“One for each other and all for one
The three brave amigos are we
Brother to brother and every one a brave amigo
Wherever they need us our destinies lead us
Amigos, we’re always together
Wherever we go we’re three brave amigos
And we’ll be amigos forever
We are the Three Amigos
We are the Three Aaaaamigos
We are the Three Aaaaaaaaaaaaa….”
Comedies generally have just one true star in the film, one comic lead. There are exceptions, particularly among comics that are friends, but generally if there’s more than one comedian involved, the second is in a smaller, supporting role — and is a smaller star as well. Comics can be a prickly bunch, as anybody who has read accounts of Saturday Night Live‘s cast squabbles knows, and it can be difficult to get them to share the spotlight equally — after all, any light that’s falling on the other guy isn’t falling on you. When it does work out, it’s almost always as a duo splitting time evenly. Pulling off the balancing act with three is a rarer trick. But as the title implies, the 1986 film ¡Three Amigos! is just such a film. In 1986, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase were both at the heights of their popularity, each capable of headlining a film. Martin Short’s movie career was just beginning, but he had become known for SCtv and Saturday Night Live, and would soon have the lead in a string of comedies.
“We have a few items we want to straighten out first… or you might be looking at three actors who really don’t feel like making a Geronimo picture.”
Though Steve Martin, as Lucky Day, plays the leader of the eponymous Amigos, the film never makes him the focus any more than it does Chevy Chase as Dusty Bottoms or Martin Short as Ned Nederlander. Each shares screen time equally. Martin’s willingness to share the spotlight becomes even more apparent when one considers that he was the original screenwriter on the film (with Lorne Michaels brought in later to make some adjustments). The film began life in 1980 as The Three Caballeros, a title which was perhaps discarded due to the Disney animated feature of the same title. At the time, Martin had wanted his co-stars to be Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi; if it had happened, it would have been the fourth collaboration between the latter two actors. At one point in 1982, Steven Spielberg was considering directing the film; he bowed out to do E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial instead, but has said that his choices for Martin’s co-stars would have been Bill Murray as Dusty and Robin Williams as Ned. Eventually John Landis signed on as director, and Chevy Chase and Martin Short were brought on to co-star. Had Short declined, Landis had planned to approach Rick Moranis for the role of Ned.
“How do you like your bat, Dusty?” “Medium rare.”
The film is filled with homages and affection for the early days of Hollywood westerns, opening with a singing cowboy number performed by the stars, and having another number later with a vivid painted background as one might find in early Technicolor films. All of the songs in the film, written by Randy Newman, were performed by Martin, Chase, and Short, save for one by Newman himself as “the singing bush”. As the film is set before the advent of the talkies, the musical numbers are a bit of a hint as to the Amigos’ careers; in addition to being silent movie stars — and the numerous references to Ned’s earlier career as a child star on his own — there’s a strong suggestion that the trio has also performed as a live vaudeville act. In a scene in a Mexican cantina, Lucky — the characters use the same name both on and off screen, suggesting these are permanent stage names and not just adopted for their films — misinterprets the nervousness of the locals as simply not being used to being so close to the stars they know, and suggests a song and dance performance on the spot, “just like the old days”.
“My little Buttercup has the sweetest smile…”
There’s a sense of accuracy in the portrayal of the Amigos’ silent films. Steve Martin performs his own rope tricks, both in the silent film clip shown, and in scenes in “real life”. The Amigos are painted with makeup for their film to aid in the contrast, a technique which was legitimately used in some black and white features. And when the film is being shown in a Mexican church, the musical accompaniment is provided by an on-set organist — had musical synchronization been available in 1916, the silent film era would have ended about 10 years early.
Of course, this accuracy to the era isn’t entirely rosy. The Amigos work under the old studio system — which is to say, the studio owns everything and has all the power. They’re locked in under contract to Harry Flugleman (Joe Mantegna). Their payment consists solely of the perks of living on the studio’s dime. When Lucky insists on being paid actual money — right after their latest film flopped due to a departure in theme (“nobody cares about three wealthy Spanish landowners on a weekend in Manhattan”) — the dark side of the system is shown as Flugleman casts them out without a second thought. A few calls from Flugleman’s lackeys — Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman — and the Amigos find themselves without money, without a place to stay, and without even the shirts on their backs. The studio owned everything, and the studio has taken it back.
