SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Companeros

Film: Companeros
Running time: 120 mins
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Starring: Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Jack Palance, Fernando Rey, Iris Berben
Genre: Western/Comedy
Country: Spain/Italy/Germany

Region 1 title.

Part of the ‘Zapata’ sub-genre of spaghetti westerns set during the Mexican Revolution and often containing a leftist political message opposed to American capitalism, Sergio Corbucci’s Companeros (1970) stands as one of the last great spaghetti westerns before the onset of a number of increasingly derivative self-referential comedies and hybrids began to dominate the genre.

During one of the many Mexican revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century, a simple peasant named El Vasco unwittingly finds himself drawn into revolution at the side of the bandit general Mongo Alverez. A treacherous, self-interested opportunist, Mongo is less interested in the revolutionary cause than the contents of the San Bernardino bank.

When a suave Swedish arms-dealer called Yodlaf Peterson arrives in town, looking to sell weapons to whichever side has the most money; he is summoned by Mongo and charged, alongside Vasco, with finding Professor Xantos, the idealistic leader of a pacifist movement, and the only one who can open the safe.

The two unlikely heroes manage to track down Xantos and free him from his cross-border captivity in Fort Yuma, but soon run afoul of an old acquaintance of the Swede - John, a hired assassin paid to protect American oil interests in Mexico threatened by the nationalistic Xantos’s potential rise to power.

As Vasco finds himself increasingly drawn to the beautiful female revolutionary member of Xantos’s student group, and to the cause she espouses, they find themselves not only having to contend with John, but also with the Mexican army and the followers of the duplicitous Mongo…

Even by spaghetti western standards, Companeros is a difficult film to pigeon-hole. Structurally, there is nothing much that we have not seen before. Modelled on his friend Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), the film intertwines the paths of three characters (Vasco, Peterson and John) in the middle of a conflict, transposing the Mexican Revolution in place of the American Civil War. It also employs the same noose structure Corbucci had used in his earlier Il Mercenario (1968), framing the story as a long flashback within the duel that opens the narrative, which is only resumed towards the film’s end.

What is unusual in Companeros is a kind of conflict between the film’s desire to come across as pure entertainment, while also presenting serious political themes. The film seems not only to reflect contemporaneous expectations of a radical political change in western European countries, but also some left-wing ideas about the solidarity of European intellectuals with third world revolutionary movements. It is certainly the most openly left-wing of Corbucci’s film, full of symbolism such as Vasco’s Che Guevara-like beret, and the ear of corn found in the San Bernardino safe. Though, on the whole, the film benefits from being much less dogmatic than Damiano Daimiani’s similar A Bullet For The General (1967). There are long stretches of the film were it fails to maintain its energy mainly due to Corbucci’s attempts to shoehorn in its political message. This is especially true of the Fort Yuma incident, and the portrayal of the moneyed US interests and their plot to kill Xantos. Though an important aspect of the film’s political message, there is a somewhat clumsy and forced quality to their incorporation within the story.

However, taken on its own merits as entertainment, the film is highly watchable, possessing a warmth that encourages the viewer to overlook such flaws. Similarly, though, many of the film’s jokes fall flat, and Milian and Nero are guilty, at times, of some serious mugging up to the camera - the film is saved by the intrinsic likeability of Vasco and Yodlaf, and it is their relationship and journey towards a social conscience that primarily holds the film up.

Companeros also finds room to incorporate a villain as brilliantly off-the-wall as any found within the spaghetti-western genre. Jack Palance plays the role of the marijuana-adled, sadistic psychopath John, a wooden-handed mercenary with a very personal grudge against Yodlaf. He travels everywhere with his pet falcon, the same bird that had pecked John’s hand off in order to free him from a crucifixion following a Cuban arms deal gone wrong. Despite the comic-book premise of the character, it is an excellent performance from Palance - his acts of cruelty and violence all the more disturbing for the air of stoned bonhomie he displays while committing them.

Cinematographically, Companeros looks great. Eschewing the narrow framing employed in his earlier films, Corbucci opens up here to a full scope widescreen frame that seems to allude to a wider significance beyond the confines of the Mexican Revolution. While not as technically audacious as Leone’s best films, it has a visual appeal all of its own, with vivid colour and a strong compositional sense perfectly complemented by the catchy Morricone score.

Reconciling its conflict of humour and serious political allegory with greater success than Leone’s later A Fistful Of Dynamite (1971), Corbucci’s film benefits from being free of the pessimism and overpowering sense of betrayal and anguish that marked that film. Though the film plays in the same shadow of the inevitable failure and disappointment of the Mexican Revolution, Companeros ends on a note of optimism. The closing scene where Yodlaf returns to embrace his newfound companions and their struggle in the face of certain annihilation as the Mexican army advances toward them represents the victory of the revolutionary ideal. It is a highly romantic conception of the noble sacrifice, the willingness to die for the just cause Corbucci saw exemplified by the deaths of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ, and a trope found in many of his films. It is significant in this respect that the material mercenary John escapes from his cross, while Vasco and Yodlaf embrace the prospect of dying for humanity’s greater good.

For all its faults, Companeros stands as one of Corbucci’s most enjoyable and accessible films, easily justifying the warm regard with which it is held among spaghetti-western aficionados. Highly recommended. GJK

No comments:

Post a Comment