Professionals, The (1966): Richard Brooks Superlative Western, Full of Action and Stars (Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan, Cardinale)

One of the most popular films of 1966, The Professionals is an actionful Western, directed by Richard Brooks, featuring an all-star cast, headed by Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Claudia Cardinale.

The script, written by Brooks, was adapted from Frank O’Rourke’s novel, “A Mule for the Marquesa.”

Detailed Synopsis

During the Mexican Revolution, Rancher J.W. Grant hires four men, experts in their respective fields, to rescue his kidnapped wife, Maria from Jesus Raza, a former revolutionary-turned-bandit.

Henry “Rico” Fardan is a weapons specialist, Bill Dolworth is an explosives expert, Hans Ehrengard is an horse wrangler, and Jake Sharp is an Apache scout skilled with a bow and arrow.

Fardan and Dolworth, having fought under Pancho Villa’s command, hold Raza in high regard as a soldier, but the professionals have no qualms about killing him now.

After crossing the Mexican border, the team tracks the bandits to their hideout, witnessing soldiers on a government train massacred by Raza’s army. The professionals follow the captured train and retake it from the bandits.

Some move on to the bandit camp and observe Raza and his followers—including a female soldier, Chiquita. Fardan infiltrates Raza’s private quarters but he is stopped from killing him by Maria, the kidnapped wife.

Fardan escapes with Grant’s wife, and back at the train, they realize it has been retaken by the bandits. After a shootout, they retreat into the mountains, pursued by Raza and his men. The professionals use explosives to bring down the walls of a gully, blocking the bandits’ path and delaying their pursuit.

In fact, they had not rescued Grant’s kidnapped wife but Raza’s willing mistress. Grant “bought” Maria for an arranged marriage, but she escapes in order to return to her “true love” in Mexico.

As Raza and his bandits pursue the professionals, Dolworth fights a rearguard action to allow the other professionals to escape with Maria. In the battle, Raza is wounded, and as he and Chiquita attempt to escape, she is shot by Dolworth. Raza is then captured by Dolworth.

The professionals, with Maria and Raza, reach the U.S. border to be met by Grant and his men. Grant tells Fardan that their contract has been satisfactorily concluded, before Maria is safely handed over to him. Maria tends the wounded Raza, when Grant says to one of his men, “Kill him.” Before the man can fire, the gun is shot out of his hand by Dolworth.

Grant calls Fardan a bastard, to which Fardan retorts: “Yes, sir, in my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you are a self-made man.”

In the film’s last image, the professionals are shown joyously following the departing carriage to Mexico.

Artistic Quality and Impact

Artistically speaking, The Professionals is Brooks’ most full realized film, a still-underrated Western that’s well acted and extremely well shot in Technicolor by genius cinematographer Conrad L. Hall.  The film benefits from on location shooting in Death Valley, Valley of Fire, and around California’s Coachella Valley.

It’s hard not to notice the impact of The Professionals on future Westerns and actioners, including Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.

In many significant ways, it signaled the beginning of the New American Cinema, usually credited to two 1967 films, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.

Commercial Appeal

One of the top grossing films of the year, it earned $8.8 million in rentals in the U.S. (over $15 million worth of box-office tickets), .

Oscar Nominations: 3

Direction (Richard Brooks)

Screenplay (Brooks)

Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall)


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

Zinnemann’s morality drama, A Man for All Seasons, swept the Oscars due to its honorable subject matter, including Best Picture, Director for Zinnemann, Screenplay for Robert Bolt, and Cinematography for Ted Moore.