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the professionals

As part of my continuing effort to prove that I never have an original thought, I wanted to write down a few observations about a 60s Western I just watched, The Professionals. You see, I have nothing new to say, which I suppose is no surprise, given that the movie is more than 40 years old. I can remember as a kid thinking it looked good without ever actually going to see it. It had a bang-up cast (Burt Lancaster, who I love, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and as Mexicans, Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale). It had action. It was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, although it didn't win any.

And now that I've seen it, I can report that it is indeed a good movie, worth a couple of hours of your time, even if it's just to watch Burt Lancaster flash his teeth and Claudia Cardinale do whatever she damn well pleases.

But ... and here's where I get unoriginal, but it's so obvious you can't avoid thinking about it as you watch with hindsight: it's not The Wild Bunch, and therefore it seems dated and, as the Netflix sleeve says, it is "largely forgotten."

The Professionals is about four aging men who go to Mexico in the early 20th century to take care of some business while the revolution broils around them. Sound familiar? It even has Robert Ryan. It came out three years before The Wild Bunch, and as I said above, my memories are it was well-received at the time. But The Wild Bunch raised the stakes, and we can't watch The Professionals in 2008 without realizing that basic fact.

For some reason, over the past television season, I've found myself trying to describe why I prefer Battlestar Galactica to Lost, even though both are very good shows. What it comes down to is that Lost isn't about anything other than the puzzles, while Battlestar Galactica is about the meaning of life (among other things). Lost is brilliant television, but (and I know this is silly even as I write it) that's all it is, there ain't no more.

Well, The Professionals isn't quite as good a movie as Lost is a TV series, but it's good enough. But The Wild Bunch is about a lot of things, and you can't really say that about The Professionals. People talk about how Peckinpah changed how violence was used in movies, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The Wild Bunch is always about more than just its story. It's about the end of an era, and how a group of men respond to that realization. In The Wild Bunch, we feel every year these old guys have lived. In The Professionals, we're barely supposed to notice that these guys are getting old ... we're told that the characters played by Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale grew up together, as if there weren't 19 years separating the two actors. Everything that happens in The Wild Bunch is there because Peckinpah has some things he wants to say. Everything that happens in The Professionals is there because it makes for a rootin'-tootin' good time at the movies. Nothing wrong with that, but after 1969, it was no longer enough.

And so The Professionals, which came just before the Golden Era of American film, is "largely forgotten," while The Wild Bunch, which came just as the Era was getting underway, is an acknowledged classic. I'm glad I saw The Professionals, and I have no problem recommending it to people who like Westerns enough to dig beneath the canon where plenty of decent movies can be found. But The Wild Bunch? It passes the ultimate test: if I am channel surfing and I come across it, I have to watch, even if only for a few minutes, even if it's a butchered/censored broadcast version, even if it's horrible pan-and-scan. I have to watch. But I may never watch The Professionals again.

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