No genre is so simple that it’s well suited by being made a genre, just as no individual member of a race is justly served by being made part of said race. But in the quest to classify or define easy descriptions, these broad-sweeping categories are the best we people can come up with. It is a concept that dismisses any sense of variation or individuality, and while I admit that generalization is often a necessity for making it through everyday life, it’s also a big part of why we tend to miss out on so much wonderful stuff. Take the Spaghetti Western, for example, or the Western, since that’s how most people tend to see it. I can’t even begin to process the number of people I’ve spoken to who hate Spaghetti Westerns even though they’ve never seen one. They equate the Western with polished American films, with John Wayne or Gene Autry, or they simply hate country music, thus they hate cowboys, thus they hate Westerns. An entire genre of film is then dismissed despite the fact that there are hundred of films that break the mold, that would prove entertaining to these people if they could only get over the fact that the people in them are from the wild west.
But whatever. There’s no convincing some people. And if they decide not to like Rio Bravo or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance even though they’ve never seen them, well ultimately that’s no concern of mine. Among cult movie fans who are open enough to delve into the Western genre, most immediately take a shine to a subgenre within that greater umbrella: the Spaghetti Western. So named because of their European (primarily Italian) origin, many of the films that are thought to be the great classics of the American Western are in fact the work of our European neighbors. Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More — films that have come to define the Western to many people. All three are the work of Italian director Sergio Leone.
Spag Westerns often prove unpalatable to fans of the classic Western with its clear-cut good guys and bad guys, with its ultimate family-value wholesomeness. Spag Westerns are a different breed of Western altogether. Much grittier, much more violent, and much more likely to blur the lines between good and evil. American Westerns are replete with tales of bad men who become good, who seek and eventually find forgiveness and redemption for their evil deeds. In Italian Westerns however, it’s generally not so cheerful an outcome. More often, rather than bad men becoming good, it’s good men turning bad, or even more often, men who are neither good nor evil but exist above such classifications, often as the embodiment of revenge. Eventually, the grime and moral ambiguity of European Westerns would influence their American counterparts more and more, thanks largely to Clint Eastwood being a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
The most common plot in Italian Westerns is the “vengeance seeking stranger” model: a man who has been wronged in some way returns as a mysterious, emotionless loner seeking revenge on the men who did him the injustice. They usually center around some sort of frame-up or murdered lover, and very often both. Today It’s Me…Tomorrow, You is an example of an average but enjoyable entry into the genre, but far and away the greatest example of the vengeance seeking stranger is Charles Bronson’s mysterious “Man With a Harmonica” in Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West. Well, you can only make so many movies about vengeance seeking strangers before people start to get tired of the formula. This is what started happening toward the end of the 1960s with the Italian Westerns. Society was in an upheaval, especially in places like America (which was being torn asunder by the Vietnam War) and Italy (where revolutionaries and terrorists had turned the cities into virtual war zones). Simplistic tales of revenge were beginning to lose the audiences, and so a new type of Western was born: the revolutionary Western.
They were usually set during the Mexican Revolution but obviously reflected the tumultuous modern times as much as they did the turn of the century. They generally dealt not just with the revolution, but with people struggling to come to terms with the rapidly changing world around them. Just as the end of the 1960s was seen as a wild time full of fast and out-of-control change, so too were the late 1800s, as the wild west slowly began to die, giving way to the industrial revolution and modernization of America and Mexico. Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Wild Bunch has been seen by many as the punctuation mark that ended the golden era of the Western, bringing it to full maturity from the singin’ cowpoke films of the 1930s through to the gory, bleak revelation that the wild west was a place populated not by sequin-wearing crooners, but by murderers, thugs, opportunists, and innocent people caught in the cross-fire. Peckinpah’s bloody opus about the death of the old ways and the men who lived by them may be the best known of the revolution Westerns, but it is by no means the sole inhabitant of the sub-genre. Nor is it alone in its brilliance. Sergio Leone clocked in with the brilliant but flawed A Fistful of Dynamite, but for my money, the Italian productions that rank alongside Peckinpah’s masterpiece are Quien Sabe? (aka A Bullet for the General) and Companeros.
