Revolutionary Mexico is the place and in an out of the way town that has recently seen some alarm, two men stand by the railway tracks and face each other, hands by their pistols and a religious statue the main bone of contention. But there is more to their relationship than that, and as the man known as The Swede (Franco Nero) ponders his next move opposite the man known as El Vasco (Tomas Milian), he reminisces about the first time they ever encountered each other. They would come to be friends, but where there was money and violence involved, could one really trust the other?
And principles, don't forget principles as these two characters seem to be living on their wits to make as much out of life as they can, but the political climate might force them to consider the bigger picture for a change. For many fans, this is their favourite western from Sergio Corbucci, even above Django, and there's a definite sense of humour here that lifts it above the usual fare of the genre. In its way this was a follow up to the lesser seen The Mercenary, featuring much of the same cast and crew, and running on similar lines.
But it's that wry atmosphere that makes this something of a romp through the clichés of the buddy movie as seen through the filter of the spaghetti western. Stars Nero and Milian are at their most charismatic here and make a great double act, tolerating each other, outwitting their counterpart and providing much of the enjoyment with their banter. When they first meet, El Vasco is a revolutionary leader, having somewhat fallen into the role, but something of a buffoon, a point not lost on the cool and together Swede who gives him a dollar, telling him he just won a bet - it will take the rest of the film for El Vasco to wheedle out of his new companion the reason why.
But maybe The Swede is not as collected as he would like us to think; he can certainly handle himself in a fist fight or with a gun, and is wily enough to extricate himself from most situations, but does need a hand every once in a while when, say, he ends up tied up, standing on an unsteady barrel with a noose around his neck. There are a few villains here, painted more despicably than the likeable heroes, including some Americans looking to secure the oil rights to Mexico's land and some dodgy generals who are exploiting the population for their own power games, but the bad guy you'll remember is John, also known as Wooden Hand.
Why is he known as Wooden Hand? Um, because he has a wooden hand, and he's played by Jack Palance at the height of his "let's have some fun with this" eccentricities. With his eyes permanently screwed up and accent veering off in wild directions, he roams the landscape searching for our two protagonists who have freed peace-loving Communist Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from an upcoming execution - also on Wooden Hand's hitlist. And let's mention the man in black's pet, a falcon he describes as his only friend which searches out his quarry and gets fed bits of them should they be caught. Corbucci's film, for which he contributed the story as well as co-writing the script, is rich with memorable scenes and engrossing adventure, and if it has a fault it's that it's too keen to get silly. Still, it has an interesting take on the levels of power and the action is impeccable, as is Ennio Morricone's score; watch out for Nero striking a match with someone's nose, too.