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The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals is an Oscar-nominated Western with an All-Star cast that's mostly forgotten now, and it's worth trying to understand why.

Written by:
Richard Brooks
(from the novel by Frank O'Rourke)

Directed by:
Richard Brooks

Starring:
Burt Lancaster
Lee Marvin
Robert Ryan
Woody Strode
Jack Palance
Ralphy Bellamy
Claudia Cardinale

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Cinematography

Amusing Moment:
Clauida Cardinale bursting out of her dress and everyone calling her "Ma'am." Talk about your professionals!

Quote:
"So what else is on your mind besides 100 proof women, 90 proof whiskey and 14 karat gold?"
"Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph."

The plot of the film is an appreciated conceit: various experts gather together for an impossible mission. In this case, Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale), the wife of tycoon J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy), has been kidnapped and taken 100 miles into Mexico. It's 1915 and the kidnapper, a Pancho Villa lieutenant named Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), is something of a legend. He has an army, and desert between himself and Grant. What does Grant have? Money, with which he buys the services of four professionals: Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who's good with the longbow; Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse expert; Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), a womanizer and expert in dynamite; and Henry Farden (Lee Marvin), a leader of men. Why not more? Who knows? Why not seven men? For obvious reasons.

Turns out Farden and Dolworth have a history with Raza — they once fought in the Mexican Revolution — but in the intervening years they've grown cynical and hard. What is their allegiance to now? For Farden, it's his honor, his word. He's a professional. Dolworth is less serious, more devil-may-care. He's after money, but is willing to follow Farden for the time being.

The dialogue is good. Traveling through the desert, Ehrengard says, "I hate the desert. It's got no...pity," just before passing out. The men are forced to endure various hardships before getting to Raza's stronghold. Then there's the attack on the stronghold, the taking of Mrs. Grant, and the chase back through the desert to Texas. The ending is clever, the last lines sharp. So why doesn't it all quite work?

Part of the problem may be the lack of chemistry between Marvin and Lancaster. Both men are good but in different ways. Lancaster's overstated, Marvin's understated. Or maybe it's the Hollywood factor. Lancaster's the star, he gets top-billing, but Marvin plays the leader. How to reconcile this? Near the end of the film, it becomes almost all Lancaster, as he stays behind to shoot it out with the remainder of Raza and his men.

Another issue may simply be the time the film was made. There are vague parallels between the Mexican Revolution of 1911 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and Raza seems a kind of earlier version of Che Guevera. At the time, many had already soured on the Cuban Revolution, and revolution in general, and Lancaster echoes their thoughts. "When the shooting stopped and the dead are buried and the politicians take over, it all adds up to one thing: a lost cause." So what's worth dying for? If not revolution, then money? If not money, then love? Raza and Dolworth shout their arguments from behind rocks in their final confrontation. "To die for money is foolish!" Raza says. "To die for a woman is even more foolish!" responds Dolworth.

The Professionals has a lot going for it, including a great performance by Marvin, but it's weak in the following ways: There aren't enough professionals and still Sharp and Ehrengard remain background figures; the nemesis, Raza, is built up in the first hour of the film and then does almost nothing for the remainder; and the final stand-off is dull and overlong, and ignores everyone but Lancaster.

—October 25, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard