Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Spaghetti Westerns are making news in DVD, in no small part due to a series of Anchor Bay discs
concentrating on films starring Franco Nero. Americans identify Italian
westerns almost completely through those made by Sergio Leone with Clint Eastwood; although
there's a big fan base for the rest of the thousand-odd Spaghettis produced since the early
1960s, what we've seen until now have been only wretched pan'n scan cutdowns and redubs of the
originals. The tardy appreciation of the genre can be judged by Philip French's comment in his
critical 1973 book Westerns, Aspects of a Movie Genre, responding to a list of Italian titles:
"... to me (it) reads like a brochure for a season in hell."
Anchor Bay released a double bill of two Django films a few seasons back, and now has brought out
in close succession Texas Addio, Keoma, and Sergio Corbucci's
Vamos a Matar, Compañeros. Savant doesn't have the overview that other reviewers
do (see Lee Broughton's Savant essay on The Spaghetti Western Genre
for that) but he was informed that Compañeros is considered one of the best, and
the height of Corbucci's career.
The Mexican revolution. Shoeshine boy Vasco (Tomas Milian) kills a federale officer
and is made a Lieutenant by General Mongo (Francisco Bódalo), one of many warring
revolutionary warlords. Vasco and Swedish gun salesman Yodlof Pederson (Franco Nero) become
unlikely companions when Mongo sends them to Yuma, to liberate authentic revolutionary Xantos
(Fernando Rey), a pre-Gandhi preacher of nonviolence imprisoned by American oil interests in the
hope of extorting oil leases from him.
Vasco and Yodlof successfully spring Xantos and begin an eventful ride back to San Bernardino,
Mongo's stronghold. Besides the American Army, the Federales, Mongo's bandits, and Xantos'
student revolutionaries, a crazed dope-smoking American named John (Jack Palance) is on their
trail. He uses a beloved pet falcon (that once saved his life by chewing off his hand when he
was nailed to a cross) to locate his quarry.
Some critics credit Sergio Corbucci with 'politicizing' the subgenre. The locale has been shifted
from a vague 'West' to revolutionary Mexico, where violent upheaval reigned from before the
turn of the century, well into the 1920s. The conflict is a simple one between virtuous
Communists and oppressive generals and capitalists. Corbucci's mood is less cynical, and more
inclined toward comedy. He seems to have discovered 'radical chic', before it was popularized
by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which took
its cue from Bonnie & Clyde: We're vicious, lawbreaking killers, but also cute fun-loving
innocents fighting an injust system. That means we're really revolutionaries, like, for, you
know, freedom. Compañeros co-opts the emotions of the
political upheavals being felt across Europe and America at the time, which had fostered the sorry
notion that some kind of glorious revolution of justice was imminent. It's too trivializing
in its tone to really have anything to say. But it is complicated.
And rather simpleminded, too. The evil federales are introduced casually shooting voters who wish
to place ballots for
other than their approved candidate. The revolutionary warlord Mongo is a phony who sends
green recruits like the earthy, profane Vasco to fight his battles. He spouts lots of
revolutionary slogans, but is really
a mercenary seeking to make a big score and then exit the scene. By contrast,the honest
intellectual leader Xantos is presented as an unassailable bastion of wisdom and virtue.
His student followers are idealistic, confused, and very young. Finally, Americans are represented
through an Army post shown importing prostitutes for the evening, and oil businessmen seeking to
profit from the redistribution of power in Mexico. Their main agent is the venal John, a
madman more ruthless than anyone.
Our buddy-buddy heroes are the 'neutral' gun salesman Yodlaf and the instinctual lowlife Vasco,
who of course go through the countless genre-required petty doublecrosses before
choosing the side of the virtuous students. In Yodlaf's case it's almost involuntary, but
Vasco is charmed by the (naturally) beautiful student leader Zaira (the beautiful Karin Schubert,
later in Dymtryk's Bluebeard).
