Compañeros Blu-ray Review/Comparison (originally published 2014)
Yodlaf Peterson (Franco Nero) is a suave Swedish arms dealer with a love for fast money. Vasco (Tomás Milián) is a trigger-happy Mexican bandit with a hate for suave Swedish arms dealers. But, when the two men team up to kidnap a professor who holds the key to a fortune in gold, they find themselves hunted by the American army, stalked by a marijuana-crazed sadist (Jack Palance) and trapped in the middle of a revolution about to explode. Can these two enemies blast their way across Mexico together without killing each other first? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros (Italian: Vamos a Matar Compañeros, 1970) is not the best of the Italian westerns, nor is it even the best of director Sergio Corbucci’s western – his masterpiece was arguably the bleak snow western, The Great Silence (Italian: Il Grande Silenzio; aka: The Big Silence, 1968) – but it is certainly one of the most consistently entertaining and polished films in both pantheons. Unfortunately, in the grander scheme of spaghetti western academia and fandom, Compañeros tends to be referred to as a mere interval between more important films, remembered merely for being the first and only pairing of genre superstars Franco Nero and Tomás Milián. Furthermore, it is almost always unfavorably compared to other ensemble westerns, like Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966), other Zapata westerns, like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chucho Quién Sabe?, 1966), and other comedy westerns, like Enzo Barboni’s They Call Me Trinity (Italian: Lo chiamavano Trinità…, 1970). Given the cannibalistic nature of spaghetti westerns, the comparisons are fair, even if the lack of favorability is not.
Corbucci was, along with Leone, a major instigator during the ‘60s spaghetti western boom. After failing to ignite interest with The Grand Canyon Massacre (Italian: Massacro al Grande Canyon; aka: Red Pastures, 1964) he scored a hit with Minnesota Clay (1964). Like Leone’s first hit, A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, also 1964), Minnesota Clay loosely recreated the story structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and owed a further conceptual debt to Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (Japanese: Zatōichi monogatari, 1962) – specifically the fact that the title character is blinded. The Yojimbo formula, where a stranger plays two sides of a local conflict against each other, became a mainstay throughout spaghetti western history and was the basis for Corbucci’s most popular and enduring film, Django (1966). The same year Django and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966) dominated various European box offices on their way to the states, Damiani and Sergio Sollima released a pair of westerns that further slanted Corbucci and Leone’s conventions into a blatantly political arena – the aforementioned Bullet for the General and The Big Gundown (aka: La Resa dei Conti, 1966) – instigating the short lived, but vital Zapata western movement. Named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Zapata westerns were set mainly during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) left-leaning politics. They also tend to revolve around a pair of unlikely protagonists that are forced to pool their resources to combat a greater evil.
Despite being a staunch leftist, Corbucci’s earlier westerns were barely tinged by his political leanings. Like Leone, he was more interested by playing with the conventions of the American western than making grand social statements. Unlike Leone, his version of subversion tended to hinge on brutality and pessimism He followed up Django with three Hollywood-friendly westerns – Johnny Oro (aka: Ringo and his Golden Pistol, 1966, possibly his worst western), Navajo Joe (1966), and The Hellbenders (Italian: I Crudeli; aka: The Cruel Ones, 1967) – before finally entering the realms of the Zapata western The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968). Perhaps because it was his first overtly political film (Navajo Joe and The Hellbenders have plenty to say about political power and authority, but their actual meanings are pretty open-ended), The Mercenary tends to very popular among Corbucci fans and spaghetti western scholars (its main theme was used to great effect by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill: Volume 2, 2004). But, in the greater scheme of the director’s career, The Mercenary feels more like a rough draft and dry run for Compañeros, which was essentially the same movie with a better cast and glossier polish.
Corbucci wasn’t ripping himself off as much as he was retooling old ideas for audiences that were beginning to prefer comedy westerns in the vein of They Call Me Trinity. The similarities in the two storylines can also be attributed to the established patterns seen in most ensemble spaghettis, while similarities between action set-piece can be written off as auteurist temperament, because the popular Italian western directors, like any filmmaker primarily known for their gialli output, simply loved recycling set-pieces. The casting choices and character types, however, are unequivocally specific in their nature. In The Mercenary, Franco Nero plays Sergej “The Pollack” Kowalski, a Polish mercenary/arms dealer who hopes to exploit the Mexican revolution for profit. In Compañeros, he plays Yodlaf “The Penguin” Peterson, a Swedish mercenary/arms dealer who hopes to exploit the Mexican revolution for profit (Nero’s narration also bookends both movies). In The Mercenary, Jack Palance plays Curly, a foppish, curly-haired psychopath that cuts a cruel swath across the desert while plotting revenge against The Pollack. In Compañeros, he plays John, a merciless eccentric with a pet hawk, a metal hand, and marijuana habit that cuts a cruel swath across the desert while plotting revenge against The Penguin. Tomas Milián’s doesn’t appear in The Mercenary, but he and Tony Musante both play out-of-his-element Mexican peasants, named Vasco and Paco respectively, that bumble into high-profile roles during the revolution.