Both films have quite a bit in common. For starters, the hero is Mexican, or rather, he’s supposed to be Mexican. Usually, he’s really Italian, but for the sake of illusion we’ll call him Mexican. Whatever the case, it’s quite a departure from American films. With rare exceptions, Mexicans and Native Americans were portrayed in US productions as either murderous bandits in need of exterminating or as helpless cowards. To see Mexicans as the heroes in these two films is refreshing. The second similarity is that in both films, the heroes start out as morally ambiguous only to eventually blossom into full-fledged freedom fighters. They spend much of the movie telling themselves they are not involved. In the end, they emerge as both heroes and leaders. Sharply different characters than the old vengeance seeking strangers.
Both films rely heavily on characterization. Many Spaghetti Westerns rely on the character as archetype rather than the character as character. The vengeance seeking stranger need only squint and kill. In these movies, however, since they are about discovering things inside oneself, it’s important that the characters be written and acted in a way that makes the transformation believable, engaging, and moving. The characters must be human, complete with flaws, humor, confusion, and the whole range of emotions. In Quien Sabe?, that task fell on veteran actor Maria Gianni Volare, and he pulled it off wonderfully. In Companeros, Tomas Milian proves every bit Volare’s equal in talent. And finally, both films feature fair-haired Americans/Europeans as both foil and sidekick.
Companeros is among my favorite films. It’s fast-paced, brilliantly acted, wonderfully scored (by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morrocione), and superbly written. Franco Nero, who made a name for himself as the coffin-toting killer in the excellent Spaghetti Western Django, and later embarrassed himself in the goofy but influential Enter the Ninja stars as Yolaf The Swede, a gun-running hustler making a buck amid the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. Tomas Milian, the Cuban-born actor who made a name for himself as an actor in Italy, plays Basco, a ruffian who hangs with a seedy general who claims to be championing the cause of the common man when in fact he’s little more than a thug doing his best to amass a fortune for himself.
It’s probably no coincidence that Cuban-born Milian looks a hell of a lot like famous Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, a man who used to have a political meaning before being turned into a trendy t-shirt and pop marketing phenomenon in the United States. Occupying the same town as Milian and his gang are a group of true revolutionaries who believe in educating the people, non-violent protest, and the teachings of a distinguished professor named Xantos who is really championing the cause of the people of Mexico rather than using it as an excuse to get rich or flex his muscle. The students and revolutionaries are led by the fiery Lola (played by the absolutely stunning Iris Berben). Here’s another marked difference between the revolutionary Western and the older vengeance seeking stranger films, as well as another similarity between Companeros and Quien Sabe?. In the older films, women were little more than murder or rape victims, window dressing and symbols of redemption (like how they would be used in the films of John Woo later on, who was obviously influenced by Italian Westerns).
In many of the revolutionary Westerns, woman are on much more equal ground. In Quien Sabe?, a woman is more or less the second in command of Chuncho’s gang, and in Companeros Lola plays the intelligent and passionate leader of the intellectual revolutionaries. In true little boy form, Basco (Milian) develops a crush on her and expresses it by endlessly tormenting her in childish ways, including cutting off her hair (she looks great with short hair, though!). The scumbag general gets a hold of Xantos’ safe, which contains a valuable treasure upon which Xantos was going to build his revolution. The general hires Yolaf to open the safe, but Yolaf soon discovers it can’t be done. He must get the combination from Xantos, who isn’t likely to give it, not to mention that he’s currently a prisoner in the United States. His crime? Nothing really. But the US was profiting heavily from the confusion in Mexico, and if Xantos was able to lead a well-educated, organized opposition, then the war could be over before America had made every cent it could off the blood of others.
