Compañeros (vamos a matar, compañeros!) review
From The Spaghetti Western Database
# Introduction & plot
Compañeros is often called Corbucci's last great movie. It can be seen as the historic pendant of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. Fistful was not the first western made in Italy, but it has been identified as the true beginning of the genre. Compañeros was not the last spaghetti western, but it's a worthy conclusion of its glory years. Very soon afterwards, comedies and hybrids would take over, while a couple of years later the twilight spaghettis finally announced the end of the line. It tells the story of a Swedish arms dealer called Yodlaf Peterson, who is doing some dirty business with a revolutionary General. The General is a treacherous opportunist, only interested in the safe containing "the wealth of the revolution". The only one who can open the safe, is professor Xanthos, a pacifist agitator, held in captivity across the border, in Fort Yuma. Yodlaf smells money and offers to rescue the professor, but Mongo, who doesn't trust him, sends his freshly appointed lieutenant El Vasco with him. They manage to free Xanthos, but run afoul with an old acquaintance of the Swede, John, who is paid by American business men to kill Xanthos, because they are afraid he will harm their interests as soon as he has risen to power ...
# Compañeros and The Mercenary
Compañeros is often considered as a sequel to (or even a remake of) Corbucci's own Zapata western The Mercenary. The similarities are so obvious that they cannot be ignored. Both films have the same structure, framing the story as a long flashback within the duel which opens the narrative (immediately after the opening credits). Franco Nero plays again a snobbish European professional who is teamed up with a peon, an uneducated laborer who has become a rebel by coincidence (Tomas Milian, replacing Tony Musante). The villains sound familiar too: the greedy business men, the corrupt federales, and Jack Palance as Nero's arch enemy, a pot smoking mercenary with a pet falcon that once saved him from a crucifixion by eating his hand. And inevitably there's also the ravishing young woman, Iris Berben (replacing Giovanna Ralli), who has more brains than the primitive rebel and more heart than the European professional. After all we're in Corbucci land, where women know what they want and usually get it in the end.
# Differences between the two movies
But in spite of the similarities, both films are quite different, both in meaning and in tone. In Compañeros the evolution of Nero's character is far more radical than in the previous film; in The Mercenary Sergei Kowalski becomes buddies with Paco Roman but when he proposes a partnership, he does so because they are a great team, and there's always a war going on somewhere. His motivation, in other words, is still professional (although he has developed some sympathy for Paco's cause). In Compañeros Yodlaf Peterson turns back to Vasco and his scarcely armed troupe, at the very moment when they're about to be attacked by the federal army and most likely will be massacred (1). The ending of The Mercenary, Nero saving Musante's life so he could continue his revolutionary activities, left some hope for a better future. In Compañeros, this hope seems to have evaporated, and Corbucci's ideas on politics and history seem close to those of Sergio Leone, who once described his feelings in an interview as "We believed in mankind, and mankind let us down" (2). Finally there's the addition of the professor Xanthos character, the pacifist and intellectual. As a result, the role of the 'strong female' is different.
# A man of many movies, a movie of many genres
Unlike his colleague, friend and rival Sergio Leone, Corbucci was a man of many movies (and many genres). He directed pepla, spy movies, crime thrillers and even a musical; in his long career he made more comedies than westerns. Compañeros looks like a pattern card of his work: it is burlesque, irreverent, frenetic and outrageously violent. The script is meandering, whirling, a maelstrom of ideas and events, often verging on parody. The heroes disguise as monks, use a coffin to smuggle a person across the border, machine guns and cars appear out of nothing… In such a world, it seems no more than logical that an illiterate peon holds a camera for a dangerous weapon and shoots the photographer. Compañeros is a film of many genres, it’s as much a western as a political allegory or a comedy, but make no mistake, it’s profound and very personal.
# Living in a deceptive world
In the second half of the sixties, Corbucci was at his artistic zenith, but he also went through a personal crisis. When he made Compañeros, it was clear that the Parisian student uprising of '68 had failed and that there would be no radical political change in Europe. Corbucci was no dogmatic Marxist; actually the existentialist philosophy, very popular among left-wing intellectuals in those days, seems to have influenced him more than classic Marxism. He called his own movies 'proletarian fables', about the rich exploiting the poor. Compañeros is probably his most deeply felt work, an existentialist film about how to survive in a deceptive world and how to save one's personal honour in the face of death. Nearly all characters are perfidious, starting with general Mongo who betrays the revolution, or Yodlaf, who once betrayed John, his partner in a former life, or even El Vasco, who bows and scrapes to the federal general whose shoes he's polishing, but kills the man mercilessly at the first opportunity. The followers of professor Xanthos can only save him by betraying his pacifist message when they shoot the treacherous general Mongo to pieces. In a world where everybody is Janus-faced, not even the wealth of the revolution is palpable.
