The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)

HE SELLS DEATH TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER!

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddAfter his iconic role as Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Franco Nero teamed up once again with the Spaghetti Western’s “other Sergio” to become The Mercenary.  Nero plays Kowalski, a Polish mercenary who sells his expertise to a band of Mexican outlaws led by Paco Roman (Tony Musante), and aids them as they seek to support the revolution and themselves.  When the Federal Army closes in, loyalties and political philosophies become strained between Kowalski, Paco, and their beautiful revolutionary ally Columba (Giovanna Ralli).  Jack Palance joins Corbucci’s fabulous cast as Curly, Kowalski’s dandified rival and cutthroat villain.  With a memorable score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, The Mercenary is a political statement with loads of commercial appeal, presented here in an exclusive high-definition restoration from the original Techniscope negative.

Special Features:

  • Brand new restoration from the original 35mm Techniscope camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original Italian and English soundtracks in uncompressed PCM mono audio
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • Brand new interview with star Franco Nero
  • How to Make a Revolution – featurette on the film’s production including interviews with Franco Nero, Tony Musante, Sergio Corbucci, Nora Corbucci, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Eugenio Alabiso
  • US, European, and international trailers
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Austin Fisher and Howard Hughes

Sergio Corbucci is something of a difficult filmmaker to do justice to.  Outside of Italy, Corbucci is known as a talented genre filmmaker who started out in cheap peplum movies and distinguished himself as the other Sergio in the Spaghetti Western genre.  His stylish brutality and conspicuous violence made him a director of note to fans of the genre, finding wild success with the cult-hit Django (1966) and his politically jaundiced The Great Silence (1968).  Ironically, Corbucci’s longevity as a filmmaker came by making hugely successful comedies in the 1970s and ’80s that were rarely seen outside of Italy and contribute nothing to his regard internationally.  This deserves mention as it not only illustrates the narrow view held outside Italy of Corbucci’s talents and interests, but also serves to demonstrate the left-wing director’s very commercial orientation to filmmaking.  The Mercenary (1968), which kicks off Corbucci’s “Mexican Revolution” trilogy (followed by the quasi-remake Compañeros (1970) and What Am I Doing in the Middle of the Revolution? (1972)), might stand as Corbucci’s most adept effort in crowd-pleasing Western-action.  While perhaps not as grotesquely iconic as Django or as despairingly artsy as The Great Silence, The Mercenary (aka A Professional Gun, Professional Gun, and Revenge of a Gunfighter) is a thrilling Techniscope adventure with its political tongue tucked firmly in its cheek.

The Mercenary PosterThe titular mercenary is Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero), sometimes called “the Polack” or just “the gringo.”  Told in flashback, Kowalski is hired to safely transport silver from a Mexican mine across the border, a task that raises the interest of his foppish American rival Curly (Jack Palance).  Kowalski arrives at the mine to discover that control of the mine has been taken from its owner Elias Garcia (Vicente Roca) by Paco Roman (Tony Musante) and his fellow peons-turned-revolutionaries.  When Elias’ brother, Colonel Alfonso Garcia (Eduardo Fajardo), arrives with troops and attacks the mine, Paco hires Kowalski and his Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun to effect their escape ($200 for instruction, then $200 to fight), and when Curly ambushes the Polack later, Paco and his compañeros save Kowalski, humiliate Curly (who vows revenge), and hire the gringo to teach them how to run a “revolution.”

Paco’s “revolution” consists largely of riding into a town, liberating the locals from their subjugation by Federal authorities, requisitioning a good portion of the town’s wealth in the name of “the cause,” and then escaping the overwhelming military response that arrives later.  Kowalski lords his experience and authority over Paco, becoming more and more imperious with his demands – being carried by the revolutionaries during their travels, being kept dry during the rain, having them forego their water supply in the desert so that he may have a shower.  Paco initially misperceives his subjugation to Kowalski, remarking with no irony to Columba that the Polack “is one of my employees.  He tells me what to do.”  Through Columba and her revolutionary conscience, Paco eventually arrests Kowalski, citing his behaviour as contrary to their revolutionary principles, and the two eventually part company amid a heavy attack from Curly and the Federal Army.  The Mercenary ends by moving ahead 6 months to a small bullring where Kowalski has tracked Paco where he works as a lowly rodeo clown.  The bullring returns the film to its opening and its ostensible present, where Curly and Paco have their final confrontation under the watchful eye of the Polack.

