The Mercenary (1968)- Sergio Corbucci Gets Revolutionary

Last week I kicked off Once Upon a Time in Italy by talking about a horror film. This week I decided to go with the other genre that the Italians are primarily known for, the western. During the late ‘60‘s and early ‘70‘s, there were hundreds of Spaghetti Westerns made, and the big star to come out of this movement was director Sergio Leone. Leone made many, many great Westerns, but today I want to talk about another lesser known and hailed Sergio. After directing a number of films over fifteen years, from sword and sandals epics to horror and war movies, Sergio Corbucci made his indelible mark on the Western genre with his 1966 film Django. For this film alone and the influence it had, Corbucci should be held up as one of the genre’s best directors, but he would go on to continue to make many more great films that get much less attention.

One of those films made its debut only 2 years after Django and reunited Corbucci with that film’s star, Franco Nero. The Mercenary (Italian: Il mercenario) stars Nero as Sergei Kowalski, the Polish, a mercenary who is first hired to find out what became of a shipment of silver. When he arrives at the mine to investigate, he discovers that it has been taken over by would be revolutionaries Paco Roman (Tony Musante) and his band of rebels. Sergei takes a job with Paco teaching him how to plan a revolution, but of course, there is plenty of money in it for him. They are relentlessly pursued by Curly (Jack Palace) a foppish American with a grudge against both men, and soon the revolution is undone by Curly’s devious plans, Kowalski’s greed, and Paco’s misplaced bravado.

One thing that sets The Mercenary apart from the other Westerns is the setting of the film. The place was Mexico, but the time was the early 20th century, the era of real revolution in Mexico. There are several films in the sub-sub-genre, such as Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite and Damiano Damini’s A Bullet for the General, that have been labeled the Zapata Western. These films usually rely on political themes, and they feature a different world from many other Westerns. They are set in a time when planes fly across the skies and cars share the roads with horses. The Mercenary also does a very good job of capturing the era though these means, but it also had the additional boost from terrific costuming. There is a distinct look and feel to the film, and from the opening frame you can tell this will not be the typical Western film.

Instead of the wide open panoramic John Ford inspired look that Sergio Leone had in many of his films, Corbucci’s work often has a much darker tone. For this film, Corbucci worked with cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa who would go on to work on Fulci’s 1969 film Perversion Story and Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion. The camera work is visually stunning, and often I was amazed how much depth the film had when so much of it was limited to a brownish color palette. While the cinematic style of the film was much different, Corbucci employed frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone along with Bruno Nicolai to score the film. As is typical for Morricone, the score is stirring and features many of his trademark signatures, primarily the use of whistling. The theme song to The Mercenary, L’Arena, might sound familiar to genre fans as well as it was used by Tarantino in his film Kill Bill Pt 2.

The acting in The Mercenary is what really sets the film apart from so many of its contemporaries. I make no secret that I am a huge fan of Franco Nero, and The Mercenary features some of his best acting. His character, Kowalski (most often called Polock in the film), is not he grim hard-ass that Nero has played so many times. He is surely a cool customer and a bit of a jerk, but there is also a good amount of levity in his performance. The Mercenary does a good job of including humor without becoming a farce like 1971’s They Call Me Trinity, and much of the credit has to go to Nero and the other lead actors. I also want to point out that Nero’s character can light a match anywhere, your foot, a bullet, a heaving bosom, or even someone’s teeth. This was a pretty interesting little piece of characterization and added another dimension to the role.

While Nero plays cool and controlled with only a bit of humor, Tony Musante’s Paco Roman stars as a revolutionary, but he ends up working as a clown. Musante’s role was the trickier of the two leads, and in the hands of another actor, Paco could have easily descended into clowning long before he donned the makeup. Musante is extremely charismatic, and even though his flaws, he shows us why people would follow Paco into a revolution. He is a visionary and a dreamer who needed the guidance of Kowalski to show him the realities of conflict. The relationship between the two men is fraught with tragedy, but ultimately it becomes an uplifting tale that is far more important than the political subtext of the film. Musante would have a lengthy career including 2009’s We Own the Night, but if you haven’t caught his performance as Schibetta on the first season of HBO’s Oz, I thoroughly recommend checking that out.

The Mercenary also features two well played supporting performances. I never thought a film would make me want to see more and less Jack Palance at the same time. His character Curly is an intriguing villain, and it was interesting to see Palance play against type as foppish dandy. (It’s also interesting to note that his City Slicker’s character was also named Curly.) The only detraction from Palance’s part was that he has precious little screen time and I really wanted to see more of him. There were a few moments that I needed less of Jack though. When Paco and Kowalski capture Curly, they strip him naked before sending him out to walk across the desert. So while I needed more of Palance’s performance, I could have used less of his bare ass. The other good supporting player is Giovanna Ralli as Paco’s love interest Colomba. Where Kowalski teaches Paco about the logistics of being a revolutionary, Columba teaches him what is at the heart of the revolution. She also looks damn good doing it which doesn’t hurt either. She also has a great scene where she's disguised as Jesus and opens fire on a crowd of Mexican regulars with a machine gun. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what will.

The Mercenary is a different kind of Western than what you may be used to. It doesn’t have the dry, dusty quality of Leone’s films, the weird imagery of Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, or even the darkness of Corbucci’s own film Django. The Mercenary moves along at a great pace, fuses humor with violence, and even provides an anti-fascist political message along the way. The last few moments of the film will now rank among my favorite endings, but I would not want to spoil a second of them for anyone. Unfortunately, The Mercenary has yet to have a DVD release, but hope is not lost. You can pick up this title over at Cinema De Bizarre, and I can guarantee you will be pleased by the crisp, clean print they can provide you with. So head on over and pick up and copy, and don’t forget to tell them the Bugg sent you.

Bugg Rating


  1. I also have a copy of this from CDB. I really dug it. Corbucci is my second favorite SW director after Sergio Leone. Leone casts a tall shadow, but people really need to check out Corbucci's films. Unlike most SW directors, that seem to be trying to copy Leone, Corbucci really had his own style. Of his films, only COMPANEROS seemed to resemble anything close to a Leone film as far as "style". Thanx for bringing attention to such a forgotten gem, Bugg.

  2. I like Corbucci a lot, although his style is rather, uhm, undisciplined. I think that The Great Silence is his masterpiece, although possibly the most depression ending to any Western I've ever seen.

  3. Great Silence is certainly the best Corbucci I've seen, though I also like Minnesota Clay, which may be his first western and has a more American vibe than the later stuff. I didn't really care for Django, though, but you make Mercenary a must-see for me -- except for Palance's butt, that is.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    @ Rev that's where Corbucci falls for me too, but he's fast becoming quite the close second.

    @ Ryan yeah his style is undisciplined, but I like films that are a little rough around the edges

    @ Samuel hey at least you've been warned about his ass, so the shock will not be as bed

    You fellows can all look out for my review of the Great Silence coming up next month in one of the entries into An Evening with Klaus!

    thanks for the comments one and all!

  5. Oh, by the way, love the new header. Think it's the best looking one you've had on the site.

  6. Cheers for this, this one looks brilliant.

    I love Spaghetti westerns but so often find myself lost withing the hundreds (thousands?) of choices.

    I'll have a watch of this one!

  7. I'm a big Corbucci fan and still have not seen this one! So far I rate "The Great Silence" as my #1 on his list. Love me some spaghetti!


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