Franco Nero and machine gun, together again
No one seemed to complain in 2000 when Wong Kar Wai followed up his melancholy tale of unrequited love from three years earlier, Happy Together, with his equally melancholy tale of unrequited love, In The Mood For Love. To be accurate, it actually went beyond not complaining, as Happy Together, though it was critically praised, did not receive one-tenth of the accolades garnered by In The Mood For Love . The latter film, a perfectly sculpted narrative centered around two once-in-a-lifetime performances, ended up on many critics’ lists as the best film of the 2000s. Sadly, WKW should’ve quit while he was ahead as his eagerly awaited follow-up, 2046, was a universally panned, needlessly sentimental, muddled mess.
It is a common practice in film, among even the finest directors, to take an earlier work of their own creation and to refine it to their satisfaction, so even a film that was well received will sometimes get a do over. This process of revisiting and renovation is common with theater directors who will change a production for each year of its run, but I feel that we still look at this retooling in cinema as odd due to the fact that filmmaking is an expensive process that produces a physical medium which can be seen again, making it ripe for scrutiny. So why would Sergio Corbucci, the famed director of the original Django, want to follow up his popular 1968 Zapata western, The Mercenary, complete with its overdone, left-of-center politics, with Compañeros!, which similarly uses the 1913 Mexican revolution as its setting to push Corbucci’s political stance? And, why for main characters, would he have, again, two adversarial protagonists/buddies who hate/love each other? Corbucci even recruited Franco Nero and Jack Palance from The Mercenary for the leads, but I suppose to nuance his earlier film, he made the decision to switch out the slightly terrifying Tony Musante for the even more terrifying Tomas Milian, two actors who possess pairs of the craziest eyes in spaghetti westerns this side of Klaus Kinski. You may think that with all of this hemming and hawing that I don’t like Compañeros!, but that is not the case. It is more action packed than its similarly themed and cast predecessor, and despite losing some steam in the second half, Compañeros!, without giving too much of the plot away, has one of the better endings of any Corbucci western.
Franco Nero plays the well-coiffed, avarice-fueled Swedish (?!) arms dealer, Yodlaf Peterson, who has come to Mexico during the revolution of 1913 to sell his wares to the tyrannical General Mongo (yes, this film was made before Blazing Saddles, and yes, I was giggling a bit when I heard the name). Soon after arriving in town to make his deal with Mongo, Peterson meets Vasco (Milian), the leader of a group of banditos who have assumed power along with Mongo after they have killed the army colonel in command. The pair exchange macho stares, and a mysterious coin gifting occurs between the two before Peterson checks into the only hotel where he finds Lola (German actress Iris Berben), who is leading a group of student counter revolutionaries led by Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey). Xantos has been imprisoned by the United States army after refusing the terms for the money the U.S. government has given him to fund his non-violent revolution against Mongo; the terms being that the U.S.A. wants the rights to all of Mexico’s oil resources. So, where is the money that Xantos got for his revolution? It is in an indestructible safe, and only Xantos knows its combination. As Mongo needs the money to pay for more arms, he sends the dueling pair of Vasco and Peterson to bust Xantos out of the army jail. Standing in their way, besides the U.S. Army guarding the prison of course, is an American named John (Jack Palance), who wants Peterson, his former business partner, extremely dead. Some time ago, the greedy Peterson had left John to die after he was crucified, leaving John’s beloved, a hawk named Marcia, to peck his right hand off to save him. John has a legitimate gripe with Peterson and will go to some extreme methods to get him, including using a gopher as a torture device in one of the film’s more squirm-inducing scenes. The good news is that Peterson is ready for John as our Swedish arms dealer doesn’t only sell weapons, he is good at using them too, so you know that the obligatory Django-esque scenes must occur with Nero utilizing a normally too heavy to lift belt-fed machine gun to kill more bad guys than any six-shooter could ever attempt to accomplish. Yes, long before Rambo, Corbucci’s Django was the king of the one man army.
Now that you have a good idea of the plot, we still have to address the question that I brought up in the beginning and that is…What was left out of The Mercenary that bothered Corbucci enough to basically remake the film two years later? One thought is that, like many of the significant Italian directors who were making westerns in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the western was an excellent vehicle for attacking greed and, more topical for the time, the United States and their allies’ efforts against Communism around the globe, especially in Southeast Asia. After all, when Compañeros! was produced in 1970, the worldwide opinion against foreign military involvement in the war in Vietnam had reached it’s height, and what better struggle to reference American involvement in Vietnam than the 1913 Mexican revolution? But again, that political message was covered with The Mercenary, so what is the new message being delivered in Compañeros!? The character that stands out the most, is that of the non-violence preaching Professor Xantos, who I assume is a stand-in (and this is a stretch, mind you) for Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who famously immolated himself in 1963 to protest the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. Weeks after Quảng Đức’s suicide, many other monks also committed suicide by fire, which raised awareness of their struggle worldwide, but I cannot imagine that the Thích’s message was in Corbucci’s mind when he created the character of Xantos.
The Dazzling Original 1970 Italian Trailer For Compañeros!
Lastly, if you are thinking that perhaps Corbucci was just trying to cash a check by banking on his most popular film, then why don’t we see Django IV in 1970? Lord knows, every other spaghetti director did a Django ripoff during that time to varying degrees of commercial success, but Corbucci never did try and capitalize on that film’s immense box office receipts through sequels. Even though I cannot pinpoint the necessity for Corbucci to make a film so similar to The Mercenary, its heart seems to be in the right place, even if the political message is somewhat unclear, but more importantly, Compañeros! is an entirely entertaining western from one of the master directors of the genre, who like Sergio Sollima and Leone could still impress even when they weren’t entirely on point. The film’s pacing is quite good, a mark above other westerns of that era, as are the over-the-top performances and the lavish, yet playful, score by Ennio Morricone. It was also a treat to see Nero in another film where he uses his own speaking voice. In The Mercenary, Corbucci had Nero play the Polish mercenary, Sergei Kowalski, just so Nero’s Italian accent could be masked, and he could use his own expressive voice. If Compañeros! was solely invented just to have the popular actor, Franco Nero voice his own character to get the film’s message across to a global audience more genuinely than a potentially bad overdub, then perhaps this not too different take on the Zapata Western was worth the effort for that alone.