‘The Professionals’: A South-of-the-Border Buddy Adventure

Burt Lancaster plays a rogue in this ‘save the damsel in distress’ feature.
‘The Professionals’: A South-of-the-Border Buddy Adventure
Fardan (Lee Marvin, L) and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 57m | Action, Adventure, Drama | 1966

For over four decades, Burton Stephen Lancaster, better known as Burt Lancaster, captivated audiences with his versatile acting skills, transitioning seamlessly from the stage to the studio. Despite an association with rugged and scurrilous characters, Lancaster proved his range as an actor.

Lancaster portrays a roguish figure in the 1966 film “The Professionals,” directed by Richard Brooks and based on Frank O'Rourke’s novel “A Mule for the Marquesa.”

(L–R) Expert scout Jake (Woody Strode), rancher Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and soldier Fardan (Lee Marvin), in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)
(L–R) Expert scout Jake (Woody Strode), rancher Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and soldier Fardan (Lee Marvin), in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)

The wife of a wealthy Texas cattle rancher Grant (Ralph Bellamy) has gone missing. He believes she was kidnapped by the dastardly Raza (Jack Palance), a former Mexican revolutionary who has turned to a life of crime.

Aware of Raza’s well-armed gang, Grant enlists a small group of mercenaries for her rescue, hoping to ensure her safe return. He initially hires three men: veteran soldier and natural leader Fardan (Lee Marvin), rancher Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and expert scout Jake (Woody Strode). A sequence introduces each of the three men to give insight into their characters, such as Ehrengard saving a horse from a beating by a particularly violent horse trainer.

Jack Palance as Raza, in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)
Jack Palance as Raza, in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)

Fardan doesn’t think the task is possible unless they hire another man, a man handy with dynamite, Dolworth (Burt Lancaster). However, there’s a complication—Dolworth is incarcerated.

Grant approves of the hiring and finds a way to release Dolworth. He sweetens the deal by offering $1,000 to each man up front, and an additional $9,000 when Maria is safely returned. The mercenary force is soon on its way to Mexico. Along the way, the men learn more about each other’s personalities and their boundaries.

While Fardan and Dolworth both fought alongside Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution (alongside Raza), their paths diverge in character. Fardan embodies the disciplined, honorable soldier, while Dolworth favors indulgence in women, and seeks money through dubious methods.

Fardan’s word holds significant weight, reflecting his integrity, while Dolworth employs words as tools for his own agenda, reminiscent of Lancaster’s portrayal of Joe Erin in 1954’s “Vera Cruz.” However, Dolworth’s character evolves positively over time.

As the four mercenaries travel through Mexico’s deserts, they not only face excruciating heat and navigate through dangerous canyons, but they also become the target of roving bands of ruthless banditos bent on waylaying travelers.

After barely surviving their arduous journey, the men find Maria, only to discover that the circumstances surrounding her disappearance are more complex than they were led to believe.

Rugged Road Movie

While “The Professionals” shares a setup with 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” it takes a different approach. Rather than defending helpless villagers, the men embark on a buddy road movie and extraction mission. Despite the change in focus, both groups are still united in their mission to rescue innocents.

While the individual star power of the players in “Professionals” is very impressive, how they interact with each other doesn’t quite feel as organic as in “Seven.” It’s as if they assembled a great group of actors who were professional enough to get along, but their chemistry falls short.

Tunisian-Italian actress Claudia Cardinale is excellent as Maria, Grant’s Mexican-born wife. Although initially painted as a damsel in distress, the skilled actress imbues Maria with a feisty free-spiritedness that leaps off the screen.

On the run (L–R) Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Maria (Claudia Cardinale), and Fardan (Lee Marvin), in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)
On the run (L–R) Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Maria (Claudia Cardinale), and Fardan (Lee Marvin), in “The Professionals.” (Columbia Pictures)

Although Cardinale had the acting chops and beauty to vie with any of the other gorgeous Italian bombshells of her day, including Sophia Loren, she never attained Hollywood stardom. Indeed, she never wanted to. This was one of several Hollywood projects she completed before she decided (on her own terms) to return to the European film scene. At 85 years young, she’s still appearing in films.

Minor complaints aside, “The Professionals” is a solid, south-of-the-border adventure yarn set during the waning days of the Mexican Revolution.

“The Professionals” is available on Amazon, Criterion Channel, and Apple TV.
‘The Professionals’ Director: Richard Brooks Starring: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan Not Rated Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes Release Date: Nov. 4, 1966 Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.