Compañeros (1970)

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Compañeros [Vamos a matar companeros (Let’s go killing, mates)] is a revolutionary tortilla-western directed by Sergio Corbucci, considered a specialist in this genre after the success of Django (1966) played by Franco Nero. The production is Italian and Spanish thanks also to the kind cooperation of the Germans starring Tomas Milian, Franco Nero, Fernando Rey, Jack Palance, Francisco Bodalo, Iris Berben, Karin Schubert and Eduardo Fajardo. The action is set in the revolutionary Mexico torn between Mongo’s (Bodalo) followers and those of the idealist Xantos (Rey), prisoner of the Americans. Two characters are linked in this plot: Yod, a mercenary gunrunner called The Swedish (Nero) and El Vasco (Milian), one of General Mongo’s men; their mission is to set Professor Xantos free. The mission’s initial purpose is not very noble as the two men want to get their hands on the combination of a safe that may contain a considerable treasure; in the end, however, they convince themselves of the goodness of the revolutionary cause.

The movie is shot using the flashback technique during the duel among Tomas Milian and Franco Nero. The story unfolds in the characters’ memories, with the shoeshine Milian, called El Vasco because of his black hat (in spanish ‘basco’ is written ‘vasco’ but pronounced ‘basco’), who, after having killed one of General Diaz’s soldiers, is recruited as a lieutenant by General Mongo. The character played by Tomas Milian is well described, he seems a sort of an ignorant Che Guevara, always finding himself half good and half evil, who, in the end chooses the right path. El Vasco is, on the other hand, a rascal from Mexico, Trash style, who speaks comically using italian and cuban words (the true Milian’s voice), with a quarrelsome disposition and rough behaviours typical of a man without culture. Franco Nero, on the other hand, is a dandy killer, cultured and refined; he wears elegant clothes, he is Swedish but seems an English lord with boater, umbrella, jacket and tie. During their first meeting, Milian already addresses him indignantly as ‘penguin’ and keeps on doing that throughout the movie. Just to underline the difference between the two characters, when they’re playing roulette and the croupier says: ‘Rien va plus’, Milian asks: ‘What the hell did he say?’. Franco Nero takes part in the following threats to win by using force but he does it in another style. Franco Nero is The Swedish, an unscrupulous mercenary who sells weapons to General Mongo, even if he knows that the general is a bandit. The authentic rebel is Xantos, a pure idealist; when the students ask The Swedish to take their side he replies that he will side with those who pay him more.
The Swedish is a man with fine manners, but he is a cruel gunman who doesn’t hesitate in gunning down enemies and in striking people who are on in his way. The scene in which Franco Nero is buried until the neck by Milian’s men and only Mongo’s arrival rescues him from the attack of horses is remarkable. Mongo is a bandit who takes advantage of the revolution to make money and gives El Vasco and The Swedish the task of releasing Xantos in order to get a key of a safe that contains a treasure. The two men don’t trust each other and don’t like each other neither but they accept the task. The movie uses a wonderful photography and the Spanish scenery in the background during the desperados’ horse rides seems a true representation of Mexico. Jack Palance makes an entrance as well, he’s an evil guy whose best friend is a falcon and who has a score to settle with the Swedish. He lost his right hand because the gunman played a trick on him in Cuba. The beautiful Lola (Iris Berben) also plays an interesting part; she is contended for a long time by the two men but in the end opts for El Vasco. Karin Schubert, instead, is the unavoidable dancer of the saloon who knows the Swedish very well but in that situation has a sexual encounter with El Vasco and completely wears him out . K. Schubert (dubbed by Laura Betti) takes part in Xantos’ release with a group of prostitutes. The film flows through situations involving the two rivals and the spectator takes the side of one or of the other one. Franco Nero excapes in a locomotive and unhooks Tomas Milian who is attached to one of the coaches, but he meets the bad Jack Palance, who orders his guys to beat up him and let him hanging by the neck with his feet hovering over a barrel. Vasco lets him go after having made a fool out of him. When the two men meet again they manage to make Xantos escape from Fort Yuma, but once again the Swedish plays a trick on El Vasco and leaves him at the mercy of Jack Palance. Milian is tortured by the bandit’s men and in the end he has a mole placed on his stomach, one that could dig a tunnel through his body. Luckily Xantos and the Swedish decide to release him, while Milan shouts: ‘I don’t care about Mongo! Hurrah for Xantos! Penguin… Fuck off!’ Although this is not typically Mexican swearing, it is relevant as it anticipates the trash season to come. In order to make professor Xantos cross the border under the eyes of the Mexican army, Milian and Nero pretend to be friars of the Saint Bernardino order, carrying a coffin. Jack Palance eventually exposes their real identities but our heroes get away to the sound of sub-machine gun, even if Xantos doesn’t shoot because he is against violence. ‘If you fight for a right ideal, you can win even without using violence’, he says. Once out of danger, the three men roast the falcon to satisfy their hunger and Milian comments: ‘That bird may have been clever but it tastes like shit’. And then keeps on at Xantos, who is fiddling with some turtles which are actually going to be useful to find again the professor in Mongo’s hands): ‘Fuck off you and your turtles!’. One of the essential elements of this Mexican Trash style charachter, who reveals himself even more when El Vasco says that as he lacks in honour, he can follow Xantos who got into troubles. The idealist rebel in fact, gives himself up to Mongo in order to save his men but only the intervention of Milian and Nero solves the situation. In the end Mongo is captured and killed, even if Xantos wanted to set him free; the bandit, though, looks for his death acting like a coward. The final surprise is that there isn’t any actual treasure in the so longed for crate but there are only the symbols of earth, wheat and work. ‘That This is our wealth’, says Xantos. El Vasco and Lola get married on their own with a funny ceremony during which Milian says: ‘Ok, I’ll marry you, come on…’; in the last scenes we can understand the reason of the duel between our two heroes. The Swedish steals a golden statue representing Saint Bernardino because he is not used to ‘go away empty-handed’. The duel unfolds as such: the two gunmen join forces a second time against Jack Palance’s gang; but Xantos dies, killed by the cruel bandit. The idealist professor threatens the gunman with a empty shotgun, but his death serves its purpose because the Swedish is persuaded to stay with El Vasco and to fight for the revolution.’Stay with us, mate. You’ll see it’is possible to win with ideals. We’ll make it’ says El Vasco, by now converted to do-goodery. The Swedish thinks a bit and then screams: ‘Vamos a matar, compañeros!’ (‘Let’s go killing, compañeros!’). The attack against the Mexican army starts and the beautiful soundtrack insists on the refrain ‘Vamos a matar … vamos a matar … compañeros’.
The movie had remarkable success: it took one billion liras at the box office. Franco Nero is popular because of Django and in some sequences uses the submachine gun as in the previous movie; Tomas Milian has played charachters like Cuchillo and Tepepa. The duo works very well, the gringo (Yankee) and the campesino (peasant) who help each other for a common cause fascinates the public. Tomas Milian wears a beret Che Guevara style and pronounces revolutionary lines, but above all uses swearwords freewheeling, which is an unusual thing for a western, and young people like that. The movie copies in some parts all preexisting western movies and presents here and there jokes associated with the 1968 movement and it actually works. Sergio Corbucci is good at dramatise it together with Massimo De Rita, Fritz Ebert e Arduino Maiuri; the music by Ennio Morricone (performed by Bruno Nicolai’s orchestra) is a key element as well as the fast editing by Eugenio Alabiso. When talking of about the political value of some spaghetti western, it is sufficient to quote Steve della Casa who writes: ‘It’s probably not the best western movie ever, but it’s the best example to understand how much the 1968 movement has been taken in by the working classes and to understand because, when the demonstrators were about to crash with the police, the final scene and the music of the movie always came into my mind’. Milian and Nero argued for a long time on the set, above all because Franco Nero was offended by some of the Cuban’s jokes: he believed Milian was making fun of him even off set. It must be said that Milian couldn’t stand other ‘leading ladies’, he preferred supporting actors. Franco Nero was a young man, shy and nervous, according to Corbucci; on the other hand Milian was quarrelsome and half mad. Corbucci encouraged him to dub himself because g his cuban and half roman accent was suitable for the role. Legal action was taken against the movie as it was considered obscene because the character played by Milian uses very marked and colourful slang words (i.e. ‘fuck off’, ‘asshole’, ‘I wanna piss’) At that time, the bigot Italy wasn’t yet ready for that and it didn’t take much to be shocked; on the other hand if a character is gross he has to speak in a vulgar way.

