Problematic Movies of the '80s | The Three Amigos (1986)

Problematic Movies of the '80s | The Three Amigos (1986)

Nothing made me laugh more when I was in seventh grade than Steve Martin. Something about the absurdity, the flat out goofiness of his comedy just resonated with my 13-year-old mind. I remember loving “Let’s Get Small” so much that I memorized every word. I also remember a fucking hack kid at school who became really popular because he did the same thing but then would perform Martin’s routines as if they were his own, cracking up the other kids who didn’t know better. That experience is likely the primary reason I turn my nose up at people who quote The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm in lieu of coming up with their own stuff in social gatherings.

The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and The Man with Two Brains (1983) were my favorites. The anarchism, the lunacy, the unbridled joy behind his work was fodder for me. Sure, I loved the darker material of other comics — I was a dark fucking kid — but the optimism of Martin’s output felt like a psychic balance to that and my unending boners and the odd anxiety of girls.

It was this balance that inspired my enlisting my best friend in junior high, Mike Alley, an awkwardly tall, pimply kid with a severe stutter, in a horrifyingly long talent show rendition of Abbott and Costello’s Whose On First? Ordinarily a five-minute comedy bit, our version lasted twenty minutes due to Mike’s inability to get through it stutter-free. It was hysterical and a torture on all the bullies who made fun of Mike daily.

The Three Amigos was just some silly icing on that sort of cake.

So why is this movie on the list of problematic? White dudes swooping in to save POC. More obviously, incredibly stupid white dudes. Mexican stereotypes for laughs. Helpless women.

Going in for the first viewing since I was a teenager, I had my 2018 goggles steaming up. I recall a lot of racial stereotypes and it felt like I was going to be bombarded with unapologetic cultural appropriation — I mean, three white guys wearing sombreros is kind of a red flag, right?

The Three Amigos
Written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, & Randy Newman
Directed by John Landis

Set in 1916 Hollywood, the storyline is derivative of Kurosawa and specifically 1954’s Seven Samurai. Basically The Magnificent Seven with three idiots instead of seven. The story massage came from Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and Randy Newman (who also supplies the voice of The Singing Bush.) Forgot about the Singing Bush, didn’t you?

Silent film stars Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase,) and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) have made their careers by playing three wealthy landowners in Mexico whose motto is “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!” They descend upon small Mexican villages and through bravery, skill, and pluck (along with silent film camera trickery) save the day and then ride off into the (painted backdrop) sunset.

Fired for asking for money from the studio, they get what they think is a performance gig in Santa Poco, Mexico, which turns out to be a mistaken cry for help based on the idea that the movies are real and thus the Three Amigos are heroes rather than moronic actors. They arrive, do a song and confront El Guapo (Alfonso Arau). Once they realize it’s not for show, they run. 

Of course, they man up and go back into the thick of the fight and become, in real life, the Three Amigos (complete with the ride into the sunset.)

What stands out is that this movie is just goofy fucking fun. I rarely just laugh out loud during a movie (especially one I’m watching from a POV I’m going to write from) and this damn thing cracked me up multiple times. Goofy verbal comedy. Ridiculous physical bits.

Is it dumb? Definitely. Is it funny? Goddamn right.

Problematic moments & themes

Again — again — no black characters or actors. Not one. On the other hand, this movie employed a ton of Latina and Latino actors in every capacity on screen. Perhaps there’s a balance there but I don’t really think so. All POC are not representative of all others.

The problematic elements is that those Mexican actors are positioned as either Helpless Mexicans or Thuggish Mexicans. While this stratification fits the stereotypes embedded in 1916 silent films, it doesn’t play quite as well in 1986 and even worse in 2018.

The female characters are mostly romantic interests in the most cursory way and otherwise are merely damsels in distress.

As for the cultural appropriation piece, I’m not buying it. In fact, I’d argue that with the three white guys in the lead, this is a statement of how clueless most appropriation is and how ridiculous it is for whites to embrace cultural elements without context. These guys are boobs and that’s much of the joke here. As an example, once the three Amigos arrive in Santa Poco, they are seen eating. Dusty can’t quite make his tortilla hold his food and he struggles with it until it drops out leaving him with just the tortilla. He looks up and asks “Do you have anything other than Mexican food?” The joke is on him not the locals. Such is every joke in the film.

Did it hold up?

Actually, given that the humor is largely physical and silly combined with a number of creative types at the top of their game spoofing a bygone era, it does. It’s still funny, charming and fun.


Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it

The Three Amigos gets a 4

Next Up: Bachelor Party (1984)

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