Looking Back at Three Amigos

Unfairly overlooked on release, this 1986 comedy has since gained a cult following. Neil takes a look back at Three Amigos...

“One for each other and all for one! The three great amigos are we!”

With these triumphant lyrics begins one of the most delightfully random musical openings in comedy history. Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) ride slowly but gallantly through the desert on their trusted steeds. Their legend is timeless. The song is ridiculous. The movie is brilliant.

Saddle up partners! I think it goes without saying that for children growing up in the 80s, Three Amigos couldn’t have been a bigger magnet for repeated VHS and cable TV viewings. The movie is like a special club. All it takes is a quick mention of In-Famous?, My Little Buttercup, “Farley, Farley, Farley, Hafarrr!”, and you’re in.

Its scenes, characters, and story have since passed into comedy legend. But, for some reason, like so many classic and cult movies before it, Three Amigos wasn’t a huge hit on its original release in 1986. That would have outraged even the Amigos themselves! But far from disappearing into the sunset of forgotten movies, we’re still talking about Three Amigos 26 years later. Time seems to have salvaged it, and its plethora of laughs (“What is a plethora?”) still echo in the hallways of more than a few college dorm rooms.

Whatever your opinion of it, it’s hard to deny that for its time, Three Amigos represented a supreme melting pot of comedy royalty. It’s not often you have the unique combination of Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), and songwriter Randy Newman (Toy Story) writing a screenplay.  But, then having Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and director John Landis along for the ride is the icing on the cake. At the very least, that’s going to make you a little curious as to what’s in store.

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What you do get is a film that on one level harks back to the bygone age of Hollywood movie musicals, classic westerns, and Caddyshack for good measure. As one of the 1980s’ go-to comedy directors, John Landis’ career couldn’t have been hotter. After proving himself with such classics as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places, Landis was the natural final piece in the creative puzzle that was Three Amigos. His sense of comic timing and the bizarre, coupled with solid scene composition, elevates the script to a level it might not have gone to in different hands. 

To drive things home, composer Elmer Bernstein (Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Animal House, Ghostbusters) contributes a sweeping orchestral score that, to be honest, still has me humming all these years later. It’s sweeping, majestic, and wisely belies the film’s insanity. 

The setup is a deceptively simple take on mistaken identities. It’s Mexico, 1916. The town of Santo Poco is regularly under attack by the villainous bandit El Guapo (director Alphonso Arau). In a vain last attempt at finding help, the town leader’s daughter, Carmen (Patrice Martinez), sends a telegram to the Amigos imploring them to come to their town to rid them of El Guapo and his gang of thugs. Unfortunately, what Carmen doesn’t realise is that the Amigos are actually silent movie action stars. The movie she saw them in is, sadly, just that: a movie.

Cut to Hollywood. Our heroes’ studio contracts are up for renewal. Rather than playing their proverbial cards close to their chest, Lucky Day memorably proclaims to the studio chief “No dough, no show.” It’s a move that gets them thrown out of the studio stripped down to their undergarments. As generally happens in the movies, fate conveniently intervenes when the telegram from Mexico arrives. The three dumbly head off to Mexico thinking they are expected to put on a show for Santa Poco, and the great ‘actor’ El Guapo. However, reality and El Guapo himself has more in store for the Amigos than they originally bargained for.

Now the one thing about writing about comedies is that it’s very difficult to convey in too many words what makes comedy, well, funny. So, without further ado, it’s time to present the Amigo goods. Strap on your holster, load in your comedy bullets, spin the barrel, and aim for that vast target in front of you that is Three Amigos. Ready, aim, fire!

Look Up Here!

In an act of desperation, the Amigos attempt to break into their old studio after receiving Carmen’s telegram. Their old costumes are all that stands between them and the money they believe they will make in Santa Poco after their ‘show.’ Lucky gets on the ledge, and under the cover of night slyly calls his friends. I suppose slyly is one way of putting it.

My little buttercup has the sweetest smile!

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Three Amigos revels in its lunacy. So much so, that if you have Randy Newman co-writing your script, you might as well have him put some songs in for good measure. However, if you’re expecting Toy Story, you should probably rent another movie. There’s really only one thing to do if you stumble into a seedy and bandit-filled bar. Sing!

Dusty Bottoms on guitar

Sometimes words aren’t really necessary.

Lip balm?

The humiliated Amigos find themselves stranded in the desert after their plan to put on a show has backfired, and El Guapo’s tyranny turned out to be, well, real. They cowardly flee, leaving the townspeople to fend for themselves. Carmen is kidnapped, the little town is destroyed, and the Amigos know they must go after her to mend their ways. Only two words are spoken in this scene. But, its painfully awkward silence speaks volumes.

Are you the Singing Bush?

Do you like plants singing? Do you like absolute gibberish being yelled at top volume? Then you’ve aimed, hit the target, and come to what many people fondly remember as the best part of the movie. Apparently the only way to find El Guapo’s Lair and Carmen is through the help of the Invisible Swordsman? How do you know when you’ve found the Invisible Swordsman? It’s when you’ve come to Singing Bush. But, convincing the Amigos of that is another story.

While there are many more scenes I wish I could have included (the talking turtle), it’s time for this article to unfortunately ride off into the sunset. For those who haven’t seen the movie, you may be asking yourself what happens next. Well partners, let’s just say the concept of mistaken identities gets taken to a whole new level during Santa Poco and the Amigo’s final confrontation with El Guapo.

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But, I digress. In the end, it really doesn’t matter why the film didn’t do very well on its original release. Good work is good work, and really great work lives on. So, in the immortal words of the Amigos themselves:

“Wherever there is injustice, you will find us. Wherever there is suffering, we’ll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find… The Three Amigos!”

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