But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.”  And he walks off into his personal sunset, having kept to his code with his mercenary’s integrity intact.


Cross-cultural appeal.

Producer and director Brooks wrote the excellent script.  The roles are well differentiated, and there are many memorable lines with engaging notes of fatalism and philosophy, especially in the interplay between old friends Fardan and Dolworth.  Dolworth, upon being surprised:  “Well, I’ll be damned.”  Fardan responds:  “Most of us are.”  (Maybe it’s all in the timing, or maybe it’s just Marvin’s way with a line.)  The central question of the film is voiced by Dolworth, as he considers his current fight against former comrades:  “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning—the good guys versus the bad guys. The question is, who are the good guys?”  It was true of the Mexican revolution, and it’s an apt observation on the immediate situation in this movie, too.


Lancaster as Dolworth negotiates from a position of dubious strength.

Having said that, it must also be admitted that there are moments when this movie is a little too fond of the sound of its own script and could have used some tighter editing.  At times there is just too much talking, especially where Dolworth is involved.  Look, for example, at the final duel between Dolworth and Raza in the canyon.

There’s violence of the pre-Wild Bunch cinematic sort, but this is rated PG-13.  This is another western beautifully shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many other movies).  It was shot largely in Nevada’s Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas and in California’s Death Valley, making excellent use of the desolate landscapes there.  The movie got Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay (both for Brooks) and Best Cinematography for Hall.  The score is by prominent 1960s movie composer Maurice Jarré.

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