# Emptyness versus true wealth
But in spite of these hints at human cruelty and unreliability, Compañeros is a surprisingly warm film. You cannot hate that egocentric Swedish dandy called Yodlaf Peterson or that crude lout El Vasco. It's nice to be in their company, watch them become buddies and evolve towards a social conscience. The safe only contains some ears of corn, but Xanthos explains that they are the true wealth of the revolution and its people. This symbolism about emptiness versus true wealth, is beautifully reflected in the scene in which Lola takes El Vasco to a church to marry him. There's no priest to bless the wedding and when both have said yes, Yodlaf (the 'witness' to their marriage) steals the precious statuary of San Bernardino. In Corbucci's world this can only mean that the true wealth and true blessings cannot be found in institutions or valuables, but only in the hearts of people who love each other, and live for a cause.
# Christ and Gueverra
According to existentialist philosophy, man is only defined insofar as he acts, so he must act, he must make a choice in order to exist, to be: in this sense Yodlaf's decision to stay with the revolutionaries, can also be interpreted as a more positive, almost therapeutic act, defining himself as a human being. Mankind let him down, but he did not let himself down. That is, in a sense, the 'true wealth' of his sacrificial act. Its hard not to read any religious subtext here (religion Corbuccian style). Corbucci had been playing with the Jesus Christ/Che Guevera theme before: to him they were both failed revolutionaries - failed in the sense that they were killed. But they were victorious in spite of their defeat, and became immortal in spite of their death. It's significant that Milian is made up and dressed to look like Che Guevera, a man who was caught, tortured and killed by his enemies, but became an icon nevertheless - or because of it.
Giusti calls Compañeros "the cult movie of a generation"; he also quotes film critic Steve Della Casa, who calls it "the best example of how deep '68 has penetrated in popular culture" and adds: Every time I took part in a demonstration and there were confrontations with the police, I thought of the film's score (3). The 'score' is of course the famous title song. In countries where people are less familiar with the Parisian street revolution of '68 and the existentialist legacy, the reception of the film was lukewarm. When I first saw Compañeros, I didn't like it and I've always preferred The Mercenary. Today I find it rather difficult to choose between the two movies. The Mercenary may have more style, but Compañeros is the more thoughtful of the two. It also benefits from the additional character of professor Xanthos, wonderfully played by Fernando Rey. With the character, Corbucci also shows himself from his best, humanist side: he hated pacifists, but the professor and his followers are not presented as parasites. The Xanthista Lola has some of the compassion and fertility of Columba (The Mercenary) and some of the Fury of Adelinda (A bullet for the General). Admittedly, the film could have done with some trimming, especially in its mid-section, and some of Milian's tics and mannerisms may get on some people's nerves. Otherwise I have no complaints: camerawork, locations, direction, score ... they're all top notch, some action scenes (especially towards the end) brilliant.
Director: Sergio Corbucci - Story: Sergio Corbucci - Screenplay: Dino Maiuri, Massimo Di Rica, Fritz Ebert, Sergio Corbucci - Cinematography: Alejandro Ullua - Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Jack Palance, Fernando Rey, Iris Berben, José Bodalo, Eduardo Fajardo, Karin Schubert, Luigi Pernice, Gérard Tichy, José Canelejas, Alvaro de Luna, Lorenzo Robledo, Tito Garcia, Victor Israel
- (1) Some people have proposed a different - more positive - reading, saying that being outnumbered doesn't mean much in a spaghetti western. To me, that reading doesn't make sense. Frayling writes: "(...) Yod decides to ride back to his companeros, who are about to fight against impossible odds." The ending is also close to the famous freeze frame of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We see Yodlaf riding towards the camera, the movement slowing down until it freezes, the image quickly turning red, as if it’s covered with blood. The lyrics of the title song also suggest a 'unhappy happy' ending, ‘unhappy happy’ in the sense that, like Christ and Guevarra, El Vasco and Yodlaf will be victorious in spite of their defeat: Hay que ganar muriendo, pistoleros (You must win dying, pistoleros), and: Hay que morir venciendo, guerrilleros (You must die triumphant, guerilleros). If you’re still not convinced, just watch Yodlaf’s face when he spots the federal army in the distance.
- (2) Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, p. 231
- (3) Marco Giusti, Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana