Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 6, 2010
Woody Strode’s role in Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) isn’t a starring one but he sure feels like a star when his name fills the screen, splashed against his bare chest as his character, bounty hunter Jake Sharp, brings a malhombre to justice in some sand-blown desert backwater. Jake is such an assured sonofabitch that he doesn’t even hold the other end of his prisoner’s leash when he steps up to the front door of the local sheriff… giving the perp a chance to make a break for it and Jake the opportunity to knock the guy’s dick in the dust. Case closed! At the moment that Wood Strode receives his due on the big screen, an unfazed Jake is staring down at the bested bad guy at his feet, a tableau of good triumphant over evil that anticipates a similar set-up in Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY (1971) a few years later… albeit with the race roles reversed (and the criminal on the ground played by Albert Popwell, who bore a resemblance to Woody Strode during his later, European career). Jake doesn’t say anything cool like “I know what you’re thinkin’” or “Go ahead, make my day.” He just stands there… and that’s what makes the character and THE PROFESSIONALS such a breath of fresh.
George Romero is often lauded by contemporary critics for having given the lead role in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) to a black man. Romero has often maintained that the part was written for a presumed white actor but that Duane Jones gave the best audition. The casting of Woody Strode as one of THE PROFESSIONALS comes close to the same willful color-blindness, with a throwaway line early on (“Any objections to working with a Negro?”) being the only allusion to Jake Sharp’s skin color. (For the record, Lee Marvin’s wordless response is priceless and echoes the sentiments of source novelist Frank O’Rourke, quoted above.) Adapted from the 1964 novel by the director himself, the film is often categorized as Brooks’ paean to professionalism, to men who hire on to do a job and give their all, their dedication to the job at hand rendering all other considerations unimportant. I don’t know if Brooks had to fight to get Strode in the film, where he stood toe to toe with such Hollywood icons as Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster but I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been resistance from the studio and pressure to slot a bigger name into Jake Sharp’s boots. Strode was hardly a household name at this point, despite his accomplishments as an athlete and his work with director John Ford, for whom he had played SERGEANT RUDLEDGE (1960), about which R. Emmet Sweeney wrote earlier this week. But whether Brooks had to fight for Strode or simply got his way without a fuss, the important thing is that Woody was given the role and it just might be the role of his lifetime.
We don’t get a wealth of biographical information on Jake. He’s introduced plying his trade, so we get that he’s a badass of few words. We’re told he’s a skilled tracker, a crack shot and hell to pay with the long bow. As Ralph Bellamy’s fatcat character reads his accomplishments aloud, Jake sits braiding rope, uninterested in the bullet points of his backstory. Jake’s work certainly hasn’t made him wealthy – when he shows up to accept a job to help return the oilman’s kidnapped wife, he seems to have gotten there on foot, his few possessions slung over one shoulder. In contrast, Robert Ryan’s horse wrangler has arrived by automobile, as will Lee Marvin’s ex-Rough Rider. There’s a subtle but appreciable anti-technology/anti-modernism angle at work here. The first time Ryan’s and Strode’s characters get a look at one another, the view is almost immediately cut off by the arrival of a locomotive. (Later, Marvin’s character will wince at the racket made by a Ford Model T, telegraphing these characters’ mistrust of and discomfort with so-called progress.) A modern western set in the second decade of the 20th Century, THE PROFESSIONALS is about bedrock values of loyalty and honesty in an age of encroaching relativity and mitigation. Paradoxically, the film celebrates the emancipation that has allowed Jake Sharp to stand tall with white men like Bill Dolworth, Rico Fardan and Hans Ehrengard while lamenting a corporate mentality that reduces individualists such as these to commodities, to component parts, to cogs.
One of the ways that black actors were allowed to assimilate into Hollywood movies was by playing the caretakers of white actors – think Hattie McDaniel as Scarlet O’Hara’s maid in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), Louise Beavers as Cary Grant’s cook in MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948) and even Woody Strode himself as John Wayne’s “boy Pompey” in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). These characters could be acerbically funny or even tough as nails but in the end they always got stuck doing the dishes and making the beds. That’s even true to a point in THE PROFESSIONALS. There’s an odd moment about halfway through, as the team stands looking down from a concealed spot at the hacienda where they believe kidnap victim Claudia Cardinale is being held; when their horses start to nicker behind them, Rico sends Jake to quiet them even though Hans Ehrengard is the horsemen. Some have speculated that Strode’s removal from the frame was due to the fact that actress Maria Gomez has a moment of partial nudity, that Hollywood couldn’t countenance the presence of a black man in a sexually suggestive situation. Happily, however, all of the protagonists are remarkably tender with one another. They often touch one another on the shoulder or arm, they tend to one another’s injuries and wounds. When Hans suffers from the cold while riding at night, Rico gives him a shot of whiskey; when he drops from the heat by day, Jake gives him water; to Cardinale’s character, he later offers salt. Another subtle motif running throughout the film shows the men maintaining their weapons: Rico cleans his shotgun, Bill airs out sweaty sticks of dynamite and Jake waxes his longbow. To a man, THE PROFESSIONALS are tough, hard-bitten men but they know that in order for the job to be done right care must be taken. It almost seems as though Richard Brooks took the custodial lot of the token black character and spread the responsibilities among all the protagonists, which makes this team one of the most unusual and yet most believable in the subgenre of men-on-a-mission movies.
I saw THE PROFESSIONALS at an early age, on TV, and like any impressionable young white boy I was in awe of Woody Strode’s character. I’m sure I already knew who the white actors were – Burt Lancaster from THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952), Lee Marvin from CAT BALLOU (1965) and Robert Ryan from CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY (1969) – but Strode was new to me. All of the characters have endearing qualities – Marvin’s Rico Farden is disarmingly straight laced, Lancaster’s Bill Dolworth is funny, and Ryan’s Hans Ehrengard is compassionate and principled – but it was the silent (albeit not mute) professionalism of Jake Sharp that really impressed me. I knew that, if I could magically transport myself into the movie, the white characters would shoo me away with the back of their hands… but I sensed that Jake would make time for me. He’d teach me how to shoot arrows, he’d show me how to find water in the most alkaline-choked desert hellhole, he’d pick me up if I fell down… and if anyone tried to bring harm to me he’d cut them off at the ankles. In return, I knew I’d do anything for Jake Sharp, even at the cost of my own life… and then I knew what THE PROFESSIONALS was all about.
They’re all gone now. Robert Ryan in 1973, Lee Marvin in 1987, Burt Lancaster in October 0f 1994 and Woody Strode two months later, on New Year’s Eve. Since the day I first clapped eyes on him, I’ve seen Strode in lots of movies but I always go back to THE PROFESSIONALS, where he walks tall, hits his mark, looks death right in the eye… and lives to ride off into the sunset, poorer (see the movie to find out why) but richer in the satisfaction of stickin’ it to the Man.
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