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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)

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros (aka: Vamos a Matar Compañeros) is definitely not the best of the Italian westerns. It’s not even best Sergio Corbucci’s western – his masterpiece was the hyper-bleak ‘snow western’ The Great Silence (aka: Il Grande Silenzio and The Big Silence, 1968) – but it is one of his most consistently entertaining and polished films and has become a personal favourite. If you ever visit my home, the US poster will greet you at the door and, if someone calls me while you’re here, you’ll probably hear Ennio Morricone’s original theme coming out of my phone. In the greater pantheon of spaghetti western fandom, Compañeros is mostly famous for being the first and only pairing of genre superstars Franco Nero and Tomás Milián (the two stars reportedly didn’t get along, hence there being no additional collaborations) and is it usually unfavourably compared to other ensemble westerns, like Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), or other Zapata westerns, like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (also 1966). The comparisons are fair on one level or another.

Corbucci was, along with Leone, one of the major instigators of the spaghetti western boom. After failing to ignite public interest with The Grand Canyon Massacre (aka: Massacro al Grande Canyon and Red Pastures, 1964) he had his hit with Minnesota Clay (aka: Le Justicier du Minnesota, 1964). Like Leone’s first smash, A Fistful of Dollars (which was also released in 1964), Minnesota Clay was loosely based on the story structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and owed further conceptual debt to Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) – specifically the fact that the protagonist is blind. 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 made a storm throughout Europe and the states, Damiani and 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 (aka: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? or just Quien Sabe?, a more appropriate title that translates to Who Knows?) and The Big Gundown (aka: La Resa dei Conti, which roughly translates to The Showdown). These films instigated the Zapata western movement. Named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Zapata westerns are largely set during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then-modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) left-leaning politics. They also usually feature a pair of unlikely protagonists that are forced to pool their resources to combat a greater evil.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

Despite being a staunch leftist, Corbucci’s earlier westerns were only tinged with political subtext. Like Leone, he was more interested by playing with the conventions of the American western than making grand social statements. He followed up Django with his three most Hollywood-friendly westerns – Johnny Oro (aka: Ringo and his Golden Pistol, 1966), Navajo Joe (1966), and The Hellbenders (aka: I Crudeli  and The Cruel Ones, 1967) – before finally entering the Zapata western arena with The Mercenary (aka: Il Mercenario and A Professional Gun, 1968). The Mercenary is very popular among spaghetti western fans (its main theme was used to great effect by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: Volume 2), but is not one of Corbucci’s most polished or creatively satisfying efforts. Like Minnesota Clay and Johnny Oro, it bounces along on a series of high points (including a scene where Franco Nero explains the hardships of rebellion using a prostitute’s nude backside) that don’t quite amount to the same transcendent beauty as Django or The Great Silence. It feels like a rough draft and Corbucci apparently agrees, because he basically remade it as Compañeros two years later.

The similarities in the storylines can be attributed to the patterns of most ensemble spaghetti westerns and correlations between the set-piece can probably be written off as call-backs (spaghetti western directors, like the filmmakers primarily known for their giallo thrillers, love recycling set-pieces), but the casting choices and character types are unequivocally specific. 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 brutal 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. Milián’s El Vasco doesn’t appear, but Tony Musante (best known as the lead in Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and as mob boss Nino Schibetta on Oz) plays a similarly out-of-his-element Mexican peasant named Paco that bumbles into a high-profile revolutionary role.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

One key distinction between the films is found in the female characters. Neither film passes the Bechdel Test (I don’t think any spaghetti western does), but The Mercenary has a distinctly negative view on women. The only significant female character, Columba (Giovanna Ralli), is a petty, nagging wench that pits the heroes against each other, demanding that Paco challenges The Pollack to mortal combat and only offering her hand in marriage after he achieves her version of ‘Mexican manhood.’ In contrast, Compañeros’ key female protagonist, Lola (Iris Berben), is the heart of the revolution – a self-sacrificing leader in that isn’t interested in being anyone’s object of affection. Well, not until the end of the movie, when she also demands marriage. The only other feminine face with any lines belongs to Zaira, who is portrayed by future Joe D’Amato porn star 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. In addition (but unrelated to The Mercenary), Corbucci pays additional homage to himself in Compañeros by hiring Fernando Rey and José Bódalo to revisit roles they played in Navajo Joe and Django (respectively).

