Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Companeros posterIn Compañeros (1970), directed by Sergio Corbucci, Franco Nero plays Yodlaf Peterson, a Swedish arms dealer who becomes unexpectedly involved in the Mexican Revolution. Compañeros has the extravagant shootouts and departures from realism typical of Corbucci’s style, but its most salient feature is a leftist political message that clearly condemns American capitalism.

The film begins with Yodlaf and El Vasco standing twenty paces apart, each with his gun trained on the other; as Yodlaf reminisces about how they arrived at this moment, the audience is brought back in time. It all began in Mexico when Vasco, who is a simple-minded peasant and Che Guevara look-alike, unwittingly won the approval of General Mongo, who made him commander in the town of San Bernardino. General Mongo is a two-faced revolutionary leader who is only involved for the money. Yodlaf, completely incongruous in San Bernardino with his refined speech and tidy apparel, has arrived with a train cart loaded with arms and ammunition to sell to General Mongo, but is soon accosted by student revolutionaries who ask him not to make the deal. They are acting in absence of their leader, Professor Xantos, who went to the U.S. to request help, but he was detained because the implementation of his revolutionary ideas would threaten American oil wealth in Mexico. Mongo, with revolutionary goals always second to lining his pocket, is desperate to open a gigantic safe that only Xantos knows the combination of. Yodlaf suggests that he retrieve Xantos from U.S. imprisonment, taking an unwilling Vasco with him, and that they later split the money inside the safe.

After crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico, news of their massacre of eight border guards and train heist reaches the ear of an eccentric villain named John. John and his men ambush the train, which is carrying only Yodlaf, and he begins to sinisterly reminisce about when they sold malfunctioning arms in Cuba and Yodlaf let him take the blame. The Cubans nailed his hand to a tree and left him to die would it not have been for his hawk Marsha, who freed him by gnawing the hand off. In retribution, John leaves Yodlaf hanging by his neck with only a shaky barrel under his feet. Meanwhile, three American businessmen offer Xantos freedom if he signs away all Mexican oil on a ninety-nine year contract should he become president, which he vehemently rejects. The thwarted men then solicit John to kill Xantos; they offer an award of $10,000 and they throw in an envelope of “loco weed” to sweeten the deal. Vasco rescues Yodlaf and they hatch a plan to kidnap Xantos. Vasco enters Fort Yuma via a prostitute-carrying carriage, sets the fort on fire, and amidst the scramble to extinguish the fire the pair escape with an unconscious Xantos on a stolen fire truck.

Riding back to San Bernardino, the trio has a couple of near scrapes with John. First, John captures Vasco and tortures him by trapping a sharp-clawed rodent in an upturned basket on his belly. They evade John a second time when their attempt to sneak past the Mexican border patrol disguised as monks turns into a wild shootout. Finally, John captures Xantos and is about to execute him when Yodlaf and Vasco, aided by Xantos’s followers, demolish the firing wall and whisk Xantos to safety. The noble Xantos chides his young revolutionaries for taking lives during his rescue; an ardent pacifist and patriot, Xantos cannot bear that any Mexican should die violently. For this reason, Mongo knows that he can lure Xantos into town with the threat of killing a group of prisoners. Yodlaf and Vasco follow Xantos and conduct an out-and-out massacre of Mongo’s men, ending with the death of Mongo himself. Yodlaf realizes that there is no money in the safe after all and steals the relic of San Bernardino, hoping to glean some profit from this venture. As Vasco threatens Yodlaf not to take it, the end of the film loops back to the beginning scene. John shoots Xantos in cold blood, which prompts Yodlaf to launch the relic into a trigger he had rigged on his train cart of weapons, causing it to explode and consume John in flames. Yodlaf makes motions to leave Vasco and the revolutionaries, but he changes his mind, perhaps prompted by the destruction of his material wealth or perhaps by a sense of compassion. Upon seeing the Mexican military advancing, he leads the charge against them with the impassioned cry: “Vamos a matar, compañeros!”

In Compañeros, Corbucci used the most American of film genres to give an explicit critique of American capitalism. In the film, the U.S. government and big business work hand in hand to exploit the natural resources of foreign countries; the military illegally detain Xantos while businessmen pressure him to sign over ownership of Mexican oil. Xantos is clearly disgusted by their under-handed opportunism. Many Westerns have focused on the Mexican Revolution, and the heroism of their protagonists is amplified when they abandon their profit-seeking goals to help the Mexican peasant rebels. Usually the characters of these rebels are not fleshed out, but Xantos is well-developed both in terms of his character and his ideological soundbites. He preaches pacifism and has a deep love for his countrymen, but at the same time professes distaste for nationalism. When Yodlaf finally opens the safe, he finds that Xantos keeps inside a pile of humble objects to symbolize the grain, soil and labour that will eventually bring them wealth. The allusion to Che in the character of Vasco, who evolves from a buffoonish shoe shiner to a stoic rebel leader, completes the infusion of leftist values into an otherwise familiar Western context.

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