(From left) Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode in The Professionals. Photography: Columbia Pictures/Photofest
(From left) Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode in The Professionals. Photography: Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Hell on Wheels’ Anson Mount examines the lasting influence of a 1966 action-adventure classic that inspired the actor in his formative years.

Although one might accurately accuse me of having grown up directly in the midst of the TV generation, the 1980s were definitely one of the more arid times for the television western. But the influence never completely went away. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor of my fourth-grade classroom during free time and discussing the current state of television with my closest circle of friends.

It was Brandon’s contention that Knight Rider had, as of late, grown utterly pedestrian and stale. Terry, however, maintained that it provided a certain comfort of form, but, yes, at the end of the day David Hasselhoff was being acted off the screen by a car. The more comedic programming fared little better. Three’s Company simply did not hold muster after the untimely departure of Suzanne Somers (try as they might to satiate our hunger with that weekly phone call gimmick). And The Love Boat? Please. The continuation of Gopher-heavy plotlines was clearly a network edict when Ted Lange as bartender Isaac Washington was marginalized in a way that might actually be troubling when seen from a socio-ethnic perspective. My friend Amy posited that Fantasy Island retained a certain hypnagogic value, but that was only because Hervé Villechaize was finally being provided some real material. Also, she added, this new show, The A-Team, was incredibly promising. The rest agreed.

“What’s The A-Team?” I asked.

All eyes snapped toward me and grew wide. I was immediately self-conscious. It felt as if I had taken the Lord’s name in vain. Better yet, it felt as if I had just announced my allegiance to the Dark Lord.

“You don’t know The A-Team?” Amy was scandalized. “You really should watch The A-Team.”

I promised profusely to check it out and then asked to go use the restroom.

It turned out that the reason behind my ignorance was that The A-Team time slot conflicted with my Cub Scout meetings. Soon, my knot-tying and lashing skills were supplanted by the weekly glory of watching my heroes’ guns spit bullets, generally at the feet of villains but never actually hitting anyone. B.A. Baracus was a god, and Hannibal was the kind of dad I wanted my own dad to be (until I later pondered the manliness of four men living on the road in one van, the reality of PTSD, and the fact that cigars are not meant for lighting dynamite).

The A-Team was something I didn’t think about for a long time after its eventual cancellation in 1987. There was, of course, the semi-successful film version in 2010, but I was distracted that summer by a new job called Hell on Wheels. It wasn’t until a few years later that the full glory of The A-Team came rushing back to me in the most unexpected of ways: in a 1966 film adaptation of the Frank O’Rourke novel A Mule for the Marquesa, which had been renamed The Professionals.

For the most part, I’ve always felt that trying to identify a writer’s influences made about as much sense as trying to chart a rabbit’s dating history. But you’d be hard pressed to convince me that A-Team creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo didn’t have at least a working knowledge of this western classic.

All the indicators are here: Four drifting outlaws, their best days behind them and all specialists of a sort, are banded together by the fact that they no longer fit with the world that created them. They are adrift, the Tom Sawyer in their guts beckoning them onward, although they know that the Missouri road might not lead to Oz, but to a very Bloody Kansas. And if that’s not enough, pay attention to the military echoes in the score. The most telling parallel, however, is the bedrock of the plot itself, the machine that sets these rapscallions in motion, one that would prove useful when it was eventually repurposed as an action series trope week after week after week: Someone needs a job done that they cannot do themselves. They are the little guy. And the big guy is bad. Real bad.

In The Professionals, Ralph Bellamy is the original little guy. As “Mister Grant,” he is employed here to do what he does best: portray a man of substance who should not be tangled with, not because of his physical prowess (which in 1966 was still considerable), but because he wears the countenance of a man who knows how to manipulate the world far better than you and can quite easily turn it on your head. So how is a man like that “the little guy,” you might ask? Well, that leads us to the sprig of rosemary that makes this particular recipe work: The skills of these mercenaries — played by Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan — are required to complete an affair of the heart.

Grant, for all his bluster and clout, is deeply, hopelessly in love. His wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) has been stolen away by Jesus Raza, a notorious Mexican bandit played by an absolutely unstoppable Jack Palance — the big, bad guy. Or is he? The power dynamics will, by the end of the film, be tested in a way that was never possible in a series.

If your mind is starting to wander in the direction of a famous Greek epic, you are not alone. Fardan, Marvin’s version of The A-Team’s Hannibal, leads the team, setting sail on the desert to conquer a Mexican Troy and reclaim their Helen from a man he once fought alongside while serving under the command of Pancho Villa. And a leader he is. His ever-present bottle of whiskey turns out not to be a crutch for a wounded mind, but a stealthy tool used for checking in with his men, for getting them to reconsider things from outside the box.

In fact, everything about Fardan inspires conviction and focus. This is one of the qualities that made Marvin one of the most unpredictable leading men in Hollywood history. His performance here seems effortless, but I can assure you it is thoroughly thought-out and subtly provided. When Mister Grant gestures toward weapons specialist Jake Sharpe (played by a confident and soulful Strode) and asks Fardan if he has “any objections to working with a negro,” the look on Marvin’s face is all she wrote. It is the expression of a man realizing he’s talking to someone who has never hung his life upon the allegiance of other men.

