Having just survived the first working week of the decade and with my beloved away for the evening at a fashionable gig I figured I owed it to myself to binge on a double bill of westerns. Luckily this boy knows how to self-indulge and so I picked The Professionals (1966) followed by The Wild Bunch (1969). Having seen both in the distant past I was surprised that viewing as a pair threw up themes that I hadn’t considered before. Once that thought was in my mind the outcome was very different.
– there are plot twists ahead and read no further if you don’t want to know what they are.
In The Professionals, Jesus Razza, a Mexican revolutionary, kidnaps the wife of Joe Grant, a Texan oil baron. Grant hires a team of four mercenaries what fought in the revolutionary war with Razza to return to Mexico and rescue the wife. High adventure and many manly bonding scenes ensue.
The gang of four discover that the Maria Grant (the wife) and Razza are childhood sweethearts and Joe Grant (in effect) bought Maria along with the hacienda that was her family home. This comes to light during a chase and escape sequence as Razza and his revolutionaries try and recapture Maria Grant from the mercenaries.
The film concludes with the mercenaries confronting Joe Grant and accusing him of being the original kidnapper and of hiring the team to re-kidnap Maria Grant from the arms of her consensual lover. The team scoop Maria Grant and a badly wounded Jesus Razza into a waggon and send them back to Mexico presumably to rebuild their lives. The Professionals leave the film without their pay but a warm glow in their hearts.
In The Wild Bunch a gang of aging outlaws walk into an ambush set up by the local railroad baron, Harrigan, and the core group of five escape – Pike, Dutch, Lyle, Tector and Angel – with nothing. They cross the boarder into Mexico and meet up with one of the gang’s (Angel) village elders. Here they learn that a Federal general has been pillaging the land and to top it all the love of Angel’s life (unrequited) has willingly become the lover of the pillaging general. Angel is beside himself.
Meanwhile, Harrigan blackmails Thornton (a jailed member of the Wild Bunch and ex sidekick of Pike) to lead a band of inept bounty hunters to kill the remaining members of the gang.
The gang drift into the pillaging general’s stronghold and Angel, overcome with jealousy and frustration, shoots the object of his desire whilst she is smooching with the general. The gang laugh off the murder by saying that Angel shot the girl as a crime of passion and was not aiming for the general at all. They give Angel over to the general’s men who proceed to torture him. A military advisor recruits the gang to steal weapons and ammunition from a US Army troop train.
Thornton and the bounty hunters deduce that the Wild Bunch will rob the troop train and arrange to be on the train when it is raided. The gang with Angel smoothly heists the weapons and ammunition. They are chased by Thornton and his crew who are in turn chased by the Army. The gang escape with the swag.
Pike decides to deliver the booty in parcels to the general rather than risk being bushwhacked for the whole kaboodle. Angel and Dutch convince the gang to give a case of rifles and ammunition to the villagers so that they will have the means to wage guerrilla war on the Federal troops. When Dutch and Angel deliver their cache to the general Angel is taken prisoner, it transpired that the mother of the woman he shot earlier told the general of him equipping the guerrillas. Angel is again tortured.
The Wild Bunch bury their treasure and go into the military encampment to eat, drink and hire prostitutes. Following this they go to the general and offer to pay a ransom for the return of Angel. The general slits Angels throat. Pike shoots the general. All falls silent. At this point they could just walk away. Pike then shoots the military advisor and pandemonium explodes. The gang go down in a hail of gunfire, taking many troops with them. When the shooting stops the vultures descend. Into the aftermath of carnage steps Thornton and the bounty hunters.
The bounty hunters take the remains of the gang and leave bound for Harrigan and bounty. Thornton stays at the encampment. Later the guerrillas arrive and tell Thornton that the bounty hunters did not get far. Thornton joins the guerrillas.
Both films when taken as a pair deal with love. The Professionals explores love and marriage, honour and duty. The Wild Bunch explores love between men, respect, honour and duty. Both also deal with loss, redemption and aging. Both the mercenaries and the outlaws are living on horseback in an era of the emerging motor car. Both look at what happens to people living out of time.
Having seen the films before I was struck with how, when watched together, the theme of love shows through much more powerfully than when seen in isolation. I find myself wondering if other pairing of films will highlight unlikely or minor themes? The possibilities are endless.