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Welcome to my page of notes on Richard Brooks' vastly underrated film starring, among many others, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster.
This film is a wonderful example of the combination of entertainment and reflection. The characters are nicely fleshed out and are played to perfection by the cast. Although it contains reflective, even philosophical passages on life and death, it always remains positive and entertaining - a rare feat!
Working on several levels, this late period western adventure presents us with the story of four expert mercenaries hired to find and return the kidnapped wife (Maria, played by Claudia Cardinale) of an ageing oil baron, J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy).
Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin) and Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) are the central characters as they confront a former revolutionary colleague, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who apparently kidnapped Mrs Grant. Rico and Bill join with Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode) to undertake the mission. Though of significantly different temperaments, these men work together as a team - indeed together they form a whole, with Rico the cool and reasoned leader, Bill the strength and spirit, Hans showing compassion and thought, and Jake skillful, determined and unquestioning. Each will play his part in the completion of the mission, though there are minor disagreements on the way, emphasising, perhaps, the need for different approaches in the solution of any problem, whether by a group or an individual.
It is clear from the outset these are rugged, experienced and determined men who may be disillusioned, but they are not cynical or heartless. They appear to be lacking in purpose and perhaps even a place in society, and although they undertake the mission principally for money, it is also because this is a "mission of mercy" and a challenge to their professional capacities.
Raza, on the other hand, is painted as a ruthless and heartless killer - an impression confirmed by our heroes' first encounter with his murderous men, and then compounded by our first sighting of him as he callously shoots soldier prisoners in the back.
Having already mixed rugged action scenes with questions concerning the group's willingness to kill men (contrasted with their desire to spare the lives of a group of horses), it is at this point that director Richard Brooks starts to introduce his "subtext", calling in to question our judgement of what is right and wrong, and perhaps even more broadly questioning our motives for involvement in a cause.
Just after we (and our heroes) are appalled by Raza's cold-blooded murder of his prisoners, we are informed by Dolworth that his victims are in fact members of an elite squad of killers and torturers who were responsible for the death of Fardan's wife, causing us to doubt our own evaluation of the situation and leading us to realise that the situation is far more morally complex than we might have thought.
It is also at this point that we are introduced to a concept which is essential to understanding the film - when Dolworth talks of his role in the "revolution", and how it became hard to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. This idea that "right" and "wrong" may not exist, and that each "side" fights for what it believes in, ultimately using methods to advance their cause which may lead to a blurring of the divisions between the two is quite fundamental to the "message" of the film.
Much is made of the "revolution", particularly in the scenes between Raza and Dolworth during the pursuit which follows Maria's "rescue" from Raza's clutches.
In an illuminating and yet entertaining exchange between Raza and Dolworth, the reasons for involvement in the revolution, and the abandonment of it, are debated. Philosophically speaking, these scenes form the cornerstone of the entire film.
The revolution may be viewed as a stand for principle in which (at least in the beginning) each "side" fights for what it believes in. In keeping with the principles of existentialism, right and wrong do not exist - there are only sides opposing one another, each fighting for its cause and each offering its own account of events and the "truth". It is recognised that men will become disillusioned and abandon their cause, but Raza suggests they will return to it as they feel the need to believe in something, and wish to give their lives purpose and value.
Rico and his compadres are such men. They have become disillusioned and have accepted this job for money (the "professionals" of the title), yet in the end they make a stand for principle at the expense of their fee, but to the credit of their sense of honour and self-esteem. Having been manipulated by one man's account of events and also by the lure of wealth, they committed the very act that was so heavily criticised at the start of the film, but they manage to leave with a renewed sense of worth and purpose.
That the whole takes place in desperately unsparing desert conditions while men scat around in an attempt to give their lives meaning may also be viewed as evidence of a somewhat existential outlook, and it is not unlike the inhospitable setting of Clouzot's "Wages of Fear" in which men also put their lives at risk in an attempt to give them a purpose.
Given the background and philosophical nature of several of the scenes, the film might easily have become deadly serious or ponderous but Brooks manages to combine reflections on life, death, and principle with humour and a constant positive attitude. Many allusions are made to pain and death, yet these characters have little time for brooding regret, concentrating instead on fulfillment of the task in hand. As an ex-marine, Brooks was perhaps well placed to provide us with this exciting yet contemplative adventure which never ceases to accentuate the positive and the fact that we give our lives meaning by virtue of fighting for a cause we believe in, even if ultimately "right" and "wrong" do not exist.
In the end, however, the conclusion is that love is the governing factor. It is for love that our heroes are dispatched to Mexico in the first place, it is for love that Raza pursues the kidnapped Maria, and it might even be argued that it is for love (of a cause) that Raza and his men fight the revolution. Even the almost-cynical Bill Dolworth sees there is more to life than he imagined as the result of recognising the power of love!
The performances are excellent throughout, with each of the lead actors playing parts which seem to have been made for them. Lee Marvin exudes the quiet controlled command of a disillusioned (and even pained) professional, while Burt Lancaster looks like he thoroughly enjoyed playing the life-loving Bill Dolworth who (re)discovers a purpose beyond immediate gratification.
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