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One of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful Westerns of the sixties, The Professionals (1966) is a perfect example of a big budget Hollywood action adventure that delivers the goods while at the same time introducing a much more complex and unpredictable narrative than most films in this genre. Immediately we are plunged into the story. It's 1917 and a millionaire's wife (Claudia Cardinale) has been kidnapped for ransom in Mexico. Quickly, the millionaire recruits a group of specialists to rescue his wife Maria. There's the group leader (Lee Marvin), an explosives expert (Burt Lancaster), the horseman (Robert Ryan) and the tracker (Woody Strode). Their mission? To sneak into foreign territory and rescue Maria from the Mexican rebel Raza (Jack Palance). Simple? Of course not.
Shot on location in Death Valley, Lake Mead and the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, The Professionals was not a smooth film shoot by any stretch of the imagination; rain, snow, sleet, the blazing sun, intense desert heat and even a flash flood created complications for the film crew during the eighty day production schedule. Another wild card in the mix was actor Lee Marvin who was so drunk for a scene atop a giant rock that assistant producer Tom Shaw had to intervene for fear that Burt Lancaster would "take Lee Marvin by the ass and throw him off that mountain." On the positive side, The Professionals was a personal success for Lancaster who had just come off a huge box office failure, John Sturges' comedy Western, The Hallelujah Trail (1965). Lancaster's performance as the explosives expert in Brooks' epic is similar in some ways to his cynical mercenary in Vera Cruz (1954), another Western set amid the Mexican Revolution and one which keeps Lancaster's true intentions a secret until the final fadeout.
The Professionals was based on the novel A Mule for the Marquesa by Frank O'Rourke (which oddly enough is listed in the landmark Oxford English Dictionary as one source for the phrase "from soup to nuts"). The film snagged three Oscar nominations: Best Director (for Richard Brooks), Best Color Cinematography (for Conrad L. Hall) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, could have played it safe and just delivered a damsel-in-distress scenario but instead he invested his characters with plenty of surprising quirks and secrets. For instance, the kidnapped wife has her own agenda, just as much as any of her rescuers or the bandit leader, creating an unusual tension. Brooks later said he was "surprised by the success of The Professionals" but perhaps he shouldn't have been. Plans were announced in 2000 for a remake (at one point involving James Bond scripter Bruce Feirstein and possibly director John Woo) but no further information has been provided to date.
Critic and historian Glenn Erickson (he discovered the lost original ending to Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) identifies The Professionals as one of what he's labeled "Mexican Adventure" films. He points out others like The Wild Bunch (1969), Vera Cruz and The Magnificent Seven (1960), noting that "The subgenre of Westerns about gun-toting Americans adventuring in Mexico can be seen as an ever-changing record of U.S. attitudes toward U.S. military intervention overseas, our real 'foreign policy', as it were." If Westerns have always been to some degree about the idea of a frontier then these Mexican Adventure films--and indeed most Westerns made during the 60s and 70s--are also about dealing with a frontier that was slowly closing and one reason these films are often set early in the 20th century instead of late in the 19th century.
Producer/Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Art Direction: Edward S. Haworth
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Editing: Peter Zinner
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Bill Dolworth), Lee Marvin (Henry 'Rico' Fardan), Robert Ryan (Hans Ehrengard), Jack Palance (Capt. Jesus Raza), Claudia Cardinale (Maria Grant), Woody Strode (Jake Sharp), Ralph Bellamy (Joe Grant), Joe De Santis (Ortega).
C-118m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Lang Thompson