Sitting at one of my favorite places in the world, not far from the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, I have been contemplating one of my favorite movies. Whenever I make it to our Bay House I try to watch The Professionals. Released in 1966 this film was based on a novel by Frank O’Rourke with Richard Brooks writing the screen play and directing. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Palance, and (sigh) Claudia Cardinale deliver a spectacular viewing experience.
Lacking the skills of better writers I leave commentator Bill Mesce to provide the core of the film’s appeal.
What distinguishes The Professionals from most actioners is the history Brooks gives his principals: Marvin, Lancaster, and Palance had once fought side-by-side in the Mexican Revolution. Disillusioned, Marvin and Lancaster had left and have been scratching around ever since for a quick buck. That undertone of rueful melancholy gives Professionals an emotional hue few action flicks even attempt.
While Mesce is “spot on” the film delivers on multiple levels. Not the least of which is Brooks’ execution of a film whose title describes not only the characters but also the performers. (While this observation is not mine it has stimulated my thinking in at least one other area) Throughout the movie, Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan, and Strode continually exhibit their attention to the craft of acting while their respective characters do the same for their talents. Marvin is a leader, taciturn; Lancaster is a demolitions expert, an undisciplined adventurer; Ryan is the quiet, emotional equine expert; and Strode is the expert tracker, archer, and racial outcast (except among fellow professionals). This is the movie that goes unmade today. An all-star cast of established, professional craftsmen, telling a compelling story with words and gestures rather than furious non-stop chaos and pyrotechnics.
My most recent late night viewing led me to extrapolate the title into a larger real world context. Educators, businesspeople, and athletes use and abuse the term “professional” with the regularity of the 3:19 train. “She’s a true professional.” He behaved like a real professional.” How often have we stopped to consider what we mean when we say “professional”?
In the film viewers come to discover the nuances of the term. Each character is an expert with a highly developed and practiced skill set: Marvin–weapons, Lancaster–explosives, Ryan–wrangler, Strode–tracking and long bow. All understand their contribution to the mission and no one encroaches on the role of the others; each defers to his comrade’s knowledge and experience. Disagreements exist, but not at the expense of working together. Who they are matters less than what they contribute to the communal effort. No one’s personal story interferes with the mission.
They suffer together, recognize their limitations and acknowledge the character of their adversary. The Mexican desert is a cauldron. When Ryan’s character is about to collapse he asks how anyone could survive in this environment. Marvin (Henry ‘Rico’ Fardan) says “Men, tempered like steel, a tough breed. Men who’ve learned how to endure.” Ryan responds with “Like you and Dolworth (Lancaster).” To which Fardan retorts, “Oh, no. Men like Raza (Palance).”
They remain focused even when circumstances create human tension. After surviving an ambush by bandits Fardan and Dolworth order the execution of the dead men’s horses. Ehrengard (Ryan) objects in the following exchange.
Dolworth: We just killed men. Nobody bats an eye. – When it comes to a stupid animal…
Ehrengard: But harmless.
Dolworth: Nothing’s harmless in the desert, unless it’s dead. Want to face another pack of Raza’s men? – They’ll head south, to camp.
Ehrengard: They’ll head to the river, north.
Fardan: Suppose they follow us? What then?
Ehrengard: Then shoot them.
Fardan: All right. Cut them loose.
Later we discover Ehrengard was wrong, but there are no recriminations. The group moves forward to the next task as they strive to fulfill the contract they have made. They sacrifice for one another as Ehrengard, the least violent of the group, eventually “takes a bullet” for his fellows.
Eventually they discover that their employer (Ralph Bellamy) has deceived them; and yet, they deliver on their contract (with a twist) even though it means they go unpaid. In one of the great final scenes ever Fardan reveals one additional aspect of professionalism: being a truth-teller.
Fardan: We both made a bad deal, Mr. Grant. You lose a wife, and we lose 10,000 dollars apiece.
Grant: You bastard!
Fardan: Yes, sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.
In a time of intense and unpredictable change do we measure up to the standard of Fardan, Dolworth, Ehrengard, and Sharp, or is our “professionalism” better summarized by the “professional foul” in soccer where a beaten defender takes down his man rather than concede a goal?