¡Vamos a matar, compañeros!
The 1960s and 1970s saw a great change in the western genre. Gone were the days of white hats vs. black hats. No longer would it be easy to determine who was the hero and who was the villain. Instead, a new breed of Western emerged, marked by elevated levels of violence and more morally ambiguous situations and protagonists. The new western hero was not John Wayne sitting tall in the saddle and fighting for what was right. Instead, the new western characters that emerged were typified by Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name," an existential anti-hero, true to no one's ethics but his own, fighting for whatever caught his fancy.
These changes first appeared, and were most pronounced, in a collection of westerns produced by Italians and shot in Spain and Italy. The "Spaghetti Westerns," as they came to be known, took the gritty, realistic styles favored by European filmmakers and combined them with tried and true all-American subject matter. The results brought a new life and energy to what had been a dying and clichéd genre, and established the careers of Eastwood and his director, Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter).
Another leading light of the spaghetti western subgenre was director Sergio Corbucci. Director of such films as Django and Il Grande Silenzio, Corbucci is considered, along with Leone, to be one of the fathers of this unique subgenre.
Facts of the Case
This yarn takes place in old Mexico, in the years shortly before World War I. There is considerable political unrest in Mexico, as people are beginning to revolt against the entrenched, corrupt government of Porfirio Diaz, and various "revolutions" have sprung up around the country, each with their own preferred champion to unseat Diaz. Several parts of the countryside are controlled by "revolutionary" regional strongmen and their cutthroat armies.
Vasco (Thomas Milian) is a Mexican peasant who finds himself drawn into a revolution at the side of the bandit general Mongo. Mongo is not so much a revolutionary as an opportunist looking to enjoy some loot. Through a bizarre and violent turn of events Vasco finds himself appointed Mongo's second-in-command just as the bandit forces take over the small village of San Bernardino. There he meets up with Yodlaf Peterson (Franco Nero), a Swedish arms dealer. Yodlaf is in town to sell weapons to whatever side has the most money. He was summoned by General Mongo to help break into a Swedish safe in the local bank which contains "all the wealth of the province."
Yodlaf quickly determines that there is no way to crack the safe; the only other alternative is to find Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey), a local leader who is currently imprisoned in Texas. Xantos is also a presidential candidate and thus the leader of a revolutionary faction, but his followers are students drawn to his pacifistic ways. Yodlaf sets out to rescue Xantos, and Mongo orders Vasco to go with him. Along the way the two face a train robbery, Mexican border guards, a fort full of American soldiers. They are also pursued by John (Jack Palance), an old associate of Yodlaf's who carries a serious grudge, and is rarely seen without a joint dangling from his lips.
Like many of the spaghetti westerns, Compañeros is difficult to pigeonhole. In some ways it is a light and funny film, with a number of whimsical touches. Jack Palance's pot-addled hitman falls into this category, as does one of his henchmen, an Oriental man with as old-fashioned telephone receiver in place of his right ear. The script establishes the characters of Vasco and Yodlaf through humorous bickering, where the mischievous Yodlaf usually has the upper hand. Ennio Morricone's wonderful musical score also reinforces this comedic feel. On the other hand, Compañeros, like many films of the spaghetti western genre, is unabashedly violent. Characters are shot, stabbed, and blown up with almost gleeful abandon. There is less resultant blood and gore than one might expect from a more recent film, but there should be enough gunplay here to satisfy anyone, especially in the climactic battle scenes in the town of San Bernardino.
Compañeros is an Anchor Bay DVD release. Once again, Anchor Bay has done an excellent job with a title most people have never heard of. The video is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture is sharp and crystal clear, making this film look like it was shot far more recently than 1970. It has its share of digital artifacts and other blemishes, but for the most part this is an outstanding transfer. This is especially notable in many of the wide shots that Corbucci uses which show off the stark natural beauty of his shooting locations. Colors are well saturated and vivid, notably in the telltale reds and blacks.
Two audio options are presented on this disc, English mono and Italian mono. While both tracks are reasonably sharp and clear, the Italian track sounds a bit livelier and does a better job with Morricone's score and background sound effects; the English track is a little less responsive and does have more pronounced background hiss. This is an uncut version of Companerños that has not previously been released in the US; viewers choosing the English track will find a number of scenes that are available only in Italian with English subtitles. Companños was for the most part an Italian production, with an Italian director and mostly Italian cast; however, I am not quite sure which language track should be considered original. Since most Italian films of this period were shot without synchronous sound, both dialogue tracks could be considered dubs. Based on my limited lip-reading skills it appears that much of the film was actually shot with English dialogue on set.
All of this leads to a good deal of confusion regarding the subtitles. There are two sets of subtitles provided. The first set only shows up in those scenes where there is no English dialogue available, and the other provides subtitles for the entire film. The subtitles matched up very poorly with the English dialogue track. It appears they must be translations of the Italian track, which in turn seems to be quite different from the English track. In order to get the full effect of both versions of the film, I recommend watching it in English with the full subtitles turned on.
Anchor Bay has put together a limited but interesting selection of extra content for this DVD release. The original theatrical trailer is provided. It consists of action scenes set to Morricone's score, and runs for about 2:20. It makes the movie look interesting and exciting, but gives away absolutely nothing about the characters or plot. Lengthy biographies are included for director Corbucci, composer Morricone, and stars Nero, Milian, and Palance. These are very well done, and include a lot of detailed information about these men, their careers, and their place in the spaghetti western pantheon.
Extra content also includes a featurette entitled "In the Company of Companñeros." This featurette runs for 17 minutes and includes interview comments from Nero, Milian, and Morricone about their experiences and contributions making Compañeros. These three men emphasize the differences between a normal western and the film they made, and talk a great deal about the importance of Corbucci. Morricone also talks about his score, and what makes it different from his scores for Leone and other directors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As clever and energetic as Compañeros is in places, there are long stretches where it fails to maintain that energy. This is especially true in the second act while Yodlaf and Vasco make their voyage to Fort Yuma and back. A lot of this time is taken up with a subplot involving the Jack Palance character and a scheme by moneyed American interests to kill Professor Xantos, as he represents a challenge to their domination of Mexican oil wells. This whole subplot feels forced, as though Corbucci and co-writer Massimo De Rita needed to pad the screenplay to a decent running length. In fact, most of the scenes with Palance seem to drag on forever; the average viewer can only listen to the ramblings of a stoned sadist for so long. In addition to this, there are a couple of scenes where Palance's character captures one of the protagonists, only to place him in some sort of overly elaborate situation intended to induce a cruel death. These scenes too are quite tiresome, not least for their predictable outcomes.
While very well made, and often very exciting and funny, Compañeros feels like it is at least half an hour too long. It bogs down in a lengthy and mostly irrelevant second act where we are treated to characters and mini-dilemmas that go nowhere and do nothing for the story.
Anchor Bay once again shows why they are the DVD lover's best friend. Very few other studios take the time and effort that Anchor Bay does to present even their most obscure titles in the best possible DVD package. They provide us all with a valuable service and a look at something other than the latest multi-million dollar blockbusters.
The film and Anchor Bay are both acquitted.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "In the Company of Compañeros" Featurette
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