I’m not sure if Sergio Corbucci was a balls-out Communist, or a Marxist, but he was definitely a cynic who leaned far to the left, which was reflected in his westerns as early as Django. In his earlier films, Corbucci merely had the same anti-establishment attitude that was found in much of the southern Italian world of cheap, working-class commercial filmmaking. The best of these directors—and to be sure, Corbucci is among the best—all had something they were trying to say. There were ideological and dogmatic messages lurking in the shadows of some of the best spaghettis, and by the time the genre was an unstoppable juggernaut in the late 1960s, some writers and directors felt comfortable enough to employ all the subtlety of a stick of dynamite with a fast-burning fuse shoved up your ass. For Corbucci, this change in how he projected his cynicism on the screen kicked into high gear with The Mercenary, carrying through to his next few films and right into Compañeros.
In a role that is pretty much the same character he played in The Mercenary, Franco Nero stars as Yodlaf “the Swede” Peterson, a professional arms dealer come to Mexico during the height of the Revolution to sell weapons to the tyrannical General Mongo. The big problem is that Mongo can’t get to the cash, because it’s locked in a safe, containing “great wealth.” Only one person has the combination to the safe, Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey), the pacifist leader of the revolutionary movement, who happens to be locked in an American prison. The Swede agrees to bust the professor out of the joint—in exchange for half the contents of the safe. Accompanying the Swede is Vasco (Tomas Milian), one of Mongo’s soldiers. The shaky alliance of the Swede and Vasco finds firmer ground when they run up against John (Jack Palance) an old enemy of the Swede. Of course, our heroes are successful in rescuing the professor, but now they must face the Mexican Army, the Americans (represented by Palance and his crew) and Mongo’s men, all of whom want Xantos dead. None of this should be a problem, since Vasco is one of Mongo’s men, and since the Swede is only in it for the money—right? Of course not! Because in the grand tradition of all ZRFs (Zappata-esque Revolution Film) our heroes are about to discover convictions and a sense of honor they never knew they had.
Along with Django and The Great Silence, this is arguably director Sergio Corbucci’s best western, and definitely one of the shining moments in the genre. Corbucci covers areas in Compañeros that he explored earlier in The Mercenary, and both films share more than a few similarities, especially as both examine how industrialized nations serve to manipulate the political process in third world countries to their own benefit. But Compañeros approaches its politics with a mixture of lighthearted comedy, and over-the- top action that isn’t as finely crafted in The Mercenary, and when all is said and done, Compañeros is simply a better film. Jack Palance is at his nuttiest as Nero’s archenemy, a refer-smokin’ psycho with a wooden hand and a pet falcon named Marsha. Franco Nero and Tomas Milian both give stand out performances, and their chemistry together is right on the money. For Milian this is the type of role he best became known for—the Che Guvera-like revolutionary. As for Corbucci, this would be his last truly great western.
Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.