Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Burt Lancaster are hired by Texas millionaire Ralph Bellamy to enter Mexico and take his kidnapped wife, the lovely Claudia Cardinale, back from Jack Palance, a Mexican bandit. While this is basically a Wild West heist film exploring themes of love and jaded adventure seekers, the team-building aspect is taken care of within the first ten minutes of the movie. From then on it’s almost pure action as four men who are the best at what they do go off to face a man who is also the best and find out that the situation really isn’t what they were told. That’s fine though, as they still do the job, even if they are having to kill their old friends.
I love where this movie sits in the pantheon of 1960s Westerns as they steadily grew more violent and exploitative, culminating in The Wild Bunch‘s glorious machine gun massacre in 1969. The Professionals was released in 1966, the same year as both The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and the original Django. These films showed the dark, gritty, violent side of the American West, in which scarred men with nothing left to lose did their damnedest to find something worth caring about. In The Professionals they find it in the end, but at great cost to their bodies, the deaths of former friends, and in a bloody exclamation point to a long history of violence, war, and lost innocence.
Another aspect that intrigues me is how late this movie occurs in history. The film takes place in the late 1910s, with automobiles, automatic weapons, and aging men. The age of the characters is punctuated by the technology, which also heralds the end of the Wild West. But what I really like is how these guys argue about the myth of Mexican revolution and the harsh reality, a great statement that also applies to how the Western was mythologized versus the cold truth of America’s expansion. This theme is further explored in The Wild Bunch to its inevitable violent end, but here there is still just enough magic left to have a somewhat happier ending.