13 October 2008

Film Journal: The Professionals (1966)

In many ways The Professionals can be seen as a swan song for the old-fashioned Western hero. There are many implications of a paradigm shift in the West at the beginning of the 20th century (the time period of the film) with the cowboy being less of a relevant or necessary figure, largely displaced by business tycoons and property owners, represented in the film by J.W. Grant. Brooks makes his film in the latter half of the ‘60s, a time when the traditional Western film sees endless revision and transformation. John Ford did The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four years earlier, a film that can be seen as Ford’s own farewell to the West and the Western hero, and a film which I think resonates with The Professionals thematically. As a revisionist western in itself, The Professionals evokes nostalgia for the old West through its central characters and reaffirms those values by addressing issues of the 1960s such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

The premise of the film is based on a genre convention: a group of men decide to do one last mission for money. Though this has been seen in Western films as well as heist films, I believe it has a further implication in being not only the last hurrah for the characters, but a last attempt to assert the values of the Old West before they die. We get the feeling that with the death of the characters comes the death of the Western hero as the film takes place around 1915, making Rico’s crew the last generation of cowboys. Standing in contrast to that is J.W. Grant, the moneyman who is able to buy whatever he needs and who rides trains and automobiles instead of horses.

As the hunt for Raza continues through the film, the morality of stealing back Grant’s wife becomes highly ambiguous; the line dividing good and evil becomes incredibly blurry. We find that not only did Rico and Bill fight for the Mexican rebels alongside Raza, revealing a more vulnerable and idealistic side of the tough guy characters, but that Bill was in love with Chiquita. The embodiment of this romantic idealism for Raza is Maria, who would be suppressed and emotionally killed if she were to go back to Grant. The moral dilemma of returning Maria or not is further complicated by the old school code of professionalism that Rico has to simply get the job done. However, it is ultimately not Rico who acts as the agent for change in the film, but Bill, who we find is not unlike Raza. Just like Ethan Edwards and Scar are two sides of the same coin in The Searchers, Bill and Raza are both headstrong, tough, and resolute and it is in a long, confusing sequence in which they face off in the boulders that we find they are motivated by the same thing.

This particular sequence has unmatching shots pasted back to back, making almost no attempt to clearly distinguish spatial perimeters between Bill and Raza. At times it seems they are in clear view of each other, at others that they are boulders away. At first it comes off as just bad shooting and editing, but I believe it is done that way on purpose to convey both Bill’s internal state as well as our uncertainty about who to root for at this point in the film. The more I find about Raza and the way he loves Maria genuinely, the more sympathetic I feel towards him and the more I am unsure whether I want him to live or die. The more Bill is reminded of his time fighting alongside Raza, the greater the struggle in his face. It is at the moment that he shoots Chiquita that I think Bill finally realizes he has made the wrong choice to fight against Raza. Chiquita embodies not only his past love, but the romanticism and idealism of his past in fighting with the radical Mexicans; it is that independent, rebellious, and honorable spirit which comes to define the Western hero and their values. I think this moment also finalizes the comparison between Raza and Bill, as Raza needs Maria and Bill needed Chiquita.

The ambiguity of Bill’s feelings in that moment and regarding his past is voiced several times throughout the film. At one point he says, “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?” The unfolding of the film’s final moments allows Bill to reclaim his past and to find again what it means to do “good.” This question of fighting a war for the sake of other people alludes heavily to the current events at the time of the film as American involvement in the Vietnam War is a topic of great moral strife for Americans. The professionals of the film, particularly Bill and Rico, can be compared to Vietnam veterans who return and are disillusioned about whether their service there was really serving justice or not. By having Bill’s disillusionment be resolved through a reigniting of his original Western hero spirit and values it seems the film is asserting that regardless of the outcome of the battle, the American spirit, in this case the Western hero values, is what is being celebrated. As topics relating to race were especially prominent in the United States during the ’60s, it is appropriate that Brooks includes a black cowboy as part of the gang in order to not only suggest that blacks and whites can get along, but that black people are part of the history of America and the West and are to be valued as such. Even as late as 1966 there were hardly any black actors being hired for starring roles in Hollywood aside from Sidney Portier, and they appeared even less in Westerns.

By the film’s end as the group ride off I get the sharp feeling that though they have won in the one scenario over Grant they will nevertheless fade into oblivion, just as the old-fashioned Western has faded. There is an irony in those characters: they are characters on the margin of society – outlaws, rebels, lonemen – but are only able to get money from the likes of Grant. Though they triumph and soar over Grant in terms of spirit and character, it is Grant that will continue to live and prosper and someone like Grant who will eventually run the country. The Old West has faded and I think Brooks is taking one long look back in admiration amidst the problems of his modern world.

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