It’s frustrating that more intellectuals and genre fans don’t agree that Compañeros is the superior version of The Mercenary’s template. Many reference books on the subject dismiss the film as a silly imitation of its predecessor. This sentiment leads me to assume that people expect and prefer Corbucci when he’s indulging in bitter ironies. In their defense, it’s worth noting that most of the director’s comedies adhere to archaic Italian screwball formulas that are usually more obnoxious than funny. His genre-specific parodies – including Neapolitan Mystery (aka: Giallo Napoletano, 1979, a spoof of giallo murder mysteries), The White, the Yellow, and the Black (aka: Shoot First... Ask Questions Later, 1972, a spoof of Terence Young’s Eastern/Western hybrid, Red Sun), and Super Fuzz (1980, a silly mix of poliziotteschi comedies and superhero antics) – are tasteless, ham-fisted messes that often waste the talents of some of Italy’s best actors. In spite of all of its slapstick action and broad performances, Compañeros is different. It’s a personally referential and cartoonish escalation of the director’s pulpiest westerns. Corbucci eventually reveals a purpose in his silliness as he deliberately builds to a potent political declaration. It’s the anti- Great Silence in this regard and the two films actually make a compelling double-feature.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

The only positive opinion of Compañeros I can find amongst the more academic tomes in my personal library is in Alex Cox’s all-inclusive exploration of spaghettis, 10,000 Ways to Die. Cox (the director of Repo Man and post-modern westerns Walker and Straight to Hell) refers to it as a ‘faster, crazier, and better than the [film] it imitates’ (referring to The Mercenary). But the praise is faint and Cox spends just as much effort criticizing Corbucci’s lack of political consistency. He recalls finding the film too simplistic, compared to the sophisticated social lessons of A Bullet for the General and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepe (1969), though he later notes that perhaps the simplicity ‘ was the message’ and that Corbucci was doing his part to bring the message to the widest possible audience. Not possessing even a fraction of Cox’s knowledge base at the time I first saw Compañeros, I had assumed 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 steadily giving way to straight comedy post-spaghettis, like Enzo Barboni’s Trinity series (1971) and Tonino Valerii & Leone’s My Name is Nobody (1973). Also, like Leone’s only Zapata western, Duck, You Sucker! (aka: A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971), it spends most of its time satirizing the idealism of political activism. It isn’t as grim as Django, Hellbenders, or The Great Silence, but it’s just as cynical.

The Penguin flaunts his pessimism as he plays both sides against the middle for his own gain (he’s like the anti- Yojimbo). 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 offered General Mongo (José Bódalo’s character) offers him. His slow realization that the interests of society are more important than his narcissism is compelling, but also a typical Zapata western development (taken directly from the psychologically superior A Bullet for the General). Corbucci’s more potent achievement is saved for the very end of the movie. 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. But, as he crosses the hill, he sees a massive battalion approaching and, overwhelmed by newfound empathy, 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 subtracts the bleaker assertion that the protagonists have all died – though it’s still quite possible that Vasco, Peterson, and their friends lose this particular battle.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD
 

Video


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), Keoma (now on Blu-ray from Mill Creek), Four of the Apocalypse, and Texas, Adios. 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 new 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, but warn that they might not be the best representation of the differences. Readers that want to use the images to compare the transfers should

definitely click on them and use the zoom function

. The upgrade here does not match that of Blue Underground’s previous Blu-ray re-release, StageFright, 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.

Blue Underground continues their admirable habit of not reusing transfers. This Blu-ray’s scan was reportedly taken from the original negative. The image doesn’t have any 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.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

Audio


‘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 (aka: 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? (aka: Che C'entriamo Noi con la Rivoluzione[/I], 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’/‘The Penguin’), 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.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

Extras


  • Audio 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 (I like the assertion that Compañeros and Duck You Sucker! would make a great double-feature). It’s refreshing to hear a supportive discussion of the film after reading through so many negative and dismissive takes.
  • In The Company Of Companeros (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


 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

Overall


Compañeros is a personal favourite I’d like to see achieve the reputation it deserves. It represents the best of director Sergio Corbucci’s comedic and dramatic sensibilities, includes fantastic performances from two of the spaghetti western subgenre’s biggest stars (Franco Nero and Tomás Milián), and ends on an unequivocally stirring note. This Blu-ray release is a big enough improvement on the previous DVD versions to justify a re-purchase for fans, including a new expert commentary track. The word from Blue Underground’s Facebook page is that pre-sales aren’t going as well as hoped and, as a result, they may pull the plug on future spaghetti Blu-ray releases. Hopefully, Compañeros’ final sales figures will be strong, giving them the right message and possibly even inspiring Shout Factory and Mill Creek into releasing HD versions of the European westerns in their catalogues.

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

 Compañeros Blu-ray
 Compañeros DVD

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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