Friday, September 2, 2011

The Mercenary (1968)

Directed by: Sergio Corbucci

What spaghetti western lover wouldn't want to have Sergio Corbucci's directorial career? Well, except for Sergio Leone perhaps. It's too bad that Corbucci is often so heavily overshadowed by Leone's work. Although, with the advent of DVD, Netflix, streaming, etc., Corbucci has closed the gap in the "There's Leone and then everyone else" sentiment. Corbucci has definitely carved out his own slice of spaghetti western real estate, making some of the most diverse entries in the genre with standouts such as The Great Silence, Django, Navajo Joe and Companeros. After watching The Mercenary, I can safely add yet another signature film to this list and further say with confidence that "There's Leone and Corbucci and then everyone else."

The Mercenary follows a peasant field worker turned Mexican revolutionist named Paco Roman (Tony Musante) on his rise to power and high stature. While Paco has the spirited vitriol to lead his rebellion, he doesn't have the tactical knowledge to strategically succeed against Mexican military forces overseen by General Garcia. Paco hires polish mercenary Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) to advise him and his band of rebels in battle against the threatening armed forces. Under Sergei's tutelage, Paco easily overcomes all their adversaries, military and nefarious filthy rich bastards included.

Their successful arrangement sputters as the pair draw attention and the ire of ruthless and conniving tycoon Curly (Jack Palance). Initially, Curl has his sights set on Sergie's knowledge of a very valuable, hidden silver reserve. But when Paco kills Curly's henchmen, Curly craves bloody revenge on both men and aligns himself with General Garcia to ensure he has an opportunity to dole out the comeuppance. Further, a female member welcomed into Paco's rebellion, Columba, drives a wedge between the men by introducing romantic jealousies and denigrating their profiteering under the guise of freedom fighting.

Sergio Corbucci delivers another fantastic western with The Mercenary. This time proving that he can master the political spaghetti sub genre. One of Corbucci's strengths is that he continually subverts the standards of the genre, and he has arguably introduced more inventive traits to spaghettis than any other Italian helmer. For one, he resist utilizing an American protagonist, and there's certainly not even an redeeming American to be found anywhere in the cast. The lone American, Curly, is the primary antagonist and carries no real admirable traits or features that command respect. Curly isn't rugged or tough like so many others baddies typifying American traits in these films. This character is the opposite, seemingly weak, exuding a certain femininitiy and homosexual undertones. Instead, Corbucci's hero is literally very un-American. He chooses to anchor his narrative to a character with a Polish heritage, which is an especially peculiar choice given that the majority of spaghetti westerns opt for characters of Mexican or Indian descent to fulfill the main protagonist role in the absence of an American lead. The Mercenary also commendably elevates its female presence with Columba inspiring the film's gestating coda and instigating the eventual showdown. This is in direct contrast to the genre trappings that normally relegate women to bit parts, inconsequential supporting roles or non-existence.

That's not to say The Mercenary is a think tank or artistic snoozefest. This is a film packed with action from start to finish. If you're familiar with Corbucci then you know that the man loves his automatic weapons and he serves up another classic here. Sergei gleefully mows down droves of Garcia's troops with his recently purchased machine gun in a glorious gunfire barrage. The fun of this scene is maximized as Sergei overcharges Paco for every step he takes in dispatching their foes with this weapon, ringing up $200 to use the machine gun, $200 to load the machine gun and finally $200 to fire it.

The casting is clearly superb. It is headlined by spaghetti legend Franco Nero as the polish merc. Like Corbucci, Nero has stretched the genre more than any other actor, always successfully displaying versatility in films known for their archetypes. Nero is barely recognizable, though his steely eyes give him away, disappearing into this role and completely immersing his accent without missing a beat. Jack Palance as Curly is a stroke genius, completely cast against type, eschewing his usual glass-chewing roughneck attitude for the soften-spoken effeminate villain.

The score is composed by none other than the iconic Ennio Morricone. Outside of Leone, this may be Morricone's best spaghetti score or at the very least his most integral to the overall picture. Of course, you'll immediately notice some of it from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, but you'll see here the same thread of nobility that ties the two films together despite their differences. Morricone pours the glue that fills in the cracks, selling the inner struggle and burgeoning valor within Paco that isn't routinely well-drawn through the story.

Make or Break scene - I could rather easily select Sergei machine gunning charging army droves, but I think the scene that makes The Mercenary for me involves when Paco rescues Sergei from Curly and his thugs. This scene does so much for the film by establishing an identity for our main villain. To this point in the film, our heroes' adversaries are vague definitions of greedy land owners or cutthroat militants. Curly is cut from a different cloth from not only in this film, but also amongst other western villains of this era. After being apprehend, Paco's men ransack Curly for all his valuables and go so far as to start stripping off his clothes. Before Curly's left with nothing at all, Paco halts his looters and instructs them to leave him with his pants. In a really great moment of defiance, Curly refuses Paco's leniency and sheds the rest of his clothes and walks off into the desert stark naked. Further to this, Palance expertly sells Curly's emotion after Paco kills his main henchman, clearly displaying how much he cared for his men (and maybe even for this one a little too much).

MVT - Sergio Corbucci, big surprise. Actually, it's of little surprise to watch a Corbucci spaghetti western and discover another great entry in the genre. His name promotes an expectation of excellence. And as aforementioned in this review, Corbucci delivers these films in varying ways and not settling for straightforward simplicity and The Mercenary is no exception.

Score - 7.75


  1. I think you really hit the nail on the head with your Make or Break selection. Though the scene that stands out in my mind is the final showdown, your choice encapsulates what makes this movie (and Corbucci as a talent) well above average. Well done, sir.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, and yes -- I love that scene with Curly in the desert. There's a few scenes I could see tabbed as making the film. Gotta give points to a gun duel with one man decked out as a rodeo clown.