Dir: Sergio Corbucci
As I have said before in previous reviews, Sergio Corbucci, while being one of the very best directors in the Spaghetti Western genre, suffers from an unfortunate lack of consistency in his work. At his best he has been responsible for some true classics, at his worst for some decent but run of the mill films. The Mercenary, although not in my opinion his greatest film, is one of his better efforts.
The Mercenary is a Mexican Revolution western and, as such, follows the usual storyline of money chasing outsider teaming up with local bandit/revolutionary against wicked Federales. Franco Nero is excellent as usual as the Mercenary himself, this time a Polish national with a penchant for striking matches against an hilarious array of surfaces; from a hanging man's boots to a prostitute's cleavage. Nero's portrayal is economic but perfect for the money grabbing cynic, balancing the lighter, comedic side of the character with equal doses of detached ruthlessness. The mexican lead is performed here by Tony Musante, in sadly his only Spaghetti Western outing, while the two main villains are played by genre stalwart Eduardo Fajardo and the ever nasty Jack Palance. Finishing off the leading cast is Giovanna Ralli as the female revolutionary, idealogical conscience and love interest, Columba.
Corbucci's other mexican revolution western was Companeros made 2 years later and the two films, although very similar in many ways, make an interesting comparison. As the earlier film, The Mercenary has a slightly more serious tone and, without wishing to give the ending away, offers a more upbeat, optimistic conclusion; suggesting a positive future for the revolution and its activists. This reflects the optimimism of its time. Released in 1968, with student uprisings and revolutionary fervour in the air throughout europe, Corbucci could be forgiven for expecting positive change and offering that scenario in his movie. By 1970, when Companeros was released, that optimism had proved unfounded and the conclusion of that film is far more resigned and fatalistic; ending with a suicidal, if heroic, act of self sacrifice.
But, despite the revolutionary setting and storyline, the political context is a small feature of this film on the whole. Primarily this is a guns blazing action movie and it is here that Corbucci is at his best. No one did action better that Corbucci and in The Mercenary he had ample room to flex his muscles and let rip. From full pitched battle scenes to pigsty brawls and bullring showdowns he handles them all here with an expertise that influenced the action genre for decades to come. You only need to see Franco Nero wielding a machine gun, cartridge straps slung around his neck, body count mounting all around him to see exactly where Rambo was born. Explosions, canon fire, horses crashing all over place and a car full of dynamite, Corbucci had fun with this one but with his 'blood on the flower' showdown scene between Musante and Palance, he also reminded us that he was a master at creating striking symbolic moments among the mayhem.
For a director who became notorious for the violence in his films Corbucci also shows notable restraint in this film when it came to moments of cold, personal brutality; deliberately averting the camera from the horror and therefore heightening it in an impersonal and more chilling fashion. This is shown to particular effect in the scenes where Jack Palance's character, Curly, directs his henchmen to dish out some nastiness or other to a helpless victim only for the camera to follow Curly away from the scene, riding casually in a circle around the gruesome action, only returning to view the resulting bloodshed after the deed is complete. In this way we witness but do not see a sickening beating with a rock from the riverbed, and a pitchfork impaling while a similar technique is used to suggest the imminent castration of a traitor to the revolution ; this time ordered by the hero of the piece, Tony Musante.
Corbucci is also well known as one of the few directors of Spaghetti Westerns who actively encouraged and developed central roles for women in his films. The Mercenary is no exception. Giovanna Ralli's Columba is a major catalyst for action in this movie without ever descending to the role of vamp or hooker. She is the voice of revolutionary idealism and conscience and even masterminds the final rescue strategy for Nero and Musante. As a father of daughters, I am personally grateful to Corbucci for such positive female roles. Not only does it show a certain maturity it also means my girls may be able to watch these films without feeling totally alienated. Let's face it, Spaghetti Westerns are not exactly a hotbed of positive feminism. We have to acknowledge the pluses when we see them.
Finally, it is impossible to discuss the merits of this film without mentioning the outstanding musical score delivered by Ennio Morricone. Regular readers of my reviews may well be getting sick of my constant gushing about the contributions the maestro made to so many films and it would be reasonable to suspect that his work couldn't really be always that great. But the truth is it was. And his work on this film is a perfect example of how his ability to compose a number of themes for a single project, each reflecting a different character or mood, could lift even the most ordinary scene to an emotionally uplifting or dramatic one. In a creative discipline that boasts some of the most magificently gifted composers of the 20th century, by which I mean music for film, Morricone stands alone. Why there aren't statues of him in every town square is beyond me.
The Mercenary, despite all its many qualities, is not my favourite Corbucci western. That place is taken by The Great Silence, a film I shall be reviewing shortly. But it is the favourite of many spaghetti fans and is certainly one of Corbucci's better efforts. It could be used as a masterclass on how to make an action picture and, above all, is a lot of fun from start to finish.