“It’ll be a cold day in Hell when Harry Flugleman lets an actor tell him what to do!”
But the Amigos don’t stay down long — this is only the beginning of the picture. The movie is set in 1916, an odd time for westerns, as Hollywood was producing western films and yet there were areas in North America where similar events were still happening in real life. ¡Three Amigos! plays into this with the tiny Mexican village of Santo Poco — “Little Saint” — which is under siege by El Guapo (“the Handsome One”). Played by Alfonso Arau, El Guapo is a jovial bandit leader, and his men regularly terrorize the small town. One of the village’s young maidens, Carmen (Patrice Martinez) has gone to seek help. Stopping in a church to pray, she sees one of the Amigos’ films being played as entertainment for the congregation, and mistakes it for a newsreel. She resolves to ask the Three Amigos to help, offering a hundred thousand pesos as a reward — the villagers don’t have the money, but she knows from the film that these heroes refuse any such reward. After all, they’re wealthy Spanish landowners, who fight for the rights of peasants. She simply believes it would be an insult not to offer it.
“Our reward is that justice has been done.”
Carmen’s plea for help reaches the Amigos just as they are ousted from the studio, but the telegram has gotten garbled due to being pared down for costs. The Amigos think that they are being requested to put on a live performance opposite “the infamous El Guapo”. A hundred thousand pesos to put on a show is a lot of money for three out of work actors, and so they decide to break into the studio, steal their costumes, and head down to Mexico to put in a small performance and earn a big pay day.
“Infamous is when you’re more than famous. This man El Guapo is not just famous, he’s infamous.”
“A hundred thousand pesos to do a personal appearance with El Guapo, who is probably the biggest actor to ever come out of Mexico!”
Confusion reigns. Carmen and the townsfolk believe the Three Amigos are authentic rich, skilled heroes who save people and villages for the joy of seeing justice done. Lucky, Dusty, and Ned believe they’ve been hired, at considerable expense, to put on a special live performance with a great actor for the entertainment of the town. And the bandits don’t know what to think when they’re faced with a trio of clowns who run about wildly and spout off corny one-liners without making any actual attacks. A small group of El Guapo’s bandits are driven away out of sheer confusion, the Amigos think they’ve put on a great show, and the villagers think they’ve found the heroes they’ve been looking for.
“They called us scum-sucking pigs! Us!”
When El Guapo is told of the event, he has to see it for himself; there’s a sense that while El Guapo isn’t above being ruthless to his men when need be, he is actually quite fond of them. There’s a constant sense of camaraderie among the outlaws, most particularly between El Guapo and Jefe (Tony Plana), but also with the various unnamed characters. His men respect him, and an insult to his men is an insult to El Guapo. So El Guapo takes Jefe and some others, and rides to Santo Poco to find out what the disturbance is. And the Amigos finally learn that they aren’t there to put on a show after all.
“Oh, great! Real bullets! I’ll keep this. You’re in big trouble, mister!”
The Amigos, not expecting their lives to actually be in danger, break down. El Guapo’s men mercilessly terrorize the town for having tried to bring in outsiders to face them. Carmen is kidnapped, and all the town’s money and goods are stolen. The villagers lose faith in the Amigos. The Amigos lose faith in themselves as well. It’s a turning point in the film, as it marks the transition from comic anti-heroes (in the classical sense of the term) to genuine heroes (if still comedic), as Ned, easily the most idealistic of the Three Amigos, decides that he, for one, isn’t going to go back to Hollywood to crawl on his knees for a life that he won’t be able to live with dignity. It’s a classic “men or mice” scene, and it’s played relatively straight.
“Back there the Three Amigos are already dead. Here we could be the Three Amigos for real.”
