The Mercenary is the most loveable of all spaghetti westerns. ‘Loveable’ is probably not an appropriate adjective for a subgenre that isolated, decontextualised, re-contextualised and exaggerated select elements of its parent, the American western (violence, ritual, dress, archetypal characters, scenarios and motifs); and it certainly may seem an inappropriate description for any film directed by Sergio Corbucci, that most violent of directors. Instead of the claustrophobic, gloomy and gruelling sadomasochism that characterises Corbucci’s Django (1966) or Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence, 1968), however, The Mercenary offers an epic canvas and joyous comedy to offset the brutality, as well as a winning bromance between taciturn mercenary Sergei ‘the Polack’ Kowalski (Franco Nero, his eyes smiling indefatigably even when strapped up before execution) and ebullient revolutionary Paco Roman (Tony Musante). In fact, with its charismatic pair at the centre of a broad network of relationships – personal, communal, national, ideological and political – with its fusion of ‘high’ emotion (mass executions, the growth to maturity of an impulsive naïf, a convincing love story unusual for the genre) and ‘low’ comedy (brawls in shit, glum dwarfs leading a burlesque bullfight) and with the richness of individual characters and its sweeping sense of history, The Mercenary is a more truly Shakespearean action film than the more pretentious likes of Broken Lance (Edward Dmytryk, 1954), Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) and Ran (Kurosawa, 1985).
Initially, The Mercenary plays like a knock-off of Sergio Leone’s Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966). Fuelled by a rollicking, brass-driven Ennio Morricone score that echoes many of the effects he innovated for Leone’s films, The Mercenary stages, against the backdrop of civil unrest (this time Mexican), the misadventures of a sharply delineated trio as they scramble for money and/or power.
Sergei is the ‘Good’, the tall, (relatively) silent, Clint Eastwood-like gunfighter and strategist for hire: while all hell breaks loose around him, he keeps his cool – literally, in the bank-robbery sequence, in which he ticks off the successive stages of his plan on a scrap of paper, quietly observing from a café table while bullets, men and screams fly. Paco, meanwhile, is the endearing Eli Wallach figure, the ‘Ugly’, the volatile Latin as quick to love and laughter as anger and savagery. His flawed humanity contrasts with the inhuman perfection of the hero. He is genuinely torn between his love for Columba (Giovanna Ralli) – a rare woman in a western who is intelligent and politically committed in her own right (not merely a genre archetype such as a tart with a heart, a schoolmarm, a browbeaten mother or a victim of violence) – and for his fractious soulmate, Sergei.
This leaves Jack Palance as the ‘Bad’. He is the second mercenary of the title, more prophetic of the future than the entrepreneurial individualist Sergei in his decision to ally himself with corporate power. His soubriquet, ‘Curly’ (‘Ricciolo’ in the original Italian), doesn’t sound so terrifying, and there is something camp1 about Curly’s ridiculously curly black wig, and, more broadly, in the contrast between Curly’s fastidious manner after enacting some barbarity (including several choice pouts), and the efficient sadism of those barbarities.
If Corbucci’s conception of Curly is homophobic, Palance’s realisation is anything but. He has a way of entering, dominating, electrifying and then leaving a space that is beyond the scope of the amiable leads. Curly’s defiance as the revolutionary gang jeeringly strip him is heroic; his erotic complexity encompasses genuine grief for a fallen companion and quavering arousal during the (sorry!) climactic duel. Most of Palance’s contemporaries who travelled to Italy or Spain to star in spaghettis did so for the money or, like Lee Van Cleef, for the chance to escape belittling Hollywood supporting roles. Palance was one of the few to appreciate and explore the creative possibilities of the European western. His performance as Curly is very different to the aquiline implacability of Van Cleef’s ‘Bad’ Angel Eyes in Leone’s film, but it is equally compelling.
The Mercenary belongs to a subgenre of the spaghetti subgenre known as the Zapata western – films set during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). These films owe much to both local legends arising from that history and Hollywood representations (and misrepresentations) of it, such as Viva Villa! (Jack Conway, 1934) and Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan, 1952). The Zapata western would in its turn influence such classic Hollywood westerns as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The central comic male partnership in The Mercenary, fractured by romance with a brunette, may also have inspired Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969).
It should not be forgotten, however, that these were European films with European sensibilities and concerns; a work like The Mercenary is rich in Italian folk humour and mythology, as well as Felliniesque spectacle. The European adaptation of the quintessential American genre was on one level a response to postwar shifts in global power and the Americanisation of local popular culture, and on another a response to American influence on socio-economic and foreign policy. Italy, defeated in World War II and with a huge diaspora population in the United States, was particularly dependent on US financial and political aid, causing resentment in many quarters.
The US’ extension of interest in Latin America was also of concern to European leftists like Solinas, who, as mentioned earlier, worked on the long-gestating hagiography of the Algerian Revolution The Battle of Algiers. The Mercenary follows a similar narrative trajectory to that more celebrated film – a young hoodlum develops political consciousness and commits to collective action. Paco’s lover, the proto-Maoist Columba, is as chilling as the bombers in The Battle of Algiers in her revolutionary purity and her willingness to kill perceived enemies for the ‘cause’. And, of course, both films share Morricone’s very different yet correspondingly appropriate music. Whereas the problematic message of The Battle of Algiers is inseparable from its problematic style, however, the politics of The Mercenary are easily detached from the noisy set pieces and buddy-buddy camaraderie – you can see why the apolitical Quentin Tarantino has regularly plundered it. It would take Leone and his Giù la testa (A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971) to truly fuse genre entertainment and rigorous political analysis. So is Corbucci merely a skilled and sentimental imitator of Leone? Perhaps, but imitation doesn’t get any more flattering, or downright enjoyable, than The Mercenary. --Senses of Cinema