Besides the cartoonish stereotyping on view, there are details like John's wooden
hand and its backstory that are colorful but don't add much. The radical chic is accompanied by anachronistic
attempts to universalize the revolutionary theme. None of
the cast seem particularly Mexican. Corbucci gives the students at least one Asian
member and costumes them as if they belong on the Paris barricades in 1968. Vasco even
wears a beret with a medal, an instant nod to Che Guevara. Is it hip, or just silly? 1
Corbucci's direction is not all that impressive. Scenes are blocked well enough, but annoying zooms
and forced compositions are frequent. The comedy direction is broader than broad, and obvious to the
point of playing to juveniles. There is plenty of action in the film, guaranteeing a shootout or stunt every
few minutes. None of it is very serious, but things never stay calm for long.
The acting is broad and basic. Tomas Milian's Mexican peasant (okay, a Basque emigrant)
peppers his performance with Italian gestures that destroy any attempt to elicit 1920 Mexico. He
does get some good bits in with facial tics
and rude grins, but he and Franco Nero seem to have made a deal that Milian gets to mug, while Nero
plays cool as his straight man. As usual, Jack Palance is just out of control, grimacing and
threatening but frightening nobody. Fernando Rey plays his intellectual sage for quiet sympathy, and is
the most consistent of all.
One reason Savant hasn't gotten too deep into Spaghettis is the lack of quality once you
leave the safe territory of Leone-land. TCM had a festival of Italian Westerns a few months
back and it was hard sitting through most of them. Well known titles like
Death Rides a Horse turned out to be rather undistinguished, with the same generic situations
(operatic revenge, casual cruelty, invincible gunslingers) failing to keep up interest. As a production,
Compañeros is fairly elaborate. The Techniscope
photography is very attractive, and the whole enterprise is graced with a typically
quirky Ennio Morricone score. Even when Spaghettis seem hopeless failures, like Corbucci's
Navajo Joe, just listening to the music can get one by. Morricone's main tune for Compañeros
is his usual quirky collection of strange noises and lusty vocals, and it peps up the movie whenever
it comes belting back to the foreground, which is every time an action scene pops up.
Anchor Bay's disc of Compañeros is very, very good-looking. The colors are bright, and the
wide image is clean and clear with 16:9 formatting. 2
I watched it with the Italian track, which seemed
preferable to the English dub. The docu extra is given over to Milian, Nero, and the composer. Morricone
says some very interesting things about the score, but both of the stars have totally
unrealistic ideas about the importance of the film and the worth of their performances. Just the same,
Spaghetti Western fans are going to enjoy getting such a fine-quality DVD of this oddball Italo oater.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 16, 2001
1. Over a year ago, Savant saw a pre-restoration screening at a
studio of Sergio Sollima's La Resa de Conti, aka The Big Gundown. Although what
we watched was a miserable pastiche print probably shorter than the cut American release,
the movie was very 'revolution-themed' years before Corbucci went in his cartoon politics
direction. For those who care, Savant was very interested in whether the studio had plans
to release a DVD of The Big Gundown, alas, it was just trying to put together a decent copy
for foreign TV sales. A technical tale, for those really interested: Being in Techniscope, the
half-frame original photography format, the negative for the show was stored (beautifully) in Rome
on a bunch of reels. When studio technicians printed the reels to try and sync up the American
soundtrack, they found that the Italians in the '60s used a clever method of keeping all of
the international versions of the feature together in one negative: the first reel had nothing but main
title sequences, five of them, for various languages, one after another. Then the first scene might be
intact, but would be followed by five short sequences segue'ing to different second scenes, depending on
how the film was cut in a different market. So the negative was three or four times longer than the movie!
The Italians had a punch-tape optical printer system that was amazing: The operator would load the first
reel of negative, put in the punch tape for the German version, and the printer would skip around the
Techniscope reel, printing only those sections that belonged in the German cut!
With the punch-tape trick a lost technology, the Studio had to print everything, and sort it out by
comparing it to the tattered American release copies they had, and to videotapes. They were first
going to create a 'master length' version, as long as the movie could be without repeating scenes, and then
do cut downs. This made Savant's mouth water at the possibility of getting some kind of super-length version of the film,
in Italian. Unfortunately, all this was done at the HDTV level, so access to it was not practical. As
of yet there is still no word of any kind of release of The Big Gundown on American DVD.
2. I've read some bulletin board entries about some 'shifting' going on
in the image during the show. I noticed nothing like this on my 16:9 monitor.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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