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Centuries ago when most of Europe's artists were making heavily stylized work, the Italians tried to capture real life in their paintings and sculptures. The fascination with realism has been such a constant thread in Italian culture that perhaps nobody should have been surprised when Italian Westerns turned out to be more down-to-earth and less idealized than those made by Americans. Heroes in spaghetti Westerns are more likely to be motivated by money than idealism or revenge than forgiveness. You can see the dirt and sweat and blood like never before.
A fine example is The Mercenary (1968) which injects a welcome dose of humor into its story. The mercenary of the title (played by Franco Nero) gets tangled in a struggle of exploited miners against a nasty mine owner (Eduardo Fajardo) and his even nastier henchman (Jack Palance). Taking the side of the miners is a charismatic freedom fighter (Tony Musante) who tries to convince the mercenary to join their side. (The Mercenary has also been released under the title A Professional Gun.)
The Mercenary was one of the few Westerns directed by cult figure Sergio Corbucci; critic Phil Hardy called it his best film. You can see his Navajo Joe (1966) on TCM June 23rd, but Corbucci's Django (1966) and The Grand Silence (1968) are some of the best-known Italian films of the 60s and 70s. Like so many other Italian directors of the period, Corbucci was a film critic before moving into the director's chair in 1951, a background not unlike the originators of the French New Wave movement. He also wrote gags for various Italian comedies which is perhaps one reason his own films avoid the trap of becoming too serious. Corbucci worked constantly until his death in 1990 (a few days short of his 63rd birthday) with over 60 features to his credit, including sword-and-sandal epics, Westerns, Italian-style comedies and straight dramas. Corbucci used star Franco Nero in several films, even claiming that Nero was to him what Henry Fonda was to John Ford. Nero himself has never lacked for work; in addition to a hundred or so Italian films (including five in 1999 alone) he can also be seen in Die Hard 2 (1990) and Fassbinder's Querelle (1982).
Producer: Alberto Grimaldi, Francesco Merli
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Screenplay: Giorgio Arlorio (story), Adriano Bolzoni, Sergio Corbucci, Franco Solinas (story), Sergio Spina, Luciano Vincenzoni
Art Direction: Piero Filippone
Cinematography: Alejandro Ulloa
Costume Design: Jurgen Henze
Film Editing: Eugenio Alabiso
Original Music: Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai
Principal Cast: Franco Nero (Kowalski), Jack Palance (Ricciolo), Tony Musante (Eufemio), Giovanna Ralli (Columba), Franco Giacobini (Pepote), Eduardo Fajardo (Alfonso Garcia), Raf Baldassarre (Mateo).
By Lang Thompson