Guest reviewer Lee Broughton is back with an in-depth look at Sergio Corbucci’s grand ‘Zapata’ Spaghetti Western. Set in post-1900 Mexico, Tony Musante’s rebellious peon wants to be a hero of the revolution but he primarily robs the rich in order to pay the extortionate wages that are demanded by Franco Nero’s interloping Polish mercenary-cum-military advisor. The resultant political allegory is played out on an almost epic scale and is suitably enlivened by the presence of a villainous Jack Palance, a plethora of large scale action scenes, an imaginatively used period car and biplane and a rousing soundtrack score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai.
The Mercenary (Il mercenario)
Region B Blu-ray
88 Films The Italian Collection
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 106 min. / A Professional Gun, Il mercenario / Street Date, 8 Jan 2018 / £15.99
Starring: Franco Nero, Tony Musante, Jack Palance, Giovanna Ralli, Franco Giacobini, Eduardo Fajardo, Franco Ressel, Raf Baldassarre, Tito Garcia.
Cinematography: Alejandro Ulloa
Film Editor: Eugenio Alabiso
Art Director: Luis Vazquez
Original Music: Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai
Written by Franco Solinas, Giorgio Arlorio and Luciano Vincenzoni with Sergio Spina, Adriano Bolzoni and Sergio Corbucci
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
When the Italian writer-director team of Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo made The Battle of Algiers (1966), they produced an art house documentary-like re-telling of a then recent anti-colonialist insurrection. In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Pontecorvo asserted that the film had been made in order to allegorically champion the dispossessed worldwide and to encourage them to fight for their rights. The same political intent has been presumed to be present in the subsequent works that Solinas adapted or wrote for the screen but these efforts adopted a slightly different approach in that some of them were popular genre films whose narratives unfolded within much earlier historical timeframes.
The contents and themes of historical films often tell us more about the society and the time that they were made in than they do about their diegetic period settings and that might well be true of Solinas’ film work. His historical allegories of oppression and insurrection would seem to reflect and be intended to resonate with those sectors of Italian society — and, indeed, those members of marginalized groups the world over — who were already embroiled in the bitter and sometimes violent struggles for social and political change that took place during the late 1960s.
Whether Solinas’ political parables made a connection with their intended audiences and whether they had the desired effect is open to question but his political engagement with popular genres marks interesting chapters in both the history of Italian popular cinema and the evolution of the Spaghetti Western. Following the success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Italian-made Westerns would remain popular — and be produced in huge numbers — until the late 1970s. The Spaghetti Western genre was able to survive and grow in a fickle marketplace because its core directors were savvy enough to introduce a succession of novel sub cycles that served to periodically reinvigorate the genre. One such sub cycle featured what were to become known as the ‘Zapata’ Spaghetti Westerns.
Franco Solinas and director Damiano Damiani initiated this politically charged sub cycle when they came together to produce A Bullet for the General (Quién sabe?) in 1967. Starring Gian Maria Volonte, Lou Castel and Klaus Kinski, this film effectively set the template for most of the Zapata Spaghetti Westerns that would follow in its wake, including the title under review here, Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968).
The sub cycle’s films are usually set during one of Mexico’s post-1900 periods of revolution. They feature government officials, soldiers and capitalists who are shown to be merciless, fascistic and greedy oppressors of the people while their nominal heroes tend to be naïve, exploited and downtrodden Mexican peasants who eventually become politically enlightened insurrectionists. Quite often the peasants are befriended and further exploited to some extent by American or European weapons experts who are cast as uncaring and meddlesome foreign interventionists or callous profit-driven mercenaries.
Several personnel who were involved in the making of the films have suggested, to differing degrees, that their Mexican characters functioned as racial palimpsests that might have effectively spoken on behalf of both the Italian proletariat (particularly the dark-skinned southern Italians) and oppressed ‘Others’ worldwide; that their Mexican Federale officers and soldiers might be read as stand-ins for the state apparatuses of any contemporary reactionary or totalitarian regime of choice; and that their Anglo interlopers might be read as metaphors for contemporaneous American and European interventions in South America and the Third World. Given that the films’ left-leaning politics are laid open so obviously, there’s little reason to discount such assertions. But at the very least, the films can be said to have captured the political zeitgeist of the late 1960s.
In The Mercenary, an insubordinate but naïve peon, Paco Roman (Tony Musante), leads a revolt at a silver mine before becoming a bandit leader who also affects pretensions of revolutionary intent. When his bandit gang crosses paths with Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero), a Polish mercenary who has been employed by the mine’s bosses to covertly transport their silver to the USA, they are attacked by government troops. Kowalski’s superior weapons and strategic planning results in Paco’s men defeating the soldiers. Paco decides to employ the mercenary as his military advisor in spite of the ridiculously high wages and extravagant privileges that he demands.
When Paco finds real political enlightenment via his relationship with an articulate and idealistic female peon, Columba (Giovanna Ralli), he becomes a committed revolutionary and begins to question Kowalski’s motives for meddling in Mexican affairs. However, trouble lays in wait for the duo in the form of Curly (Jack Palance), a villainous and psychopathic dandy who is searching for the silver that he thinks Kowalski has taken possession of, and Colonel Garcia (Eduardo Fajardo), a military man who is related to the family that owns the silver mine that Paco ransacked.