Thus, Xantos remained an unwilling guest of Uncle Sam. Yolaf and Basco are sent to “rescue” the general, even though they can’t stand one another. It’s the classic buddy movie, but the chemistry between Milian and Franco is great. Matters are complicated when John, a one-handed killer with a pet Hawk arrives. John is played by the legendary Jack Palance, and he turns in a performance that is just over the top enough to be psycho and amusing, but not so over the top that he seems hammy. He reminds me of Vincent Price when Price hit a role on all cylinders. John smokes pot, freaks people out, and was once crucified, though his Hawk pecked his hand off in order to save him.
With John and his lackeys hot on their tail, Basco and Yolaf spring the professor and high tail it back to Mexico. Along the way, Basco and Xantos continuously argue and debate revolution and education. By the end of their journey, Basco is having second thoughts about his allegiance to the general. When the general orders the mindless slaughter of unarmed students in order to force Xantos to give up the combination, Basco’s mind is made up. He joins Lola and asks Yolaf to do the same. He’s not exactly wild about the idea. But Yolaf is the classic reluctant hero. He has no interest in revolution, or so he tells himself. Yet when it comes down to it, he finds himself taking up arms alongside his companero, Basco, in a seemingly hopeless fight with the general’s forces. In the end though, Yolaf can’t shake the desire for treasure. Xantos fortune was less than exciting, so Yolaf decides to steal the statue of the local saint, right when Basco is awkwardly professing his respect and love for Lola. Basco is enraged by Yolaf’s sacrilege, and the movie draws to a close as it opened, with the two companeros staring one another down on the train tracks, ready for a showdown.
It’s rare that an Italian Western is “charming,” but stars Nero and Milian make Companeros just that. They temper the film’s politics and violence with ample humor and a great repoir. Watching Nero buried up to his neck about to be trampled by horses, but still struggling to maintain his suaveness is classic, and Milian shines as the scruffy revolutionary who discovers the true nature of revolution. People were shocked by Jack Palance’ comic ability when he made the film City Slickers, but anyone familiar with the man knows he can tongue-in-cheek it with the best of them (how can you take yourself too seriously when you played the mighty space wizard of Gor). He shines here, alternately creepy and hilarious.
This movie, much like Quien Sabe? has tremendous spirit and energy, which is what really puts it ahead of the pack. I enjoy Italian Westerns, but it’s rare I enjoy myself while watching them (and I don’t mean the same way i enjoy myself while watching a certain other genre of film), but I did just that with Companeros. It’s a fun movie. The feel of it reminded me of My Name is Nobody, by far the wackiest of the Italian Westerns. There’s just no over-stating how great this film is. Political films often become dry and boring, with the movie grinding to a halt so characters can sit for hours on end discussing issues. Not so here. It manages to be intelligent and still stay action-packed. The evolution of Basco is engrossing and believable.
And let’s not forget the music. The score is as important to a Spaghetti Western as the script itself. Ennio Morricone turns in another excellent piece of work. The theme song is great — it will make you want to start a revolution of your own, or at the very least, you will be like me and sing along even though you don’t know the words. I just mumble some and then yell, “Companeros!” whenever the time is right. Director Sergio Corbucci does a wonderful job bringing everything together. though less known in the US than fellow Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone, Corbucci is just as important to the genre as Leone. If you pick the best movies of the genre, there’s a good chance on of these two men directed it. Companeros works on every level: as an action film, a romance, an adventure, a political film, and as a human story. You can’t really beat that, can ya, companeros?
Release Year: 1970 | Country: Italy | Starring: Tomas Milian, Franco Nero, Iris Berben, Jesus Fernandez, Jack Palance, Gino Pernice, Giovanni Petti, Giovanni Pulone, Fernando Rey, Lorenzo Robledo, Claudio Scarchilli, Karin Schubert, Gerard Tichy, Victor Israel, Simon Arriaga, Francisco Bodalo, Jose Bodalo | Screenplay: Sergio Corbucci | Director: Sergio Corbucci | Cinematographer: Alejandro Ulloa | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Antonio Morelli | Original Titile: Vamos a matar, companeros