Celebrating the death of the west as The Professionals turns 50.
Early on in Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, Burt Lancaster’s corruptible scoundrel laments, “I’ll be damned,” and his cohort Lee Marvin doesn’t miss a beat with the barb, “Most of us are.” It’s the type of delightful exchange that peppers the entire film, but perfectly captures the forlorn conclusion that most Western heroes have as they face the horizon of the industrial revolution. That transition from frontier to civilization serves as the spine for 90% of the genre, but never seems to grow stale. As we rocket further down the Fury Road of Donald Trump’s America, the thrill of watching expired outlaws find honor in the face of damnation only becomes more palatable. Every generation faces the apocalypse, and Westerns offer its audience catharsis for their worries. We’ll get through this, fingers crossed.
50 years ago, The Professionals cashed in $8 million in the U.S. Box Office and ranked as one of the top-grossing Westerns of the 1960s. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Direction, Adapted Screenplay, and Cinematography), and rescued writer/director Richard Brooks after his financial and critical failure of Lord Jim. Today, the film is not often mentioned in the same breath as other classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, or The Good The Bad and The Ugly, but I’d rank Brooks’ screenplay against any of those go-to masterpieces. Adapted from Frank O’Rourke’s A Mule for the Marquesa, The Professionals is a men-on-a-mission movie about four roughnecks who are hired by an oil tycoon to rescue his wife from a viscous Mexican revolutionary, played by the always dependable scenery chewer, Jack Palance.
Despite knocking up against the dread of the collapsing frontier, The Professionals finds joy where a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah would wallow in sorrow. As the opening credits roll, and Maurice Jarre’s score bounces from militaristic drummer boy to sweeping hollers of horns, our four leads are introduced in a quick succession. Lee Marvin’s Henry “Rico” Fardan has fallen from champion Rough Rider to a life in retail, selling automatic weapons for $40 a week. Robert Ryan’s Hans Ehrengard found a love for horses as a cavalry officer, and would gladly put a bullet in a man before taking a hand to an animal. Woody Strode’s Jake Sharp entered the bounty hunter game long before the D was ever silent, and prefers archery to alcohol. Burt Lancaster’s Bill Dolworth is discovered seducing another man’s wife, and spends the majority of the movie making pajamas look badass. In less than five minutes, The Professionals establishes its core characters with charm and enough dimension to keep their archetypes from falling flat.
As fun and fitting as Robert Ryan and Woody Strode are, they act merely as sounding boards for Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster’s crackerjack dialogue. The hobo mercenaries share a history with Jack Palance’s Jesus Raza, and as they fool each other into this apparent mission of mercy, the two friends rediscover the honor they felt in their youth, when their hair was darker, and their heart’s lighter. Both characters are consumed with rage for past failings; Marvin stuffs it with a granite stare while Lancaster proudly puts it on display with a wide grin.
Burt Lancaster’s undeniable joy at playing the rogue wrestles the show from Lee Marvin’s chiseled warrior. An audience loves an asshole that knows he’s an asshole. Lancaster’s Dolworth understands his life is as valuable as the pair of pants he keeps losing. He constantly exclaims that nothing in this pitiful desert is sacred, and relishes any opportunity to spit at another’s principles. When gloating to his comrades that his skill with dynamite was born from a powerful passion to create, he even finds a way to compare his equalizing explosions to that of The Big Bang. He hides his morality behind his desire to make a buck, but in reconnecting with Marvin’s principled Rico, the fool recalls the passion of youth.
Reviving the concept of The Good Fight extends from America’s obsession with our own justifiable second World War. Thou shall not kill…except when they have it coming. Of course, to borrow from another excellent Western, the JFK assassination and the Vietnam War proved to us that we all have it coming. The Professionals reveals the shift from trust to mistrust of our own moral high ground. An oil tycoon comes to us with the promise of $100,000 and the righteousness of rescuing a damsel in distress. John Wayne would have taken the boodle, tossed the lady on his shoulder, and dropped a “Pilgrim” before putting a bullet in Raza’s head. Lancaster and Marvin no longer have that luxury.
Pinned down in a canyon, hero and villain soiling the dirt with their blood, Jack Palance’s Raza explains Lancaster’s own lost purpose, “Without a cause we are nothing. We stay because we believe. We leave because we are disillusioned. We come back because we are lost. We die because we are committed.” Ten years earlier in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Lancaster could empty his shotgun in Ike Clanton without batting an eye, but in the wake of true national loss Richard Brooks must sympathize with the enemy. One time revolutionary zealots acknowledging their doomed invasion of foreign soil, return across the border to solve one small wrong in a lifetime of regret.
The Professionals puts its oil tyrant and audience in its place. Ralph Bellamy is left with his money and his goons, but no wife. He’s utterly emasculated by Marvin and Lancaster, and his only option is to spit a venomous, “Bastard.” Lee Marvin nods, “Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, are a self-made man.” We’re all corruptible across this land, but we have to watch out for those monsters driving the train.