One key distinction between the films is found in the female characters. Neither film ranks as particularly femenist, but The Mercenary definitely has the more negative view on women. The only significant female character, Columba (Giovanna Ralli), is petty, greedy, and pits the heroes against each other, demanding that Paco challenges The Pollack to mortal combat, only offering him her hand in marriage after he achieves her version of “Mexican manhood.” In contrast, Compañeros’ key female protagonist, Lola (Iris Berben), is the very heart of the revolution – a self-sacrificing leader in that isn’t interested in being anyone’s object of affection. Well, at least not until the end of the movie, when she demands marriage. The only other feminine face with any lines belongs to Zaira, who is portrayed by future porn starlet Karin Schubert. Zaira isn’t a vital component to the story, but does assist Vasco and Peterson in their daring, fire-baked capture of Xanatos (she managed to make the US release poster). Speaking of casting and Corbucci paying homage to himself, Compañeros also features Fernando Rey and José Bódalo revisiting roles similar to the ones they played in Navajo Joe and Django (respectively).
The majority of Euro-western reference books tend to dismiss Compañeros as a silly imitation of its predecessor, leading fans like myself to assume that people expect and prefer Corbucci when he’s indulging in bitter ironies. In their defense, it’s worth noting that the director’s other comedies tend to adhere to archaic Italian screwball formulas and are usually more obnoxious than funny. His genre-specific parodies – including Neapolitan Mystery (Italian: Giallo Napoletano, 1979), a spoof of giallo murder mysteries, The White, the Yellow, and the Black (Italian: Il bianco, il giallo, il nero; aka: Shoot First... Ask Questions Later, 1975), a spoof of Terence Young’s Eastern/Western hybrid, Red Sun (Italian: Sole rosso; 1971), and Super Fuzz (1980), a googly-eyed combination of cop comedy and superhero antics – are tasteless, ham-fisted messes that waste the talents of some of Italy’s best actors. In spite of its slapstick action and broad performances, Compañeros is different. It’s a referential and cartoonish escalation of the things the director did throughout his pulpy and sadistic westerns. The camp and lightheartedness masks the dramatic core as Corbucci builds to a potent political declaration. Instead of casting it as the lesser version of The Mercenary, Compañeros should be remembered as the anti-Great Silence and, in this regard, the two films actually make a compelling double-feature.
In his nearly all-inclusive exploration of spaghettis, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009), Alex Cox (the director of Repo Man  and post-modern westerns Walker  and Straight to Hell ) refers to Compañeros as a “faster, crazier, and better than the [film] it imitates” (referring to The Mercenary). But this rare praise is faint, as Cox spends more time criticizing Corbucci’s lack of political consistency and Compañeros’ simplicity compared to the sophisticated social lessons of A Bullet for the General and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepe (1969). He ends his review acknowledging that perhaps the simplicity “was the message” and that Corbucci was doing his part to bring the message to the widest possible audience. Despite not possessing a fraction of Cox’s expertise, I assume that the murky politics were the point of the exercise – that Corbucci was poking fun at the lofty principles of the other Zapata movies, which were, again, steadily giving way to straight comedy “post-spaghettis.” Also, like Leone’s only Zapata western, Duck, You Sucker! (Italian: Giù la testa; aka: A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971), Compañeros mocks the idealism of political activism. It isn’t as grim as those more famous Corbucci westerns, but, in its own way, it’s just as cynical. At least for most of its runtime.
The Penguin flaunts his cynicism as he plays both sides against the middle for his own gain. Vasco (who is, physically, a clownish caricature of Che Guevara) stumbles into social idealism and is exploited by corrupt politicians/freedom fighters. In opposition to his counterpart in The Mercenary, Vasco isn’t particularly interested in social equality and only embraces the celebrity side of his role in the revolution. His loyalties are torn between the intellectual idealism Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey’s character) and the material rewards General Mongo (José Bódalo’s character) offers him. His slow realization that the interests of society are more important than his narcissistic greed is compelling, but also typical character development for a Zapata western (taken directly from the philosophically superior A Bullet for the General). Corbucci manages to have his cake and eat it too, by ending the movie with an optimistic message. Reeling from the realization that he’s coming away from his convoluted endeavor empty handed, The Penguin ditches Vasco, Xantos (who has gone through his own journey of self-discovery), and their peasant army. Then, as he crosses the hill, he sees a massive battalion marching on the revolutionaries and, overwhelmed by newfound empathy, he rides back to his friends and warns them, shouting “Vamos a matar (let’s go and kill), compañeros!” This singularly rousing moment references the climaxes of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (both 1969), but refrains from implying or asserting that the protagonists have all died, no matter how unwinnable the battle ahead may be.
