Il Mercenario Review

It is quite incredible to think that Sergio Corbucci made Il Mercenario in the same year as the fantastic Il Grande Silenzio, both such superb Italian Westerns but both so very different. Il Grande Silenzio stands out in part for its setting, the wintry ground thick with snow, but also for its bleak and sombre tone. Il Mercenario’s setting, however, is much more in keeping with Corbucci’s other Westerns, with sunny vistas and a much sunnier sensibility than Il Grande Silenzio, with plenty of humour and action.

Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero), often referred to in the film as ‘The Polak, is a Polish immigrant who, after accepting a job from the Garcia brothers to transport some silver across the Mexican border encounters Paco (Tony Musante) and his group of revolutionaries. Paco and his gang have seized a mine and are waiting for General Garcia and his army to arrive. Unsure how to defeat them Paco agrees to pay Kowalski to help them. Kowalski is the Mercenary of the title, even renegotiating his pay during fights and declaring “I’m on my side, always.” Through ingenuity and a very large machine gun Kowalsi manages to force the army into retreat and the gang escape. Hot on their heels is General Garcia and Curly (Jack Palance), another mercenary and one who is determined to catch Kowalski and Paco. Jack Palance is fantastic as Curly (also the name of his character in the dreadful City Slicker films), managing to play the character as both camp and menacing.

Kowalski is hired full time as the military advisor for the gang and is paid handsomely for his help in the revolution. The gang go on a looting spree aided by the tactics of Kowalski. A growing obsession with money and the mercenary nature of Kowalski causes constant friction, especially with Columba, a female member, played by the beautiful Giovanna Ralli. Columba is a strong female character in a very male genre and aside from being the most moral of all the characters she is also adept at asserting her views, although often using her sexuality to get what she wants. She is often seen seducing and tricking the men rather than the other way around, reflecting the politics of the late 60s rather than those of the film’s period setting.

The revolution is ultimately corrupted by the influence of the mercenary Kowalski and Paco is corrupted by the money they steal, losing sight of the revolution they are supposed to be fighting. The story was originally written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio and inspired by the Bertold Brecht’s Die Ausnahme und die Regel. The film therefore has quite overtly leftist politics, again obviously influenced by the political climate in the sixties. The film was rumoured to have originally been directed by Gillo Pontecorvo with whom Franco Solinas had already made the breathtaking La Battaglia di Algeri. The script was rewritten though, passing through many hands, and ultimately directed by Sergio Corbucci, who also rewrote some parts. Some of the politics remain but unlike the cutting and very serious political westerns such as A Bullet For The General, Il Mercenario was injected with a lot of fun and is one of few Italian Westerns that is funny without slipping into silliness.

Franco Nero is excellent as Kowalski, playing the character as both comedic and laconically cool, although at times he perhaps makes the mercenary character too likeable and engaging, somewhat confusing any political message. It’s obvious though that although Corbucci wanted to retain the politics of the original script he also wanted this film to be fun. The action is fun rather than brutal and any brutality is dished out by Curly, including finishing off one revolutionary by placing a grenade in his mouth, the obvious villain of the piece.

The music is a real star in the film as well, beautifully composed by Ennio Morricone it includes a wide variety of styles matching the different moods of the scenes and also complimenting without overpowering the action. Particularly impressive is the music from the final Arena scene, later appropriated by Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol.2.

Il Mercenario is an enjoyable Italian Western and has tons of action, humour and some lightweight but interesting politics. Not perhaps Corbucci’s best, my favourite is certainly Il Grande Silenzio, and not as iconic as Django, this is still a great film and should be seen by any fan of the genre.