Genre: Western Director: Sergio Corbucci. Story: Sergio Corbucci. Screenplay:    Arduino Maiuri, Massimo De Rita, Fritz Ebert, Sergio Corbucci. Countries of producrion: Italy, Spain, West Germany. Year: 1970. Lenght: 120 minutes. Genre: western, comedy. Executive producer: Antonio Morelli. Production companies: Tritone Cinematografica, Atlántida Films, Terra-Filmkunst. Photography: Alejandro Ulloa. Editing: Eugenio Alabiso. Music: Ennio Morricone. Set design: Adolfo Cofiño. Suits: Jürgen Henze. Makeup: Giuseppe Capogrosso. Cast: Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Fernando Rey, Jack Palance, Iris Berben, José Bodalo. Production: ITA/RFT/ESP, 1970.

Translation by Clara Arosio (edited by Sabrina Macchi)

Reviw taken from the book ‘Tomasd Milian. Il trucido e lo sbirro’ (Profondo Rosso): http://www.infol.it/lupi/Pubblicazioni_Thomas_Milian.htm

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Gordiano Lupi
Gordiano Lupi (Piombino, 1960). Editorial manager of Edizioni Il Foglio, he contributes to Turin’s newspaper La Stampa. He translated the novels of the Cuban author Torreguitart Ruiz and published a number of books on Cuba, cinema, and many other topics. See the full list at www.infol.it/lupi. He participated in some TV broadcasts such as Corrado Augias’s Cominciamo bene le storie, Luca Giurato’s Uno Mattina, Odeon TV series on the Italian serial killers, Rete Quattro La Commedia all’italiana, Monica Maggioni’s Speciale TG1 on Cuba and Yoani Sánchez, Dove TV series on Cuba. He guested on some Italian and Swiss radio broadcasts for his books and comments on the Cuban culture. In 2012 he published a long chapter in El otro paredon, an essay on the Cuban situation, written with four authors of the Cuban exile, and issued in the USA with English and Spanish versions. His books received a large number of reviews and mentions. See the full list at www.infol.it/lupi. E-mail address: lupi@infol.it.