1968 – Aka: A Professional Gun, orig. Title: Il Mercenario (I), Salario para Matar (E) – Dir: Sergio Corbucci – Cast: Franco Nero, Tony Musante, Giovanna Ralli, Jack Palance, Eduardo Fajardo, Franco Ressel, Franco Giacobini – Music: Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai
Corbucci’s early spaghetti westerns had been fairly one-dimensional action movies, saved by his sense of style and flair for action scenes, but hampered by limited production values. The success of Django (1966) finally gave him bigger budgets and the opportunity to realize his sometimes very ambitious plans. For The Mercenary he apparently had fairly large means at his disposal, as well as a near perfect cast and crew. Despite a very difficult genesis, it became one of his most accomplished movies, visually stunning, ferociously violent and totally wonderful.
A Polish mercenary (Nero) arrives in Mexico and is hired by the Garcia brothers to transport their silver safely across the border. But a group of revolutionary bandits have taken over the mine and are now waiting for Colonel Garcia to attack with his Federales. Their leader Paco Roman (Musante) is a simple man who doesn’t have a clue how a revolution has to be undertaken or even what the concept really means, so he hires European mercenary Nero to instruct him in the art of warfare. Nero not only wants to be paid for the job, but also requires to be treated like a king. For this he is hold in contempt by peasant girl Columba (Ralli) who was freed by Paco Roman and subsequently joined his gang. On their trail is a second mercenary (Palance), who was humiliated by Paco and is now out to take revenge. When Curly is about to kill Paco, the latter is saved by Nero who intends to hand him over to the authorities, but there’s still that gorgeous peasant girl …
Influenced by Marxist ideas, like most Southern European intellectuals in the sixties, the Mexican revolution was the ideal background for Corbucci’s political westerns. There is little doubt that he wished to equate the Mexican situation to the situation back home, where a right-wing, fervent pro-American government tried to suppress any kind of revolutionary initiative. For The Mercenary, he got hold of a story by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio. The original script had been influenced by ‘The Exeption and the Rule’ (Die Ausnahme und die Regel), one of Bertold Brecht’s famous so-called Lehrstücke (Teaching plays). Brecht’s play is about a rich merchant who must cross the desert to close an oil deal. During the trip the class differences between him and his working-class porter become clear. Eventually the merchant accidently kills the porter when both are lost in the desert and he feels threatened by him. In court the merchant is acquitted, even though it has become clear that the porter didn’t threaten the merchant, but wanted to give him his last water instead. Solinas and Arlorio’s script was intended as a kind of three act drama, about an American mercenary and a third world revolutionary, set shortly after the turn of the century. In the first act those representatives of two different worlds would meet and decide to cooperate. In the second act they would slowly become aware that the cultural gap between them was too large, and the final act would describe their inevitable downfall and violent death. Director would be Gillo Pontecorvo, with whom Solinas had already made the award-winning The Battle of Algiers (1963).There were rumours about casting Peter O’Toole or Burt Lancaster as the mercenary, while Sidney Poitier was asked for the part of the revolutionary. But the affair never came off the ground. Consequently the script was rewritten by at least four different people (among them Luciano Vincenzioni and Sergio Corbucci), and finally disowned by Solinas and Arlorio, who re-used several ideas for another movie with director Pontecorvo set in Haiti, without Sidney Poitier, Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole, but starring Marlon Brando: Queimada (Burn!/1969). Some elements of the original story, also seem to turn up in a lesser known Lancaster (!) movie from ’68, Sydney Pollack’s dissapointng - if occasionally funny - The Scalphunters. In this movie the mercenary has become a trapper and the revolutionary an escaped slave (played by Ossie Davis, apparently Poitier wasn’t available) but the only neat idea of the entire movie is the decision to make the slave the more literate of the two.
Meanwhile Corbucci had met with all kinds of problems preparing his movie. His first decision was to relocate the story to Mexico and cast his favourite actor, Franco Nero, as the Mexican. James Coburn was nearly contracted for the part of the mercenary, but turned the offer down when preparations for filming were already well on their way. Nero then became the mercenary, the American became a European, and Corbucci considered both Jack Palance and Eli Wallach as the Mexican revolutionary. Palance would eventually turn up in the movie, but in a different quality, and when Wallach said no, Corbucci asked Tony Musante, whom he had seen in a thriller and who had a good face for a peon. Musante immediately signed the contract and took the plane to Rome, preparing himself for la dolce vita, only to end up in the burning heat of the Almeria desert.