The producer Alberto Grimaldi had originally wanted The Mercenary to be a full-fledged Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo project but Pontecorvo seemingly lost interest and began developing another one of Solinas’ historical political allegories, Burn! (Queimada, 1969), instead. The Mercenary was thus assigned to the popular Spaghetti Western director Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci was a working director who took on projects that were sometimes low budget affairs but he still managed to produce a number of genre classics, including Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968).
Being hampered by a low budget wasn’t something that would trouble Corbucci’s work on The Mercenary. Alberto Grimaldi had produced the final two instalments in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (1964-1966) and when United Artists gave the films a belated American release during late 1967 and early 1968 they struck box office gold. As a consequence, the American distributor was keen to invest big bucks in further Italian Westerns and Grimaldi became one of their primary production partners.
United Artists’ monetary support resulted in The Mercenary looking like a high-end production that shared a number of technical attributes with Leone’s films. The story for The Mercenary that Solinas wrote in conjunction with Giorgio Arlorio was turned into an evenly paced, moderately humorous and suitably action-packed screenplay by one of Sergio Leone’s regular writers, Luciano Vincenzone. Vincenzone’s work added a vibe that was somewhat reminiscent of Leone’s Westerns in parts. And the acclaimed music composer Ennio Morricone provided the film with an outstanding soundtrack score, which was written in partnership with his regular collaborator and conductor Bruno Nicolai. As such, The Mercenary is probably Corbucci’s best-looking and most epic-like Spaghetti Western.
Indeed, although the film is set during a different time frame and in a different country, Corbucci appears to have set out to make a Zapata Spaghetti Western that riffed on both the narrative and the epic qualities of Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In terms of the narrative, the pairing of the Anglo Kowalski with the Mexican Paco and the volatile nature of their relationship brings to mind Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco’s (Eli Wallach) relationship in Leone’s film. And the villainous Curly’s murderous search for a fortune in silver completes a triangle of conflict that is similar to the one initiated by Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and his brutally executed search for a fortune in gold in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The Mercenary’s key ‘settling of accounts’ showdown also owes much to Leone’s films. Set in a circular bullring, Kowalski oversees a fair gunfight between Paco and Curly, who use rifles rather than pistols. Kowalski’s supervisory duties here do bring to mind Monco’s (Clint Eastwood) supervision of the final gunfight between Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965).
However, Corbucci clearly had the final shootout from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in mind when staging The Mercenary’s iconic duel. Extreme long shots that show the three protagonists moving into a triangular configuration cut straight to close-ups and extreme close-ups of their faces Leone-style while Morricone and Nicolai’s superb music serves to amplify Paco’s mournful expressions of worry and Curly’s giddy expressions of psychopathic anticipation. This quite superb sequence isn’t quite as protracted as the Sad Hill cemetery shootout from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but it does sport a novel punch line that Quentin Tarantino would go on to appropriate for a key scene in Django Unchained (2012).
In the BBC documentary Viva Leone! (1989), Christopher Frayling noted how the characters in Leone’s films are sometimes somehow unaware of what’s happening within the diegetic world that lies immediately outside of the film frame that they occupy. This can result in the objects or people that enter a shot from the edges of the frame taking the characters by surprise, even though they should technically have been within the characters’ lines of sight or detected by their other senses. A good example occurs when Blondie and Tuco are captured by the Union troops towards the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco almost walks straight onto the raised bayonets that suddenly enter the foot of the frame to appear directly in front of him.
Corbucci adopts a similar approach here for Kowalski’s grand entrance. Thanks to the novel use of a mirror and a judicious zoom in, Kowalski has the power to reach his arm into a shot from off camera and unexpectedly strike a match on the ear of one of Curly’s underlings, Studs (Franco Ressel of Sabata ), who is running a crooked craps table. Studs only becomes aware of what is happening when the ignited match is in the process of being withdrawn from his ear. The subsequent pan and zoom out prompts an impressively disorientating effect within the shot that ultimately ensures that the spectator winds up focused on Kowalski.
Speaking of zooms, there are the requisite zoom shots that both the genre’s stylistic palette and Corbucci’s auteurist traits demand but the ever-dependable Spanish cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa skilfully places these shots within what is generally stylish and aesthetically pleasing coverage of the film’s action.
One interesting approach here is the way in which Curly immediately moves away from a crime scene just as soon as he’s given his henchmen the order to commit an act of violence. Rather than focusing on the bloodshed, Corbucci has Ulloa’s camera follow Curly instead. This choreography plays like a handy metaphor for the way in which the powerful are often able to distance themselves from the abuses for which they are directly responsible. Interestingly, a similar approach becomes apparent when Paco is elevated to the status of a bone fide revolutionary leader. Those who are on the receiving end of his judicial pronouncements are taken away by foot soldiers and dealt with at a distance off camera too.