Compañeros was previously released on anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay Studios, as both a stand-alone disc and as part of a spaghetti western collection that included A Bullet For the General (now on Blu-ray from BU), Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma (1976), Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse (Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse, 1975), and Texas, Adios (Italian: Texas, addio, 1966). That DVD transfer was reused (along with extras) by Blue Underground for a different stand-alone release. I’ve included screen captures from the SD Anchor Bay release alongside caps from Blue Undergrounds 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer in the sliders. Unfortunately, the upgrade does not match that of recent Blue Underground Blu-ray re-release, such as StageFright (1987), which positively blew its DVD counterpart out of the water, but there are still key discrepancies that put it well ahead of the old disc.
This Blu-ray’s scan was reportedly taken from the original negative. The image doesn’t have notable issues with CRT/telecine noise – the grit appears to be normal film grain – but does look softer than expected, maybe even a bit smudgy. This is more apparent in the wide-angle shots and deep-set backgrounds, but some of the close-ups also appear a tiny bit plasticy. I don’t know if these are DNR effects or if the scan just isn’t quite up to snuff. The image is generally darker than expected as well, which is something that doesn’t really come across in the screen caps. Overall, details are still superior to the ones on the DVD copy, but, in spite of the heavy compression noise – including thick edge haloes that mark it as significantly over-sharpened – the SD transfer might have the preferable sharpness and contrast levels. An ideal middle ground lies between these enhancement effects and the Blu-ray’s softer lines and smoother highlights. The DVD copy also features brighter colours, specifically the blue skies and green desert brush, but I think this may be an additional side effect of the darker overall gamma/contrast levels. In the end, this transfer is slightly disappointing, but only compared to the expectations the studio has been setting for itself lately. Still, I highly recommend the double-dip for the film’s fans.
Levantando en aire los sombreros!
Vamos a matar, vamos a matar, compañeros!
Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western pedigree will always be tied to Sergio Leone’s films, for which he changed the very landscape of motion picture music, but he worked tirelessly throughout the boom with a number of filmmakers, including Corbucci. Their partnership began with Navajo Joe (the opening cries of the title track were made famous all over again when Alexander Payne used them in Election, 1999) and continued through The Hellbenders, The Great Silence, The Mercenary, Sonny and Jed (Italian: La Banda J. & S.: Cronaca Criminale del Far West, 1972), and ending with Corbucci’s final Zapata western, What Am I Doing in the Middle of the Revolution? (Italian: Che C'entriamo Noi con la Rivoluzione, 1972). Compañeros’ score was, arguably, their most successful collaboration. It includes not only the impossibly addictive title track, but also Nero’s laidback banjo theme (Il Pinguino), a startling villain’s theme (Un Uomo Agguato/A Lurking Man) and a moving, string-heavy ode to the revolution (La Loro Patria/Their Homeland). The score is worthy of stereo enhancement – which it gets on soundtrack albums – but was originally mixed for mono and sounds perfectly good on this Blu-ray’s dual English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio options.
Blue Underground has included both the US (115 minutes) and original Italian (119 minutes) cuts of the film. The longer, superior Italian version (the US cut removes most of the set-up) is available with an English dub for all but a select few sequences, where it switches back to Italian. Unfortunately, you will have to manually turn the subtitles on and off yourself (though sometimes it’s interesting to compare the differences in the dialogue). As with most Italian films of the era, Compañeros was shot without sound, so the various spoken-language versions are all, technically, dub tracks. I prefer the English track in this case for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the way I first saw the film, so it has nostalgic value. Second, Nero, Milián, Palance, and (I believe) Fernando Rey appeared to be speaking English on-set and are all dubbing themselves. The Italian track is slightly louder than the English one, giving the music a bit more room and depth. The foley and catalogue recording sound effects are thin and a tinny, just as they sound on most monoraul spaghetti western soundtracks, but aren’t distorted on either track. The English dialogue has a small advantage as far as blending into the scene, while the Italian dialogue is a bit more consistently clean.
Commentary with author/journalists C. Courtney Joyner (also the screenwriter of From a Whisper to a Scream , Prison , and Doctor Mordrid ) and Henry Parke – This brand new expert commentary is full of factoids concerning the career histories of the cast and crew, including explorations of Corbucci’s other movies, the movies that inspired him, and the movies he inspired. It’s refreshing to hear a supportive discussion of the film after reading through so many negative and dismissive takes.
In The Company Of Compañeros (17:00, SD) – This collection of interviews with Nero, Milián, and Ennio Morricone includes plenty of amusing behind-the-scenes stories and illustrates the vast differences in the actors’ approaches.
International and Italian trailers
Two TV spots
Poster & still gallery
The images on this page are taken from the Blue Underground BD (left) and DVD (right) and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.