35 Years Ago: ‘Three Amigos’ Unites Comedy Greats to Yield a Cult Classic
The '80s was the decade of the big screen comedy ensemble – from The Blues Brothers, Airplane! and Caddyshack to Ghostbusters, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and A Fish Called Wanda – yet one that often goes overlooked is Three Amigos.
Released on Dec. 12, 1986, the film starred three of the era’s most beloved jokesters – Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin – and was co-written by Martin, Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels and mordant musician Randy Newman. Expectations for the click were high, yet John Landis’ Western farce about washed-up silent film heroes who are mistakenly commissioned to save a real Mexican village from real a band of outlaws was initially deemed an underwhelming misstep.
Deservingly, though, the subsequent years have allowed the movie to grow a sizeable following as a lovably silly adventure whose madcap humor, persistent charm and inconspicuous mockery make it as praiseworthy and influential as many of its contemporaries.
Watch the Trailer for 'Three Amigos'
The film took roughly ten years to come to fruition, as Martin first devised the idea in the late 1970s. In fact, it was going to be called Three Cabelleros, and the original screenplay, he once admitted, was “just very different. Very based on puns.” After being convinced to “abandon [it] and write a new one from scratch” by Michaels in the early 1980s, the pair enlisted Newman (who’s never penned another screenplay) to complete the writing trio. Seeing as how this was during Michael’s hiatus from SNL – before returning in 1985 – he was able to spend “the better part of 1984 writing it.”
From there, the troupe set out to find the proper cast and director. Martin was always going to feature as Lucky Day, yet there were many other major names thrown into the sombrero before they landed on Chase, Short and Landis. At first, Martin was going to appear alongside Blues Brothers duo Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. For whatever reason, that plan fell through, and at some point, Steven Spielberg – who’d featured both actors in 1979’s 1941 – was tapped to shoot.
Watch the 'My Little Buttercup' Scene From 'Three Amigos'
Interestingly, he wanted to have Bill Murray and Robin Williams portray Dusty Bottoms and Ned Nederlander, respectively. Ultimately, however, Spielberg opted to make 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial instead, so all three were out. Along the way, Rick Moranis and John Candy were also considered – so Three Amigos would’ve been a who’s who of comedic heavyweights no matter what, Of course, the stars eventually aligned – no pun intended – for Chase to play Bottoms, Short to play Nederlander and Landis to direct.
It’s no wonder why they were chosen, either, as each man was riding career highs at the time. Just as Martin had secured recent victories with The Jerk and The Man with Two Brains, Chase was doing well thanks to SNL, Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Fletch. As for Short, he’d made his feature film debut in 1979’s Lost and Found and had excelled as a cast member on both SCTV and SNL. Lastly, and despite facing charges from a notorious accident on the set of Twilight Zone: the Movie, Landis was prospering thanks to National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places. Naturally, Newman also wrote some new songs – and legendary genre composer Elmer Bernstein wrote a score – to ensure that the Western zaniness was as effectively faithful yet satirical as possible. Luckily, it worked, with the pair’s musical acumen (alongside authentic costuming, set design and the like) permitting Three Amigos to successfully walk a thin line between self-aware comedy and actual cowboy movie.
Watch a the 'Three Amigos' Battle El Guapo's Men
From its nods to The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Singin’ in the Rain and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid to its homages to silent film-era make-up, Three Amigos’ meta wit and attention to detail is quite laudable. Sadly, audiences and the press mostly disagreed. It earned only $39 million at the box office, upon release and Roger Ebert awarded it just one star, concluding that it could’ve been “a good comedy” but “the madness is missing.”
Even so, the film led to several great opportunities for the three main actors. For instance, Chase, Martin and Short cohosted SNL a week before it came out (with Newman as the musical guest), and the latter two became lifelong friends, reuniting in the '90s for the Father of the Bride films and the 2021 TV series Only Murders in the Building.
Watch the 'Blue Shadows' Scene From 'Three Amigos'
While its sounds and sights still hold up exceedingly well, Three Amigos soars most because of its emblematic humor (both overtly bizarre and subtly droll) and characteristically charming performances. Its two funniest scenes – the campfire sing-along with talking animals and Newman’s singing bush – perfectly tap into the inventive absurdity that these creative titans (as well as Mel Brooks and Monty Python) were known for. Elsewhere, the “plethora of pinatas” gag is an equally representative display of extremely dry and purposefully repetitive jousting. Even the bits that don’t quite land – such as the “infamous” and “male plane” jokes, not to mention the “Three Amigos Salute” – are saved by the charisma and trademarks of the trio. It’s always enjoyable to see Shorts’ boyish smirks and insider glances at the camera; Martin’s smug buffoonery; and Chase’s speedy quips and exaggerated facial reactions, so they automatically rescue any flawed writing through sheer intuitive magnetism.
Three Amigos may not be the greatest comedy of the '80s, but it’s far better than many people think (and it’s certainly superior to other stylistic siblings of the time, like 1985’s Rustlers’ Rhapsody and Lust in the Dust). It hits more than it misses – with dozens of memorable moments – and the unmitigated resourcefulness, passion and talent involved is clear from beginning to end. Plus, its template was later adapted into classics like 1999’s Galaxy Quest and 2008’s Tropic Thunder, so it continues to influence.
Simply put, wherever there’s a need for some rugged laughs from a bygone decade, you will find Three Amigos.