In 1917 four western roughnecks are hired by a wealthy Texas rancher to retrieve his young wife who he claims has been kidnapped by Mexican rebels.
OSCAR Nominee for Director, Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay
At one time the Western was filmís most popular adventure genre and attracted audiences for decades before losing steam in the 1960s. So many repetitious westerns were made they now seem stale-dated, their tired conventions irrelevant for younger audiences who prefer to look at those few westerns made in the past fifteen years, such as Unforgiven or 3:10 to Yuma, that seem to give those conventions a modern twist. But the best of the older Westerns wanted to do the same thing.
Shane, for example, may now be considered one of the classic westerns but it was edgy for 1953 and not all Western fans liked it. Paramount was nervous about the movie and tried unsuccessfully to sell it to Howard Hughesí RKO. Compared to High Noon from the previous year, Shane was grubby and unfamiliar. George Stevens had abandoned the studioís tidy main street storefronts for Wyomingís rolling hills and a solid lump of a frontier town awash in mud. When villain Jack Palance shoots a ranch hand, the body slaps down in the deep sludge, unceremonious and shocking. Shane startled its audiences with a raw environment that gave the traditional western morality tale a new and darker resonance. Thirteen years later The Professionals picked up the whole Western fabric by the corners and gave it a shake.
Written and directed by Richard Brooks and photographed by that wizard of cinematography, Conrad Hall of American Beauty and Road to Perdition fame, The Professionals is unburdened of themes of redemption or revenge and zips along with a fast pace and a light heart, setting the tone and editing style of George Roy Hillís Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (with photography again by Conrad Hall) four years later.
In the special features to the DVD re-release, the wife of Richard Brooks shares her view that the title of the film emerged from the way Brooks saw himself as a movie director: he and his stalwart film crew were the professionals, working with skill, training, and integrity in a world of artistic compromise and betrayal, doing their level best to do the right thing by their assignment.
In the movie, Lee Marvin is Rico Pardon, a weapons expert and tactician now demonstrating machine guns to the 1917 US army. A wealthy Texas rancher, Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) wants to hire Pardon to retrieve his Mexican wife who has been kidnapped by bandits from across the border and held in their fortress deep in the desert. Grant summarizes the challenge: ďIt'd take a battalion at least a month but a few daring men...specialists, led by you... could do it in one bold, swift stroke.Ē Pardon accepts the job for eight thousand dollars and recruits his old comrade in arms, womanizer and scoundrel Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) as the dynamite expert to complete his four-man crew of longbow expert (Woody Strode) and horse wrangler (Robert Ryan).
Lancasterís Dolworth is impressed with the money but asks Pardon whatís the reason they donít just take Grantís money and run.
Pardon: Our word. We gave our word to bring the woman back.
Dolworth: You know my word to Grant ainít worth a plug nickel.
Pardon: You gave your word to me.
Of course this is an adventure and we came to see the menís skills successfully trumping the treacherous odds; and much of the fun of the movie is watching the plot delivers those goods. But the story keeps us focused on the challenges of staying true to oneís professional word despite complications. When they were young men, Pardon and Dolworth had joined Pancho Villaís Mexican revolution and had fought beside Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), the man accused of kidnapping Grantís wife. Pardon and Dolworth admire Raza even if their lives have gone separate ways and even if Razaís revolution now looks tired and desperate. Each of the principle characters, and the actors who portray them, are in middle age and that sense of perspective, of remembering the hope while recognizing lifeís harsh realities, pervades the story. And thereís a further complication: the men discover that Raza didnít kidnap Grantís wife (Claudia Cardinale) at all; forced into marriage, she has run away from Grant to be with her former lover. How Marvin and Lancaster keep their word and still do the right thing is the substance of the movieís imaginative third act.
There are no heavy emotional arcs for these men, no searches for meaning or retribution. Lifting that weight off the characters lightens the load for this Western, speeds the forward motion of the plot, and modernizes the experience. The Professionals shakes off the heroic preoccupations of earlier Westerns to stake out different ideas: the challenge of maturity is not killing the bad guy but finding the balance between fighting and compassion, cynicism and hope. And keeping your word because, in the end, thatís all you have.