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.

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The Lucio Fulci Bloodbath Goes West In 1975’s “Four of the Apocalypse”

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Thomas Milian As The Mansoneque Chaco

One of the more amazing experiences that Lily and I made had our recent visit to Rome was a visit to Cinecitta, the famed Italian movie studio that was built by Mussolini in the late 1930s to save the fading film industry which not only produced propaganda films during the early years of fascism, but also created many popular narrative films, including those of directors such as Raffaello Matarazzo. Unfortunately, the studios were bombed during the final months of World War Two, the damaged buildings and sets became home to thousand of displaced refugees for a few years before being revived as a functioning production studio during the Neo-Realist period.  This Neo-Realist era would subsequently turn into the golden age of Cinecitta with the rise of Italian directors, Frederico Fellini, and Bernardo Bertolucci. as well as the studios becoming the place to shoot sword and sandal films by not only Italian auteurs but also famed American directors like Joseph L. Mankiewicz who shot his epic, Cleopatra which starred Elizabeth Taylor there in 1963.

As the 1960s rolled on, the studios began to crank out numerous Italian or spaghetti westerns. a fact that shouldn’t be lost on anyone who reads this blog as I have reviewed several rare titles within the genre over the last few years.  What I did not know until visiting Cinecitta is that many of these films are not revered in Italy as they have been deemed too colonial in their message by a predominance of Italian film goers.  That message of the antiquated perception of these titles was made quite clear during our tour of Cinecitta, though the museum still chose to honor this genre with an impressive, albeit smallish portion of their museum. Long gone were the western town sets that littered the lots of the studio, they were demolished in the 1980s to make way for the construction of sets depicting ancient Rome which were needed for a new generation of  sword and sandal films like HBO’s 2004 series Rome.  This fact being somewhat bizarre to me as the spaghetti western was originally the genre that took sword and sandal out of Italian mainstream popularity.  Lily and I were still thrilled to see their spaghetti western exhibit which had a film tribute to the genre, Clint Eastwood’s actual poncho from Sergio Leone’s classic, For A Few Dollars More,  and a few rare film posters strew around the western saloon edifice for effect.  One such poster was that of a rarely seen 1975 spaghetti that surprisingly was directed by horror master Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Zombie) that caught Lily’s eye, Four Of The Apocalypse. I was also intrigued and immediately went online to pick up a copy through the folks at Blue Underground who had it waiting for us when we returned from Italy.

Released in 1975 when the western was fading out of vogue for the less costly to produce Eurocrime film, Four Of The Apocalypse was banned in several countries on its initial release because of, you guessed it, the graphic violence and sadistic cruelty that mark many a subsequent Fulci film and although the violence is fairly disturbing at points that should not dissuade you from seeing a very personal and at times, emotionally complex late spaghetti western. No stranger to the western genre after two successful adaptations of Jack London’s White Fang in 1973 and 1974, Fulci drew from two well-known 19th century short stories from famed western writer Bret Harte, The Outcasts Of Poker Flats and in the last third of the film, Fulci uses Harte’s heartwarming tale, The Luck Of Roaring Camp. Our film begins with gambler Stubby Preston (an extremely well-coiffed Fabio Testi) as he arrives via coach to the rollicking gold town of Salt Flats with a plan to bust the town’s casino to only be met by the town’s sheriff, who immediately locks up Stubby in the town pokey with a pregnant hooker named Bunny (Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Michael J. Pollard, the wheel man from Bonnie and Clyde) and Bud (Harry Baird), an African American man who does not have all of his marbles. The four quickly bond in the cell and are soon shuffled out of town by the apathetic sheriff when vigilantes decide to do on a murderous coup.

The quartet are cast out upon a wagon but are not at odds with one another.  Sure, there is sometime acrimonious sexual tension between Stubby and Bunny, and Clem is savagely jonesing for a drink but all in all our protagonists have accepted their roles as outcasts and are supportive of one another as they travel onward.  Our group soon stumbles upon a well-meaning wagon train of religious crusaders who distill of bit of homespun wisdom on our misfit travelers but after a few words and a meal, they all go their separate ways.  Juxtaposing the harmony is the sudden jarring inclusion of Chaco (Thomas Milian) a vile Charlie Mansonesque killer, complete with tattoos fashioned under his eyes, who seems to unable to move an inch without killing something in his way and whether that target is a wild animal or the lawmen that are following Chaco, they are doomed to die and in the case of one sheriff, he is brutally tortured and mutilated before dying. Following the carnage, there is a scene that seems to be pulled from Jodorowsky’s psychedelic western El Topo, when Chaco feeds our four misfits some peyote but a trippy voyage does not follow as indeed this Chaco is bad news for everyone he touches and this moment of letting their guard down will cost our broken heroes dearly. Even though the four escape death through the hands of Chaco, they are more damaged than ever before and must make their way to safety with a wounded member on a stretcher and a soon to be delivering Bunny.  They will walk through blazing heat and snow, landing in a ghost town before an eventual visit to an all male mining camp which provides some of the most hopeful moments in Four Of The Apocalypse, moments that are directly pulled from the pages of Harte’s whimsical story, The Luck Of Roaring Camp.

Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and a folksy score that is more McCabe and Mrs. Miller than Morricone, Four Of The Apocalypse consistently strives to be a cut above the later Italian westerns of that period.  All of our leads put in fine performances with special notice going to Milian who completely embodies the horror within the maniacal Chaco.  Milian is absolutely terrifying and gobbles up screen time whenever he appears in the film.  As for the well-noted graphic violence that Fulci employs in Four Of The Apocalypse,  it does in fact hurt the film to the extent that it goes beyond what is necessary to amplify Thomas Milian’s performance as Chaco.  It is almost like Fulci felt the need to add the red stuff because be believed  that the character of Chaco wasn’t compelling/dreadful enough to be the target of the viewer’s ire. Milian’s psycho method-acting driven performance is definitely enough to make you burn with hatred against Chaco and thus audiences could’ve been spared the extra cruelty that is more off-putting than emotionally effecting.

                            Original 1975 Trailer for Four Of The Apocalypse

Regardless of the extemporaneous violence, I would still would place Fulci’s Four Of The Apocalypse along with Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 masterpiece, Keoma as one of the best examples of a late-era Italian western.  Though these films may not be seen as high art in preset day Italy, to me they still resonate as having a brave originality that most American westerns of the same era never possessed.