The Mercenary’s big budget can be seen onscreen on a number of levels and, again, comparisons to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are prompted. There are some great sets, stylish costumes and well-observed background details here. In the same way that Leone’s film features incidental but well-observed occurrences that serve to remind the viewer of its Civil War setting, such as the presence of Union execution squads shooting spies and traitors, The Mercenary features incidental occurrences that serve to remind the viewer of its Mexican revolution setting, such as the presence of Federale execution squads shooting peons and revolutionaries.
The Mercenary doesn’t feature a set piece that is as grand in scale as the Battle for Langstone Bridge sequence found in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but Corbucci does get to present two pretty well executed large-scale battles between Paco’s men and Garcia’s troops. The first is distinguished by the presence of a period car that Kowalski attaches a machine gun to while the second has Garcia employing a biplane and a raft of heavy artillery to besiege the town where Paco and company are holed up.
The dynamics that tie The Mercenary’s characters together and the chemistry present between the actors who portray them also greatly assist in making the film work. Franco Nero was already a superstar of the genre by 1968 and his turn as Kowalski is supremely confident. The character’s Polish origins prompted the need for an accent of some sort, a contrivance that allowed Nero — with his all-purpose Italian accent — to dub himself in the English language version of the film. His performance — and the show itself — is all the better for it. The same line of thinking would result in Nero playing a Swede in Corbucci’s inferior re-imagining of The Mercenary, Compañeros (1970), and a Russian in Duccio Tessari’s fun Don’t Turn the Other Cheek (1971).
I have a real fondness for Jack Palance’s work in Italian Westerns such as It Can Be Done… Amigo! (1972) and his performance in The Mercenary might well be his best in a Spaghetti Western period. He employs an understated but wholly menacing and intimidating approach. In the scene where Kowalski and Paco try their best to humiliate Curly — forcefully stripping him down to just his modesty-covering shirt after shooting his beloved henchman — he keeps a deathly straight face and his self-respect by calmly informing a rattled Paco that he will kill him one day and defiantly rejecting Kowalski’s smirking sympathies by removing his shirt himself and striding off into the wilderness naked.
Tony Musante looks the part as Paco and he does all that he needs to do in order to convincingly emote the peon’s perilous journey from rebellious mineworker to revolutionary hero. Paco is by turn naïve, cheeky, clownish, petulant, pigheaded and violent but he manages to gain our sympathy on a number of occasions. Genre stalwart Eduardo Fajardo specialized in playing well to do villains and harsh officer class military men. His role as Colonel Garcia here is relatively small and undemanding but he provides a good performance none the less.
Giovanna Ralli works well enough as the intelligent female revolutionary Columba. Spaghetti Westerns rarely featured convincingly strong women but the Zapata Spaghetti Westerns and other political variants from this time often did. Again, we might think of this phenomena in terms of the films’ relations to contemporaneous Italian society since a significant number of the many political factions and protest movements that came together to partake in collective action on Italy’s streets during the late 1960s were newly formed women’s groups. For a detailed reading of Corbucci’s The Great Silence and the socio-political and generic significance of that film’s strong ethnic female character, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), see my book The Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film.
The Mercenary — which will be better known to British viewers of a certain age under its alternate title of A Professional Gun — didn’t get a look in when MGM were actively exploiting United Artists’ back catalogue on VHS and DVD in the UK. So British genre fans will welcome 88 Films’ belated home video release of this long overlooked genre classic. The film also represents a good place to start for anybody who might be wondering what the genre has to offer beyond the films of Sergio Leone.
88 Films’ Region B Blu-ray of The Mercenary (Il mercenario) is licensed from MGM, so I’m assuming that this is the same HD transfer that has been used for Blu-ray releases of The Mercenary in a number of different regions of late.
Picture quality here is very good for the most part. There’s a small amount of print damage in the form of occasional small flecks and a very occasional scratched-up frame. The front credits sport Italian text. The presentation’s sound quality is also very good.
The Mercenary is a major film within the Spaghetti Western canon and a firm fan favourite so it’s a shame that the extra features on this release are a little sparse. The film’s original theatrical trailer is included alongside a jokey featurette, ‘Mercenary Musings’, that is fronted by Eric Zaldivar. Decent enough overviews of the Zapata Spaghetti Western sub cycle and Sergio Corbucci’s and Franco Nero’s genre work in general — that should pique the interest of viewers who are new to the genre — can be found amidst the featurette’s welter of curiously comedic graphics and ironic verbal quips. But long-term Spaghetti Western fans won’t find much in the way of new or revelatory information about The Mercenary, Corbucci or Nero here.
(note, CineSavant:) This Region B disc won’t play on domestic American machines. Kino Lorber issued its own Region A Blu-ray back in November of 2017, with an audio commentary by director Alex Cox
Readers interested in learning more about the making of The Mercenary and the socio-political aspects of the Zapata Spaghetti Western sub cycle should seek out Christopher Frayling’s extended chapter entitled ‘Zapata Spaghetti: Reflections on the Italian Western and the Mexican Revolution’ that appears in my book Critical Perspectives on the Western: From A Fistful of Dollars to Django Unchained.
The Mercenary (Il mercenario) Region B Blu-ray
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Mercenary Musings featurette, original theatrical trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2018
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Text © Copyright 2018 Lee Broughton
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