For many, the creative partnership that existed between director Sergio Corbucci and actor Franco Nero peaked early on in their relationship with their debut collaboration, the iconic and enormously influential Django.
Though it is indeed one of the defining Spaghetti Westerns and very much an entertaining rollercoaster of savagery and madness, it does occasionally suffer from its all too obvious budgetary constraints. That and the appalling English dub of the film (best to watch in Italian with the subtitles on).
That’s why it’s their second joint effort, 1968’s The Mercenary (aka Il Mercenario, The Professional Gun), which steals the much coveted ‘best in show’ award, for me.
Franco Nero stars as Sergei Kowalski, a Polish mercenary who is hired by Colonel Alfonso Garcia – played by another Corbucci regular and staple Spaghetti Western evil landowner, Eduardo Fajardo – to protect silver shipments from his sedition struck mine. Oh yes, the peasants are revolting, though, it must be said, not as revolting as the bizarre wig that Jack Palance sports in his role as sadistic villain, Curly. It is ten times worse than the one that Lee Van Cleef saw fit to perch atop his balding pate in the awful God’s Gun.
Catching wind of this deal, Curly decides to intervene in the operation and liberate the silver for himself. Not all goes to plan though, as Kowalski turns up at the mine to find it in the hands of the peasant mineworkers, who are about to be erased from the Spaghetti West by the combined might of Colonel Garcia and the Mexican army. Realising the chances of getting paid have all but evaporated, and never one to miss out on an opportunity, Kowalski offers his services to the ragtag band of revolutionaries. For a fee, naturally.
It is true that the greatest film ever made only required three principle characters to carry its story. One good. One bad. One ugly. The Mercenary ups this ante and brings a fourth to the party, with Paco Roman (Tony Musante), the naive peasant mineworker with aspirations of being a great revolutionary.
It is the character of Paco Roman that provides the narrative vessel through which Corbucci conveys his message, in this, the first of his politically-themed Spaghetti Westerns. Roman’s intentions are noble and represent the director’s own socialist sympathies. He wants his people freed from the servitude they endure beneath the oppressive boot heel of government-sponsored landowners and bosses. Like El Chuncho in Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet For the General, Roman is neither a saint nor the sharpest tool in the box, but it is this, as much as his deep-rooted, socially aware motivation, that endears him to us, the audience.
Of course, Franco Nero is the titular character in The Mercenary, and, as such, provides the all-important anti-hero that the genre craves. Kowalski represents the ugly face of capitalism. He agrees to teach Roman and his companeros the art of revolution, ruthlessly exploiting them at every given opportunity in order to line his own pockets and ensure he retains some form of comfort, as his “students” suffer all manner of deprivation.
Sporting a fine pair of blonde mutton chops, Kowalski is only interested in one thing: what’s in it for him. Motivated purely by money he is the classic Spaghetti anti-hero. It is a very fine line that separates him from the despicable mine owner, Colonel Garcia, and the murderous Curly, and one he crosses when he sells Roman out to the Colonel for the reward placed on the would-be revolutionary’s head. This backfires, and he finds himself double-crossed, facing the same firing squad as his captive.
Kowalski inevitably saves the day, presenting Corbucci with the perfect opportunity to reunite Franco Nero with the biggest, most fuckingest of machine guns, a la Django.
The Mercenary has all the elements of a cracking good Spaghetti Western. Insane violence; dubious motives; sadistic killers; and a smattering of very black humour. In fact, the humour sprinkled throughout is a marked departure from the unrelenting darkness of Corbucci’s previous films, such as Django, Navajo Joe and his all time great (and study in uncompromising bleakness) The Great Silence. It perhaps signposts the road down which the director was headed, leading to a more light-hearted remake of The Mercenary, in the shape of 1970’s Companeros, and the considerable downturn in quality that marked out the “comedy” westerns that followed.
But the tone of this film remains perfect, with a particularly good sight gag regarding where Kowalski strikes his matches, running throughout. The final showdown – though not the end of the film – between Kowalski, Curly and Roman, takes place in a bullring and is one of the finest of the genre outside the three-way gundown of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. As in that film, Ennio Morricone’s rousing score builds the tension magnificently, leaving the audience gasping for that fatal shot. A winner on every conceivable level.
Koch Media reissued The Mercenary in a long-awaited remastered print, early last year. Crystal clear, uncut and featuring the complete English language soundtrack, it is really the only way, outside of a cinema, to watch this most majestic of films.
Review by Nick James