Marvin and his team (including Lancaster) are hired by a wealthy rancher to rescue his kidnapped wife (Cardinale). Photography: Columbia Pictures/Photofest
Marvin and his team (including Lancaster) are hired by a wealthy rancher to rescue his kidnapped wife (Cardinale). Photography: Columbia Pictures/Photofest

But these men are more than experienced. They are worn. Much like in Monte Walsh (1970), these roles could not have been played by young studs or the newest Johnny-come-latelies. These roles required actors at that time in their lives when an invitation to a fight would bring with it a couple of question marks, a time when winding down might be more advisable than winding up, a time when humor and self-effacement become qualities that can save your very sanity. It is perhaps through this facet that Grant and Fardan gain some currency:

Grant: “Your hair was darker then.”

Fardan: “My heart was lighter then.”

It is the kind of exchange that can only be incorporated, much less forgiven, in a western.

One of the most pleasant things about The Professionals is watching the evolution of the friendship between Fardan and Lancaster’s Dolworth. It cannot be overstated how different Marvin and Lancaster were as leading men. Lancaster was not exactly known for his scene work, and Marvin was not exactly known for his humor. Both stylistically and technically, casting them opposite one another would look terrible on paper. But in its realization, they manage to bring out the best in each other. Marvin’s earnest resolve makes one thirst for Lancaster’s wit (even suffering slightly from an overly considered delivery); and Lancaster’s ne’er-do-well attitude jerks from Fardan a kind of grudging alacrity necessary for a leader who flirts with death. A perfect example is contained in the following bit of dialogue:

Dolworth: “A hundred thousand dollars for a wife? She must be a lot of woman.”

Fardan: “Certain women have a way of changing some boys into men. And some men back into boys.”

Dolworth: “That’s a woman worth saving.”

But despite its moments of lightness, The Professionals is not your network television version of mercenary engagement. There are moments that are darker than a tar pit on a moonless night, and they are utterly shocking, particularly when you have been lulled by the joie de vivre of this bastard band of brigands. Soon, such juxtaposition will have you at the edge of your seat, not entirely capable of relaxing, even for a moment. Such was the daring and the genius of adaptor/director Richard Brooks, who had just returned from Cambodia where he shot Lord Jim (1965) with Peter O’Toole (finishing one week before American and British embassies were overrun), and who would go on to direct such chilling classics as In Cold Blood (1968) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).

Brooks’ command over the production elements of The Professionals is considerable. Any lover of the western will be thrilled by the consistent interplay of train and horse, which required live-action stunts factored for a kind of risk you simply don’t see anymore. The only drawback is that such jaw-dropping action runs the risk of hiding the intelligence behind Brooks’ decision to play out his protagonists’ battle against the backdrop of this larger war between animal and machine, tradition and innovation, past and future. The century has turned, and with it, so has the West.

Any reviewer who didn’t go out of his or her way to mention the contribution by Cardinale as Maria would be remiss in their duty. To say that she is ravishing in this picture would be a gross understatement. It would also be chauvinistically dismissive of an exceptional performance. I am happy to say that the movie itself realizes this in a more narrative way. (You’ll understand that last comment after you see the film.) Cardinale crafts an absolute firebrand of a character, a thoroughly modern woman who refuses to be owned as property. In fact, it can be argued it is upon her performance and her character’s journey that the entire film rests.

Cardinale also scores extra points by famously performing one of the more harrowing stunts of the film after her double was injured. And that Cardinale managed not only to survive, but to thrive in that desert production surrounded by such an army of real-life rascals, speaks to the sturdiness of the well herself.

It’s hard to think of another actor who could have matched Cardinale’s power other than Palance. He is an absolute wall of masculinity pockmarked by holes of hurt and humor. Of course, Palance being ethnically Ukrainian, such casting would be considered unacceptable today. With that said, it is important to note his dedication to mastering Spanish dialogue in a specifically Mexican dialect. A good friend who is a native speaker of the Mexican dialect watched this performance upon my request and he believes that Palance’s command is outstanding. But even more to his credit, Palance has chiseled a completely three-dimensional character at a time when most Hispanics in western movies often seemed to exist just to drink tequila and shoot pistols without aiming. His final speech to Lancaster, I believe, belongs in the pantheon of great western moments.

Raza: “Without love, without a cause, we are nothing! We stay because we believe. We leave because we are disillusioned. We come back because we are lost. We die because we are committed.”

To go further into the plot, I feel, would be inappropriate. Instead, you will have to take my word for it that The Professionals is a movie to be adored. To be sure, it is a bone in the body of our popular culture, but it does not deserve to be interred with the rest of that particular corpus. Its place is in the museum of our American heritage, to be celebrated as a jewel in the crown of great westerns. Together, let’s rob this grave and make sure it happens. I’ll run point if you do the deed. Because you know me: I love it when a plan comes together.

About the author: Anson Mount starred in the acclaimed five-season railroad drama Hell on Wheels on AMC. Between film and TV gigs, Mount has also worked as an instructor in the theater department at Columbia University.

Find past interviews with Anson Mount and coverage of Hell on Wheels. Stream The Professionals on Amazon video or buy the special edition DVD in stores.

From the November/December 2016 issue.