With The Professionals, the Mexican foray takes on a decidedly more romantic posture. Superficially a captivity narrative of the kind first made popular by Mary Rowlandson in 1682, the story concerns four specialists who are hired by cattle and mining baron J. W. Grant to rescue his kidnapped Mexican wife from a Mexican rebel named Raza. It’s basically the Western as a caper movie. Lee Marvin as Rico is the group’s military expert and leader; Burt Lancaster’s Dolworth is the dynamite expert and philosophical jokester; Robert Ryan (Ehrengard), plays the empathetic horse master; and Woody Strode (Jake) the non pariel scout and tracker. These latter two characters are fairly marginal. Ryan acts as the designated innocent, constantly raising questions of a compassionate nature which experience gradually teaches him have no place in the world of the professionals. Within the group’s homosocial dynamic, he also functions as the non-combatant “wife,” whose chief duties revolve around healing and caretaking. As an African-American, Strode’s presence is an indicator of racial integration, albeit of a limited and rather patronizing variety. Given virtually no dialogue, he carries a bow and arrow for weapon: a sign that associates him with the savage.
The rescue mission is complicated by the fact that Rico and Dolworth once fought with Raza on behalf of the Revolution. It becomes more compromised still when they rescue Grant’s wife, Maria, only to find she is not a captive at all, but fervently in love with Jesus Raza (whose surname means “the people”) and a devout revolutionary herself. After numerous twists and turns, the professionals conclude that Grant himself is the real kidnapper. They return Maria to Raza and take up their old struggle once more.
As with Vera Cruz, Mexico in this scenario acts as a metaphor for rebirth, only much more emphatically since the movement of The Professionals depicts their journey south of the border as both a nostalgic and a literal journey into their own past. The first third of the film features numerous scenes in which Rico and Dolworth reminisce over obscure battles, fallen comrades, and lusty women. These almost idyllic scenes are accompanied by a jaunty cantina score which continually serves to remind us of the professionals’ passage not only through space, but time. Their journey into Mexico begins by offering the possibility of tapping into actual memories, but eventually they realize that history has overtaken these places and that the past is no longer available to them as it once was. As Nora notes, these sites come into being only because “of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it.”
When the professionals come upon an old graveyard, Dolworth ironically eulogizes it as “the cemetery of nameless men.” Nora observes that the “nostalgic dimension” of these sites “marks the rituals of a society without ritual.” And indeed, as Rico laments, he and Dolworth fought unnamed battles in Mexico which no one now remembers.
Although the anxiety about the past is muted by the veneer of macho bravado worn by the mercenaries, it suggests nonetheless “the crisis of memory” Richard Terdiman refers to in Present Past. For Terdiman, the “memory crisis” developed in post- revolutionary French culture during the early nineteenth-century as a result of “a sense that [the] past had somehow evaded memory, that recollection had ceased to integrate with consciousness. In this memory crisis the very coherence of time and subjectivity seemed disarticulated.” It is precisely this disarticulation, as it makes itself manifest in the two main professionals’ lives (we first see Rico as a lowly weapons trainer, while Dolworth is in jail for gambling debts) which their new sense of self-purpose seeks to amend. That they are able to do so completely is a mark of the film’s romanticism. (For as we shall see in the nihilistic The Wild Bunch, the logic of the border does not always permit such resolutions). The discovery of the truth about Maria’s allegiances, and of how Grant coerced her into marriage (staking a rapine claim on her analogous to America’s annexation of Mexican territory) allows the duo to reclaim their former allegiances from the grasp of disillusionment.
Maria (played with spitfire fervor by Claudia Cardinale) symbolizes Mexico itself, as well as the Revolution and the temps perdu of the professionals. Her erotic otherness (the Revolution as goddess, as Raza puts it, evoking a common trope) with its supercharged elan vital, functions as a sign of the professionals’ once ardent idealism. In recovering her, the middle-aged adventurers recover their youth, through a metaphor that equates eros with subversion and thanatos with the cultural status quo. This status quo is aptly embodied by the avuncular Ralph Bellamy, who as the soulless corporate nationalist Grant, resembles a de-whiskered Uncle Sam.
The real theme of The Professionals states itself in an exchange between Dolworth and Ehrengard:
Ehrengard: “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution anyway?”
Dolworth: “Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?”
This acknowledgment of moral ambiguity not only expresses the dilemma which the professionals must later face when they discover that Raza is the good guy and Grant the bad, but exemplifies Slotkin’s “looking glass” effect which Mexico as a mythic space engenders. To cross the border is to risk undermining one’s own values; it is to invite transformation on a radical scale. Of course, reading the subtext of The Professionals, we may surmise that this is precisely what the heroes unconsciously desire. For if the culture of Mexico – with its erotic playfulness, its boisterous communality and its thriving primitivism – represents the wellsprings of innocence, then the professionals, weighed down by the moral fatigue of bitter experience, long to be rejuvenated by those primal energies.
During the attack on Raza’s compound (a site, in the spirit of the 60s, that’s made to seem both squalid and joyous), the film deploys a number of racist images to suggest the innate superiority of the American aggressors. The professionals’ use of clocks to coordinate their assault is the primary image, imputing to them a degree of abstract thinking beyond the grasp of the childlike Mexicans, who carouse till all hours, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time. Another is the conventional Western trope of the friendly Mexican who initially aids the Americans, then betrays them as they make their escape. Once the escape is made good, the film reverts to a more sympathetic portrayal of Raza and his pursuing band.
But the image of the border dramatically shifts. Passing through it southwards, it was porous, welcoming. During the return journey, it takes on the attributes of something hostile and virtually unobtainable. “None of you will reach the border!” declares a truculent Maria. From its benign mode of promised rejuvesence, the border acquires the stature of a metaphysical divide between life and death. It begins to exact a price for what had appeared to be a sentimental journey to the professionals’ lost youth.
The climax of the film – the showdown between Raza and Dolworth, who is fighting a rearguard action as the others move to safety – occurs on the very edge of the border, in an anomalous zone that erases fealty. Differences between friend and foe are flattened out so that the questions of identity and personal loyalty become paramount. The border shifts again to become the line which either separates, or joins, love and duty. Dolworth experiences an epiphany, or as he puts it later to Rico: “I found out what makes a woman [i.e., an ideal] worth a hundred thousand bucks.” It is the same conclusion the doubting Rico had been moving toward himself.
For the professionals, whose technical skills had functioned as a denatured form of honor (here to be considered as a synonym for the integrity of identity), true honor becomes obtainable once more by a return to the ideals they had forsaken. Their passage through Mexico, with its concomitant stages of separation, regression, and regeneration through violence, permits them to attain a rebirth that is really a consummation of their original mythic values. Moreover, by rejecting American culture, which is perceived as corrupt and dishonest, for Mexican culture, they reassert their own identity by a direct reclamation of the past, which for them, in L. P. Hartley’s famous phrase, is literally “a foreign country.”