Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros is a boisterous spaghetti western from 1970 and one of the most explicitly revolutionary of the Zapata films. While many westerns were subtler in their political themes, Corbucci’s picture is a brazen critique of greed and American imperialism. That it manages to have a great time doing it speaks to the filmmaker’s command of his craft.
Compañeros features a screenplay by Corbucci, Fritz Ebert, Massimo De Rita, and Dino Maiuri. The cinematography is by Alejandro Ulloa, who lensed the 1968 film The Mercenary. Some have theorized that Compañeros is a sequel or perhaps even a remake of The Mercenary and that certainly seems to be true to some extent. Both pictures share themes, characters and plot details.
Against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) has made his way to the United States in order to appeal to the government for help. But because he didn’t give in to American demands for Mexican oil, the professor is held captive at Fort Yuma. The would-be leader of the rebels (José Bódalo) wants to gain a fortune that Xantos has access to.
The rebel leader, General Mongo, hires a Swedish mercenary named Yodlaf Peterson (Franco Nero) to break out the professor. He also sends El Vasco (Tomas Milian), a peasant and dissident, to accompany the Swede. Things are complicated by the professor’s student followers, who oppose General Mongo. And that’s to say nothing of the creepy John (Jack Palance), who wants the Swede dead.
Compañeros is a harsh experience and the script has a tendency to wander from situation to situation. Sometimes it feels overstuffed and sometimes it feels like Corbucci has far too many ideas to jam into two hours of cinema. Somehow, the movie works almost because of this radical sense of self.
The success of the picture has a lot to do with its core values, which Corbucci makes no attempts to conceal. His characters are nefarious and capable of great betrayal, with the exception of the pacifist professor and the student revolutionary Lola (Iris Berben). But even the professor’s most devoted followers are looking to break off from his peaceful approach, suggesting an ideological break.
In a sense, nothing’s sacred. Corbucci loads Compañeros with a series of wild set pieces, like when he has the two protagonists dress up as monks to sneak Xantos across the border or when he has Yodlaf buried up to his neck by El Vasco. These sequences of elemental bedlam are brought to life by Ulloa’s sometimes frenetic lensing and some rabbit-quick cutting.
Furthermore, John is an agent of pandemonium. Palance embodies him as creepy, pallid, perverse. He was freed from an impossible Swede-imposed predicament thanks to his falcon Marsha, who gleefully ate off his hand. He smokes weed and slinks around the desert with his cartoonish cronies, looking for imaginative ways to dispatch the Swede.
The inclusion of John could be argued as a bridge too far for Corbucci, as the character doesn’t seem to have much to do with any political commentary. But Palance’s character – and indeed the entire “bromance” between El Vasco and the Swede – is an extension of the churning life of Compañeros and the perpetually messy march of comic circumstance.
And in that respect, everything is complicated. El Vasco and the Swede are complicated by Professor Xantos’ insistence on diplomacy and their shrill insistences with respect to dishonour don’t wash. They are men of honour, whether they like it or not.
There is some extraordinarily strong imagery in Compañeros and Corbucci has no qualms about laying his worldview bare. Whether through the final act of the students or the broader inevitability of war, even in virtue, it’s hard to ignore the cynicism. And given the context and historical record, it’s hard to blame this exhilarating western for telling the bloody truth.