Il mercenario began with a high art pedigree, with producer Alberto Grimaldi attempting to woo Gillo Pontecorvo, fresh from The Battle of Algiers (1966), into filming an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s Bel ami scripted by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio.  Pontecorvo passed on the project, but Grimaldi eventually got his film made, albeit in a much different version directed by Sergio Corbucci.  The Mercenary is typically considered to be a highly satisfying action film, one that doesn’t wallow too heavily in its politics but prefers to showcase dialogue, action, and humour.  The film’s score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai demonstrates Corbucci’s somewhat lighthearted attitude toward The Mercenary – the film’s score is typical Morricone, particularly the ominous whistling theme attributed to Kowalski, but The Mercenary‘s many action pieces are set to a trumpeting fanfare that points to high adventure rather than mortal danger.  It’s often funny, even silly (just look at Curly’s hair!), and never undermines the film into parody.  Nero and Musante deserve the credit for the film’s highly enjoyable tone, as their performances are the engines for the film’s laughs and thrills.  Nero offers a loner’s cynicism that sometimes edges at the absurd (his trick of striking his match on strangers’ hatbands, rivals’ teeth, and the bosoms of comely ladies comes to mind) and Musante plays his character with a greedy ambition and self-confidence often reserved to those too dim to perceive their own shortcomings.  While not always the most stylishly shot Spaghetti Western, Corbucci and his cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa craft a professional-looking and visually effective film that remains notable for its periodic visual flourishes (best observed during the final gun duel).  Perhaps best of all, The Mercenary provides one of the great opening credit sequences of the genre, designed by Iginio Lardani whose work can also be seen in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.

Il Mercenario PosterStill, as film scholar Austin Fisher notes, Spaghetti Westerns were often the product of leftist directors, arose out of a country with a recent history of fascism, and were being made in a period of left-wing organization and radicalization.  Fisher asserts that a political consciousness is therefore discernible in the genre, running contrary to usual criticisms of the Spaghetti Western being superficial and repetitious.  The Mercenary is a prime example for Fisher, who cites the film as an example of the “insurgency” variant, where a peasant uprising (often set in revolutionary Mexico) opposes Western incursion and hegemony, while the film uses its cinematic practice to oppose typical Hollywood representational forms.  Fisher notes that the action-comedy emphasis of The Mercenary exposes it to criticisms of simplification and triviality, but we see Corbucci’s film as something of a realist’s statement on how revolutions begin, how individuals join them, and how they are run.

For most of the film, Paco’s revolution is little more than an opportunity to fill his coffers, stroke his ego, and support his bravado, while Kowalski’s economic exchange with the revolution (battle-tested advice for money) turns into a means to lord his position over the revolutionaries in mockery of their supposed idealism.  Columba is the only true revolutionary for most of the film, although her journey to that role precedes her introduction to the film.  The Mercenary tracks the growth of Paco’s political awareness from begrudged peon to true revolutionary (as well as the Polack’s turn into at least a sympathizer to social justice).  To this end, the film’s message seems to be that, like saints, revolutionaries are rarely born as such and often come from questionable origins.  And while it’s easy to see Corbucci’s film as using the insurgency as just a means for comedy or for thrills, there is a political optimism in this work’s conclusion, a sense of enlightenment and altruism that is redemptive beyond the typical Spaghetti Western’s justifications for violence.  Corbucci was uneasy with how the Italian left was organizing and acting in the 1960s and many of his Spaghetti Westerns reflect that, but The Mercenary distinguishes itself with an ending of cheeky, progressive hopefulness.

The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci are MMC! favourites and with Arrow Video releasing some celebrated titles in the genre, we can only hope this crowd-pleasing title is on the label’s radar.  And with Arrow having begun releasing some MGM properties on Region 1/A discs, we hope that The Mercenary might be a little more likely for release.  Despite a variety of editions having been released across various markets, no definitive hard media version of The Mercenary yet exists, particularly for English language audiences, and so an Arrow Video release would be ideal, as the label consistently ensures that the best transfers and features are included on their releases. Various posters for the film exist, but we’ll cast our cover art-vote for the Italian poster provided above with that arresting image of Paco held at gunpoint by a tensely-looking Kowalski.

Credits:  Big thanks are owed to the work of the University of Bedfordshire’s Fisher Austin.  Our back cover summary is loosely adapted from his summary of The Mercenary for his Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival and part of our discussion is owed to/inspired by his book on the genre, Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema.  Naturally, we chose him to provide a booklet essay.  We also tapped Howard Hughes, friend to the label and Spaghetti Western expert, for an essay as well.  The How to Make a Revolution featurette is ported over from the Koch Media German DVD, and reviews suggest that it is quite good (even if we haven’t seen it).

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