It’s a bit of a surprise that after all those reworkings and rewritings, some of the ideas of the original story (or even Brecht’s play) still shine through in Corbucci’s movie. The decadence of the turn of the century and the differences in the background of the protagonists are wonderfully illustrated by the presence of all kinds of regalia of modern life, such as machine guns, cars and planes, and Musante’s often bewildered reaction to it. We see Musante’s character, Paco Roman, evolving from a simple peon to a ruthless gang leader who is developing a revolutionary ardour by the aid of the peasant girl who has started to love him. There is one, very touching scene where Musante, confronted with a map of Mexico, confesses that he never realised how great his country was. What definitely has been changed, is the original bleak ending: Musante and Nero finally become friends, but the gap between them turns out to be too wide when Nero proposes a partnership (since there’s always a revolutionary war somewhere) and Musante decides to stay in Mexico, to continue the revolution. But still he needs the European’s professional skills: after they have said goodbye, Nero shoots mine owner Garcia and his federales, who were waiting on a distant mountain range for Musante. What is also new in the final script, is the introduction of the second mercenary, the sadistic Ricciolo (Curly in the English language version), who constantly crosses himself and is sexually aroused in the prospect of killing Paco Roman. It has been suggested that the collective reworking the original story, got the idea of the second mercenary when they read about Lumumba and his suppressed revolution in Belgian Congo, and the role European mercenaries had played in the process. Anyway, this second mercenary adds a new dimension to the story and was probably exactly what the film needed.
Like all Corbucci’s films, Il Mercenario has some flaws, most of them due to what has been called by Phil Hardy ‘his lack of discipline and need to fit in jokes’. The running gag here is Nero lighting a match on all kinds of surfaces, even a hanging man’s boots and a woman’s cleavage . Although funny, such antics can work against the movie, or at least against certain scenes. Like The Good the Bad and the Ugly (clearly an influence), The Mercenary is at first sight a rather relaxed, almost cheerful movie, set against a bleak and ugly background; but the story is punctuated regularly by strong images of physical or mental cruelty, such as the suggested castration of a traitor of the revolution or two hanging men, whom we had met before in the quality of bullies. Of course, the lighting of the match underlines Nero’s ‘coolness’ here, but it seems a bit over the top. When Paco Roman finally has his Columba in a romantic hold, she starts complaining about his sabre, no not that sabre, a real sabre. Furthermore Nero shoots a plane out of the sky and brings down a horse by using his rifle as a blunt instrument. Like Fellini, Corbucci often is tempted to put so many extravagant scenes in his movies that they tend to overgrow, so to speak, the larger picture. But I guess that is the price you pay for the kind of brilliance that was Corbucci’s (and that was quite different from Leone’s severe perfectionism). Moreover, despite all possible shortcomings, the film works, and works very well, thanks to some fine performances and a multi-layered script. The casting of Musante has been critisized - many critics would have preferred Tomas Milian in his part - but his rather restrained performance provides some counterweight for Nero’s laconic acting style. Nero probably gives his best performance ever as the selfish and conceited, but imperturbable and resourceful mercenary. Kudus go to Giovanna Ralli as the lascivious and lusty Columba. Of the various strong women in Corbucci’s movies, she probably is the most impressive one. She flirts with Nero when she wants to have Musante, exposes Nero as a ‘thief of the revolution’ (and sees to it that Musante confiscates his wealth!), but realizes in time that the revolutionary army can’t do without him when the Federales appear to posses a plane: she knows only the Polak can deal with it.
Instead of the more common flashback structure, Corbucci and his co-writers use a loop structure here, a literary technique rarely used in action movies. For this reason the script was probably called overwrought by some critics. In a loop structure the moment of highest entanglement, the scene in which the various story-lines come together, is immediately shown at the beginning of the movie; subsequently the script makes a large detour until this moment of upper entanglement is reached again and is about to be unravelled. This moment, the loop, is indeed the Arena scene, in which Paco Roman and Ricciolo meet for a shootout, supervised by Sergei, while Columba and Garcia, the other people involved, are biding their time in the background. Actually, the script is quite intricate and intelligently put together; it takes multiple viewings to trace all those vicissitudes and internal references, and every time you’ll discover new ones …
The Mercenary was Corbucci’s biggest success in the US and popular among most European audiences, but wasn’t well-received at home. It still would prove to be very influential within the spaghetti western industry. Most European mercenaries populating future Zapata westerns, would be modelled after the ultra-cool and ultra-chic Sergei Kowalski, who seemed to be perfectly at home in Mexico as well as on the catwalks of Paris or Milan. Kowalski also may have influenced those well-dressed heroes like Sartana and Sabata, who weren’t mercenaries fighting in a revolution, but who used their sophisticated weaponry in a similar tongue-in-cheek way as the Polak (but of course Colonel Mortimer was a major influence there too). Morricone’s score is often called one of his very best, and deservedly so. It’s alternately rousing and touching, with different themes to reflect the different moods of the film’s contents. The Arena is certainly one of his most memorable separate tracks. Alejandro Ulloa’s cinematography is magnificent too.
Reviewed DVD: There still seems to be no official English friendly release available, except for the Japanese R2 disc, much too expensive and probably even out of print. Therefore I watched (once again) my Italian Colt Collection DVD. It’s a fine disc, although colours could have been a little more vibrant. But there’s only Italian audio (DD 5.1 & 2.0 stereo). However, there are Italian subtitles HOH which may facilitate the task a little.
This review is for Stanton