Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Professionals

The Professionals posterDuring the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, American mercenaries flocked south of the border looking for adventure, money, and maybe even a noble cause. The Professionals (1966) stars Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster as ex-mercenaries of this type, hired by Mr. Grant, a rich Texan who has assembled them and two others to rescue his wife from the clutches of the revolutionary Captain Jesus Raza, who is holding her in the Mexican desert. “Jesus,” Mr. Grant sneers, “what a name for the bloodiest cut-throat in Mexico.” Because he doubts that Raza will return her even if he delivers the ransom, he will instead pay $10,000 each to these men, professionals in their trade, upon her return. The men agree, and they receive a tip from a mysterious Mr. Ortega that a goat-herd at Raza’s hacienda will help them. We find out that Bill Dolworth (played by Lancaster) and Henry “Rico” Fardan (played by Marvin), who are the tacit leaders of the gang, have a shared history of fighting in the Mexican Revolution. They also fought alongside Raza, which makes his being a cold-hearted kidnapper surprising.

The moment that the gang enters Mexico, they suffer sweltering days, frigid nights, and toothy-grinned but vicious banditos. They create a make-shift base while rigging a narrow canyon with dynamite that they will use to block pursuers on the way back. Eventually they reach their destination and the goat-herd tells them of Mrs. Maria Grant’s location. They devise a plan, and despite Dolworth’s gut feeling that something is amiss, they resolve to go through with it. That night, they assume their posts and wait for the hour to strike. With just three minutes remaining, Dolworth and Fardan flank the doorway of Grant’s room, watching as Raza enters via another door, bolts it shut and unbuckles his belt. Then, to the men’s disbelief, Maria disrobes and the two collapse in a half-naked embrace. Panic shoots through them, and they are unsure whether to proceed with the plan, but Fardan decides to go on, entering the room and smacking Raza’s head with his pistol butt. They drag away a screaming Maria and a skirmish proceeds. The four men and Maria narrowly escape in a railway cart that careens downhill away from the flaming hacienda.

When they finally evade Raza’s cavalry, they are back at their base. This is the first chance they have to talk to Maria, who glares at them with smoldering eyes and tells them in a smoky, French-sounding accent that Raza knew everything before they set foot in Mexico, tipped off by Mr. Ortega and the goat-herd. She and Raza had been lovers since their youth, but when her father sold his hacienda to Mr. Grant, he threw her unwillingly into the deal. She tries to escape but Dolworth detonates the canyon. The gang leaves Dolworth behind, nestled amongst the rocky landscape with his rifles, to kill Raza and his forces while the others cross the final stretch to the Texas. The Mexican men are easy targets for Dolworth, all except his once-friend Raza and a female revolutionary named Chiquita whom he is forced to shoot and who dies in his arms. Back in the U.S. the gang sees Dolworth riding in, unexpectedly bearing a wounded Raza, who collapses from his horse while a teary Maria rushes to meet him. Fardan demands why he brought Raza and Dolworth flashes a smile, merely replying “I’m a born sucker for love.” When Mr. Grant shows up and acts abusively to Maria, the men intervene, call him the real kidnapper, and allow Maria to take the reigns to flee with Raza back to Mexico.

The Professionals shows that Mexican revolutionaries are fighting the good fight, but it raises the perennial question of Western films situated in Mexico: Are the Americans in it for the cash or the cause? Fardan is the more principled of the leading men: as Maria says to him, “No man was more loyal to the Revolution than you.” However, he is the one determined to turn Maria in according to contract, even though he knows that the kidnapping was a farce. Dolworth, on the other hand, is “an adventurer without principles” who is none-the-less eventually overcome by compassion. When asked by one of the men, “What are Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?” Dolworth replies, “Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning, the good guys against the bad guys. . . . Question is, who are the good guys?” Whereas Fardan operates on logic, Dolworth operates on gut feeling, which proves the most trustworthy in situations of moral ambiguity. When Americans are intervening in foreign affairs, most importantly in their own “backyard” of Mexico, can they be trusted to do so for the right reasons?

The Mexicans of the film are tough-as-nails fighters and passionate idealists, fighting in a war that is as violent as it is sexualized. The viewer catches glimpses of the brutality committed on both sides of the Mexican Revolution; at one point the revolutionaries led by Raza hold up a federal supply train and methodically execute its crew, and in the same scene Dolworth describes how the federales are expert in pillage and torture. At the same time, Raza wistfully relates a feminine allegory of the Revolution to Dolworth: “La Revolución is like a great love affair. In the beginning, she is a goddess. A holy cause. But every love affair has a terrible enemy. Time. We see her as she is. La Revolución is not a goddess, but a whore. She was never pure, never saintly, never perfect.” This goddess/whore dichotomy is embodied in the two female characters of the The Professionals: the beautiful and defiant Maria and the brave but wanton Chiquita. Raza’s monologue imbues the final scene with greater meaning as Maria rides with her wounded lover back to Mexico; it is a sign that the Revolution will persist.

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