The Amigos set off for El Guapo’s hideout, with a surreal interlude as they try to get directions from the Invisible Swordsman at the Singing Bush. Dusty accidentally shoots him (“How was I supposed to know where he was?”) They finally find the hideout by following a German plane. Ned identifies it as a “Tuppan 601”; I’ve been unable to find a description of any such plane, but its design is at least consistent with WWI-era German planes. The German (Kai Wulff, whose character is never named) is bringing guns to El Guapo, and here the movie shows a surprising level of accuracy. If you’ve ever watched westerns with somebody who is a historical firearms enthusiast, then you are painfully aware of how many films are filled with anachronisms — guns that won’t be manufactured until a few years (or in extreme cases, decades) after the time in which the story is set. For example, the 1960 film The Alamo includes the usage of the Trapdoor Springfield 1873 — while being set, of course, in 1836. But all the guns used prominently in ¡Three Amigos! are period-appropriate for 1916. Most characters are using variations of the Colt Single Action Army, developed in 1878 and still common today. Other weapons shown include a Colt Walker (1847), the Mauser Gewehr 1898 (the guns the German is running to El Guapo), and a Winchester 1894. All are weapons that are believable in an area that is a bit behind behind the times, save for the Mauser — which is justified by being old German surplus that is being sold. The accuracy of this portrayal is perhaps the subtlest joke in the film, one played on the makers of the genre being parodied — it’s as if they’re saying “we got this right, why don’t you?”
“You wanna die with a man’s gun. Not a little sissy gun like this.”
One of the interesting things about the film is the portrayal of the villain, El Guapo. The portrayals of the Amigos aren’t filled out with extensive back stories, but it’s possible to get the gist of their lives and personalities from the broad strokes that are shown. Lucky is the smartest, and is a bit arrogant; he comes up with the memorable insults in the film (“you son of a motherless goat!”) Dusty is a dim bulb, often oblivious to what’s going on around him; as Lucky says, “it’s like living with a six-year-old”. Ned is a former child star and has never lost his idealism. But this same hints-of-depth approach is applied to the villain as well. El Guapo clearly fancies himself a ladies’ man, and while villainous, he acts with a certain degree of culture. He’s a hobbyist photographer. He enjoys using large words — in English, no less — to show off his intelligence. He’s friendly to his underlings, and remembers the names of most of them (though not all), and his underlings like him in return, even throwing him a birthday party. When they give him a sweater, he wears it draped over his shoulders for most of the rest of the film. The film is a bit unusual in showing just why the villain’s henchmen follow him, beyond the excuse to cause mayhem; to them, he’s not a bad guy. When he does act irritable, Jefe even gets away with pointing out that maybe he’s just unhappy about Carmen not warming up to him and is taking out on Jefe.
“Would you say I have a ‘plethora’ of piñatas?”
Through a series of hilarious mishaps, the Amigos succeed in rescuing Carmen and bringing her back to Santo Poco, where they have to stage a final defense against El Guapo and his men, in which the Amigos confuse the bandits with a dizzying array of defenses as they teach the villagers to defend themselves. This is shown from the perspective of the bandits, making it look as if the Three Amigos are, impossibly, attacking from every angle. The film draws heavily from The Magnificent Seven and its inspiration, Seven Samurai, making this perhaps the least-expected item in Akira Kurosawa’s legacy. The basic plot itself is essentially the same as Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, though with smaller numbers, and has multiple references to those films. The villagers can get no help from nearby villages, where people are just as poorly off or just as villainous as the bandits. Help comes from outside, with heroes that initially expect to be paid handsomely but end up turning down the payment. It even puts a comedic spin on the scene of the “heroes” eating the villagers out of house and home, unaware of how little they truly have.
“Do you have anything besides Mexican food?”
The film did not do well in theatres or critically. Released during the Christmas season, it barely turned a profit, and Roger Ebert notably gave it only one star. The creators of the film weren’t all happy with it either; Chevy Chase admitted to Ebert that he didn’t think it was so hot either, and director John Landis has remarked that it was taken away from him at the end and edited without his input. But the film has gone on to be something of a cult classic thanks to its rapid-fire comedy and its mix of stars. When Bravo created their list of the 100 funniest comedies, it came in at #79. Is it the funniest Steve Martin movie around? Probably not; that would probably be The Jerk, or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Is it the funniest Chevy Chase movie? Most fans are likely to pick Vacation, Christmas Vacation, Fletch or Caddyshack. Is it the funniest Martin Short movie? Yes. Yes it is.
“Where ever there is suffering, we’ll be there.” “…Line.”
But while it may not be the peak film for its actors, it’s a peak film for a trio of comedic actors. It’s rare for three comics to share the spotlight so equally, with each getting funny lines and funny scenes, and the laughs keep coming throughout the film. It’s non-stop hilarity, and it’s better crafted than many of the films it parodies — if one knows what one is looking for. It’s one of my favorite films.
“–MIGOS! And Amigos forever we’ll be.”