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Review by: 
Big McLargehuge
Vamos a matar, compañeros
Release Date: 
Blue Underground
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Sergio Corbucci
Franco Nero
Tomás Milián
Jack Palance
Fernando Rey
Bottom Line: 

Anyone who's read my writing here at Horrorview knows that I love, love, love, Italian westerns. I think they capture the mythic shadow of the American western, abandoning realism for grit, and showing a willingness to push boundaries that their contemporary American westerns couldn't touch. This makes the spaghetti western cinema of the 1970s so much stranger than it was in the decade before, the fra diavolo age, if you will. By 1970 two films had forever changed the American western, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid presented antihero protagonists running from, and eventually being caught up with, their past transgressions.

I am not sure that such a storytelling change would have occurred in Hollywood had writers and directors like Sergio Leoni, or Sergio Corbucci especially, so forcefully pushed the boundaries.

When Hollywood started to ape the Italians, they responded with humor. Even the great Sergio Leoni found himself directing comedy western star Terrence Hill and Hollywood Icon Henry Fonda (back again after 1968's Once Upon a time in the West) in "My Name is Nobody" and James Coburn sporting the worst Irish accent in cinema in "Duck You Suckers/A Fistful of Dynamite". While Corbucci, known for the bleakest film ever, "The Great Silence" (my all time favorite of these films), to films like this, and the appalling "Shoot First Ask Questions Later".

The humor in Compańeros isn't as broad as you'll find, for example, in the Trinity movies, but it's there. The story borrows liberally from The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Like those films, Compańeros is set after the turn of the century, and like The Wild Bunch, during the later throws of the Mexican Revolution. I am not sure of the exact date, but it seems that about 1915 or so based on the one car that makes an appearance in the film.

The plot is deceptively simple, a Swedish arms seller, Yodlaf Petersen/Penguin (Django's Franco Nero) is bringing a train-car load of machine guns and dynamite to local government thug General Mongo (José Bodeló), under his command is Vasco (Thomas Millian) who has the tiny town of San Bernardino in his grip while General Mongo is out, ostensibly, bringing more soldiers under his wing. San Bernardino is the one time of home of Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) the pacifist rebel leader fomenting a peaceful uprising of the locals against not only Mongo, but of the entire corrupt Mexican government. Xantos, for what it's worth, has gone to the United States to get a deal on the petroleum rights that he wants to use to lift the people of San Bernardino out of abject poverty. However, all of the town's money is locked up in a single safe that, because Mongo killed all of the bank employees, can only be opened with a combination known by Professor Xantos. Penguin wants his money for the arms, so to get it he agrees to bring back Xantos to open the safe.

Simple. Substitute cows and sheep for oil and you get pretty much the same plot to ten million other westerns, Italian or otherwise. This one features all of the hallmarks of the typical Italian/Spanish/German co-production; it's shot in the Spanish desert, all of the buildings look like the village in A Fistful of Dollars, all of the guns have the same distinct sound effect, there are fewer shots of wide western vistas and more of closeups to show facial ticks. Some of the cast, Iris Berben and Karin Schubert (a madame who knows Pengiun) come from the German film industry.

The plot allows us to spend most of our time with Penguin (so named because he shows up in San Bernardino dressed in a coat with tails) and Vasco trekking off to rescue Xantos from an American military installation and return him to Mongo so he can be hanged. Vasco and Penguin dislike one another immensely, but as their adventure unfolds they develop a mutual respect. This is sort of the hallmark of a Sergio Corbicci film, such as in the astonishingly awful (Shoot First Ask Questions Later/Samurai) where Tomas Milian ends up paling around with Eli Wallach. The strengths of the cast can't be overstated, Milian and Nero while a few years away from their most famous roles. Nero, as you know was internationally famous for his iconic role in 1966's Django (also directed by Sergio Corbucci), and Milian for his iconic turn as Cuchilo in 1966s The Big Gundown (Dir: Sergio Somilla).

By 1970, Nero's Django character had outgrown spaghetti westerns and become an Italian phenomenon where anything in which Franco Nero appeared suddenly became a Django film including contemporary cop dramas and hilarious miscast ninja movies.

The wildcard in the cast is John (Jack Palance) a stoner gunman with a score to settle with Penguin from a conflict only alluded to in this film, other than that Penguin is the reason that John has a prosthetic hand. Palance is his own regular sort of weird menacing strange in this film with a lit joint perpetually clipped between his teeth, and a so cool it's obvious that he's totally high demeanor makes him both unpredictably and fun to watch. Once he links up with Mongo (after realizing that Penguin and Vasco are working together and have rescued Xantos) he gets to chew up the scenery with the best of them.

Cobucci's direction is nearly flawless. His eye for the minute and the use of widescreen is as effective as his contemporaries. He shoots ALL of this film in the harsh bright light of day so much that the landscape of scrublands and boulders becomes sort of a character in and of itself. The film "feels" dry and hot and oppressive at the same time even though 90 percent of it is shot outdoors. I loved the looks of the thing, all of it, from the brass buckles on the soldier's uniforms to the dirt of Vasco's bandoleer.

The script is smart too, allowing much of the tension to come from the philosophical discussions between Xantos and his revolutionaries. It's clear that Dino Mauri and Massimo De Rita were studying the unrest in the US over the Vietnam war as they wrote this, the arguments about pacifism over activism are a taken lock stock and barrel from conversations about the nature of protests over the Vietnam war and of the civil rights movement from earlier in the 1960s. Xantos is the Mexican equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. and in some ways, Malcolm X, and Gandhi even.

He, and his tiny band of revolutionaries, commanded by the extraordinarily beautiful Iris Berben (herself wronged by Vasco early in the film) are the same villagers with guns shown in so many westerns. Ready to defend their meager village from bandits be they military or not.

The acting is universally excellent, though all of the sound is post production and I'm sure all but Jack Palance were dubbed by other actors. The physical presence of Nero, Milian, and the others is enough to make this one of my favorite films that begin the decline of the spaghetti western as an art form.

The budget shows through in a few places, but it always does in all but the most prestigious of these films. The ending is lifted mostly from The Wild Bunch with Penguin mowing down dozens of soldiers with a Maxim machine gun. Unlike Peckinpah, we aren't treated to the horrors of violence, instead it's more appropriately for the genre stylized.

The Blue Underground blu-ray offers a crystal clear transfer with both the English and Italian versions present on the disc. Extras are kept to a minimum with some theatrical trailers, some interviews with Ennio Morricone, Milian, and Nero, and a commentary withy C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke.

There is a ton of stuff to like in this film, but if you're looking for the kind of depth of Corbucci's other films like The Great Silence (minute for minute the best spaghetti western ever made) you'll be disappointed. This is more Butch and Sundance than The Good the Bad and the Ugly. 

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