Nero, Palance, and Corbucci Team Up Again In 1970 For The Zapata Western, Compañeros!

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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.

Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, And Jack Palance Ride The Fading Western: “Monte Walsh” From 1970

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Jeanne Moreau and Lee Marvin In “Monte Walsh”

By the time that veteran cinematographer William Fraker directed his first film, “Monte Walsh” in 1970, the Western genre had undergone a complete overhaul. While Italy’s Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) were adding a never before seen silent but muddy ugliness to the genre, Sam Peckinpah brought a level of violence that was unmatched in most action films of its time, much less the hallowed epic Western.

Throughout the 1960s, Hollywood had been trying to resuscitate the cowboy film, even going as far as to create a screen version of the 1951 Lerner and Loewe Western comedy musical, “Paint Your Wagon” in 1969. With the studio system failing, Paramount threw everything they had at “Paint Your Wagon” in the hopes that it would succeed in the way that other musicals of the era had and many Western had not. The studio spared no expense in getting Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky to adapt the musical for the screen, which was an odd choice given that Chayefsky was best known for writing inner city characters like the ones found in Delbert Mann’s “Marty” and Richard Brooks’ “The Catered Affair.” For its stars, “Paint Your Wagon” casted the white hot Clint Eastwood, fresh from the Leone “man with no name” films, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg: none of whom could actually sing. They also tabbed William Fraker for their cinematographer. Paramount was banking on Fraker, who had just lensed the hugely successful urban-based hits, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Bullitt” in 1968, to have the eye for such a lavish musical western that was primarily set in the outdoors. As we all know now, “Paint Your Wagon” for the aforementioned reasons, was a notorious flop, both critically and commercially. The only good thing to come out of the “Paint Your Wagon” debacle was the forging of a relationship between actor Lee Marvin and cinematographer William Fraker, which resulted in them creating the beautifully non-epic Western, “Monte Walsh.”

The production company for “Monte Walsh” would be the then recently formed (in 1967) Cinema Center Films, the motion picture subsidiary of CBS television. Early on, CCF’s output and agenda focused on creating lighter fare that would eventually run on television, which was clear when they signed Doris Day to a multi-picture deal for their first few productions like “With Six You Get Eggroll.” By the end of 1969, CCF studio chief, Gordon T. Stulberg, made the decision to get with the times and to shed the studio’s “fluffy” image, so he recommended that his company produce a film version of Mart Crowley’s controversial gay-themed off Broadway play “Boys In The Band,” which was a commercial flop but a critical success, and an adaptation of the satirical Thomas Berger novel about the Little Big Horn massacre, “Little Big Man,” which proved to be a box office hit. While serving as cinematographer on “Paint Your Wagon,” Fraker had learned from the mistakes of director Joshua Logan and felt ready to try directing his own western, and, as Cinema Center Films was more than ready to take risks where the big studios seemed afraid to do so, Fraker got the job of directing the film version of the 1963 Jack Schaefer novel “Monte Walsh.” Schaefer, in 1949, wrote the original novel “Shane,” which was made into the highly successful George Stevens’ film of the same name. In “Shane,” the titular character is a gunfighter who wants to settle down and start a family but is dragged back into his gunslinger ways when a range war erupts where he wants to raise a family. The elements of “Shane” that depict a fading west are also present in “Monte Walsh,” but the cinematic approach that Fraker would take substantially differed from that of Stevens.

From the beginning of “Monte Walsh,” it is clear that you are not watching a golden age Western as Mama Cass sings “The Good Times Are Coming,” a somewhat strange and cheerful pop song for a Western that rolls during an opening montage of reverse-color spaghetti western images. You then get the rugged pair of Lee Marvin and Jack Palance in full cowboy regalia as they joke while bearing down on a wolf to pick up an extra five bucks. Jack Palance is “Chet,” and Lee Marvin is “Monte,” and they are old cowboys who know that their time is coming to an end as Chet says: “Do you realize how many cowpunchers there were out here 10 years ago? Well there’s a hell of a lot less now. And no jobs for them.” Regardless, the boys are still working for now, and after some roughhousing in the bunkhouse, Monte is off to visit Martine (Jeanne Moreau), one of the town’s working girls who is very much fond of Monte. She is also aware that her time in the oldest profession is coming to an end, as she says that hers is a profession of diminishing returns, and she has to move to a railroad town nearby in order to survive. The bosses back east are consolidating all of the ranches out west, and that means less of a need for cowboys, and thus, her client base is going away too. Perhaps everyone is in need of a change?

Despite some teasing from the other cowboys in the bunkhouse, Chet starts to get wedding eyes for the widow who owns the town hardware store and suggests to Monte that perhaps he and Martine should also tie the knot to which Monte responds, “cowboys do not get married.” But once Chet does marry, Monte begins to think that it might be his time to settle down as well and asks Martine who is more than happy to oblige. Still, Monte has to get the cowboy out of his system, so, when he sees the one mustang that even his bronco busting pal Shorty (Mitchell Ryan) cannot tame, Monte saddles the wild animal and takes the beast on a wild ride that destroys half the town in one of the most visually entertaining moments of the film. This turns out to be a good thing, though, as a Wild West show promoter eyes Monte’s rodeo talent on horseback and offers him a weekly salary to be part of the troupe to entertain folks back east. Monte sees this as an opportunity to get out of the cowboy business for good and with enough money, he can marry Martine and get her out too. Sadly, all of these cowboy retirement sentiments change when Shorty guns down a Marshall who is hunting down a member of Monte’s posse, setting off a chain of events that will make Monte use his gun again.

Sure, “Monte Walsh” is packed with enough action to make any Western movie watching fan happy, but what sets it apart are the moments of real passion and tenderness, which were absent in that genre during that time. Kudos to Fraker for believing in Lee Marvin and allowing him to act, whereas most directors of this time reduced our tough guy to a morass of hard facial gestures and catch phrases. Marvin’s scenes with the beautiful Jeanne Moreau are warmly performed and provide the viewer with as much heartfelt emotion as the action scenes provide thrills. Palance as well breaks out of his typecasting as a screen villain and is an excellent foil to Marvin in their scenes together. You feel their friendship, and in turn you have great empathy for their struggle against age and their roles in the dying west. Veteran cinematographer William Fraker does an excellent job in his debut as a director and deserves extra appreciation for hiring cinematographer David M. Walsh for his first time as director of cinematography. In the first hour of the film, Walsh avoids the wide angles utilized in epic Westerns and keeps everything tight in frame while small conversations occur to keep the mood intimate like the more relatable, conversation heavy, European influenced films of the late 60s and early 70s.  Eventually, Fraker opens up the frame once the more classic elements of a Western take place in the second half. And as a result, these visual ideas keep “Monte Walsh” very modern while still adhering to the core elements of the genre, which is an interesting technique. Fraker would have a long a distinguished Hollywood career as a DP for huge box office hits, including “The Goodbye Girl,” “Murder By Death,” and “Private Benjamin.”

“Monte Walsh” Full Movie

Sadly, “Monte Walsh,” though a critical success, did not do well at the box office, so William Fraker would only be given a couple of more opportunities to direct feature films that never seemed to work as well as his debut, and after a few more flops at the box office, Cinema Center Films also closed its doors in 1972. For the rest of his career, Fraker worked as a director of photography in over forty feature films and was nominated for five Academy Awards, most notably, 1978’s “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” and 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance.” History will remember Fraker as a talented cinematographer, but I, for one, feel that some accolades should have been given for his debut, a sweet and tough modern western that remains as one of the finest of its generation; one that would looking for a bit more than just a quick gun and silence in its western heroes