5 Branded Women (1960)
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Jeanne Moreau, Barbara Bel Geddes, Silvana Mangano, and Vera Miles - all shaved, humiliated, and thrown out of their peasant villages for sleeping with the enemy - now have taken arms against that enemy, but the "real" resistance doesn't want them. So these women must fight the men who are against them AND the men who are supposedly on their side, as well as each other.
Melodrama, to be sure, but different enough and with a fascinating sub-text, that it has become a "guilty" pleasure.
The girls bound together and they wander around the country until they resolve to join the partisans despite their initial resilience. The women will form relationships with the partisans and a captured German Captain (R. Basehart).
But it's wartime and this is no Hollywood movie: there are no happy endings or black and white feelings or situations. The movie is gritty and somehow cruel. The movie has its flaws, the pacing could be better and some characters feel underdeveloped, but all things considered, this is a very good movie. It's not released on DVD, but you can find it over the Internet. It's well worth the search.
This is a pretty amazing film right from the start, and it doesn't let up. It's a horrifying war movie with five women the victims and sometimes heroes in it. It shows the brutality of guerrilla fighters against the German army, and it shows WWII in Yugoslavia, without an American or Russian in sight. It's even well made, filmed in wide screen black and white in 1960, and it stars several absolute marquee actresses.
In many ways this is an unusual and necessary and brave movie, and the American director, Martin Ritt, had already proved his abilities with serious themes. So why does it have such a low reputation? Yes, it gets a little preachy sometimes, and it doesn't seem completely believable in a few instances of high drama. There is a good but merely good directing and editing, so the events are sometimes oddly lackluster, or maybe held at a distance and made slightly false.
But some of these complaints are only moderately true. And even more, there are themes here that are completely counterbalancing and make it worth the viewing. I don't mean for action film war scenes, but for the interior of war, and for another side to the rotten, expansive Nazi decade. This does not romanticize the situation, and in fact there is no romance to hook the viewer at all (which is no flaw, but may explain a certain lack of success with audiences). That is, it's not actually a very warm or entertaining movie. If you take at all seriously what is happening to these women you'll be horrified, and for a Hays Code era movie (though an Italian Dino de Laurentiis production, which helped), it pushes the tender envelope just enough.
To be sure, there is some really good acting here. The lead male is the unlikely leading male actor who I have grown to really like, Van Heflin. When he first appears he seems overblown, but as the movie continues he settles into his role as a weary, determined rebel leader in the mountains really well. (The one other man plays a German, Richard Baseheart, and he doesn't get enough to do, unfortunately, because his presence if important.)
The five women have all been accused of "sleeping with the enemy," loosely called fraternizing. I won't even give away the start of the movie here because it comes as a shock, but it's fair to say the women are forced into a world of their own. They don't trust each other in particular, but they gradually come to need each other to survive. Among them are some huge talents: Jeanne Moreau (between her two most famous films, "Elevator to the Gallows" and "Jules and Jim") and Barbara Bel Geddes (famous as the second woman in "Vertigo" but more amazing in the great Ophuls film, "Caught").
But it's the less known Italian actress Silvana Mangano (married to the producer) who has the leading part and who gives the most involved and critical performance--she represents the trap of young women in the war the best, wanting love, hanging on the idealism, not understanding (or refusing to accept) the brutality that comes with war beyond the front lines.
As the war moves from the town to camps in the hills (it was filmed in Italy and Austria) to run-ins with the enemy and back to town for a big finale, the drama is great. Maybe the overall theme was so huge and so laced with forbidden elements it was impossible, in 1960, to make a truly fair and wrenching movie. But Ritt has tried. If this isn't a lost masterpiece, it's still a really excellent WWII film and should be on short lists along with the usual films that also, on close watching, have their limitations.
You could easily slam the content here for what it doesn't do, for the things Ritt doesn't say through the story. (The New York Times review from 1960 does exactly that, very nicely.) In fact, the story is begging to be remade, without limitations, and we'd get a harrowing and beautiful story that really bothers the viewer directly. Instead, so far, we have a movie whose ideas bother the viewer, which is something a little more indirect.
The women are Yugoslavs who have all been seduced and abandoned by one German sergeant played by Steve Forrest. All slept with him for various reasons, all are trying to survive the best way they can. After partisans capture Forrest with one of them, all of them are shorn of their hair as reminders of what fraternization with the enemy means. The five woman so branded are Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Barbara Bed Geddes, and Carla Gravina. Gravina is pregnant by Forrest. The Germans banish the women because they remain walking symbols of partisan reprisals. As for Forrest that son of the fatherland is shorn of something that doesn't grow back.
The women stick together because all they have now is each other. Not for long because when a partisan band headed by Van Heflin sees the now armed women deal with a Nazi patrol, they get accepted in the band. But their rules are pretty strict as they all find out.
War is a brutal business and guerrillas fighting occupiers make it the most brutal kind of war. The mixed feelings that director Ritt leaves you with, you are supposed to have. You watch 5 Branded Women and especially if you are a woman you wonder what you might do to survive.
5 Branded Women is both an anti-war film and a film that shows you just what you might have to do to repel an invader. Nice ensemble performances from the whole cast and a strong if mixed message is delivered.
During WWII, in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, five women are accused of consorting with the enemy after sleeping with womanising German officer Sgt. Keller (Steve Forrest). Four of them have actually succumbed sexually to the charms of the promiscuous Nazi soldier; the fifth is innocent as, beyond kissing him, she chose not to consummate any kind of relationship with him. Reviled by their own people for what they have done, the five women Jovanka (Silvanna Mangano), Daniza (Vera Miles), Marja (Barbara Bel Geddes), Mira (Carla Gravina) and Ljuba (Jeanne Moreau) are shaven bald and kicked out of town. They wander aimlessly through the countryside, bitter and angry at being treated so harshly simply for falling in love, and eventually decide to redeem themselves by joining up with the local partisans, led by the ruthlessly disciplined Velko (Van Heflin). It is an uneasy alliance at best, but gradually a mutual respect forms between the women and their comrades-in-arms.
Five Branded Women is well-acted and well-written throughout. It fares especially well when highlighting the cruel ironies and senseless contradictions of war. Ljuba begins to enjoy the company of a German prisoner, but is reluctantly compelled to shoot him in the back when he tries to run away. Daniza is branded unjustly when she didn't even sleep with the Nazi however, when she sleeps with one of her own men (subsequently falling asleep while on watch) she is sentenced to death for misconduct. Many films over the years have pointed out the idiocies and wastefulness of war, and Five Branded Women is another to add to that list but it presents its points powerfully, economically and persuasively, thanks in no small part to the stark photography. It has a surprisingly high calibre cast for this sort of thing too, with the least well-known of the main actors (Mangano) being, curiously, the one entrusted with the meatiest role. She acquits herself very well, being neither outshined nor out-acted by her illustrious co-stars; her physically strong but emotionally stronger heroine acts as a real focal point for the whole story. Overall, Five Branded Women is a surprisingly tough, fresh and worthwhile war film, one that is particularly ripe for rediscovery.
The casting of Vera Miles and Barbara Bel Geddes among the European actresses was a clear ploy to make this film resonate with American audiences whom during this period were more accustomed to light, frivolous films. Films of a more serious and thoughtful nature were mostly coming from Europe. At the dawn of the 60s this was a shocking exploitation film, preying on women's feelings of vanity, Americans' collective puritanism about sex, and our waning jingoism. It would be interesting to see how audiences would react to it now.
Actually, although all of that biographical stuff may sound irrelevant to the exhibit before us, it's not. Judging from his films, Ritt's stint in the poverty-stricken racist South didn't infuse him with a particularly leftist point of view or a hatred of Southerners or capitalism or anything so simple minded. Instead, it seems to have sensitized him to the problems of poverty itself, and ignorance and divided allegiances. It was a complicated dynamic.
I'm trying to get out from behind this damned lectern but my shoe seems to be caught on something. Let me give it another tug. There.
A handful of famous international female stars in an occupied Yugoslavian village in 1943 are accused of having had what the French of the period called "collaboration horizontale" and Keats called the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", with German troops, and specifically with Steve Forrest, an arrogant womanizer who gets the same treatment from the furious villagers as Abelard got for lusting after Heloise.
The errant girls get their heads shaved and booted out of town, following which they have more adventures on their journey than Huckleberry Finn. They fall in with a group of Yugoslav partisans fighting the Germans. The partisans have one rule above all others. No fraternizing among the men and women. Or else. Some men, though, are prompted by their glands to act like satyrs grazing on the lawns, and shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Of course, Vera Miles has to go and willingly fraternize with Harry Guardino, who sheds his usual earnest Italian-American screen persona for a properly goatish performance. "We could die tomorrow," he tells the frightened Vera Miles before throwing himself on her. As a matter of fact, he's right, because the partisan leader, Van Heflin, catches them the next morning.
Van Heflin is quite good. He usually is, despite his beetling brows and pop eyes. He has an especially good moment when there is a pause in the battling and intrigue and Sylvana Mangano bitterly accuses him of caring about nothing but killing. Heflin has no ready answer. He pauses, gulps, manages to say, "I want . . .", and then quickly walks away. It doesn't sound like much but it's a very neat little scene.
There are quite a few scenes in which the women and the partisans talk about human nature, killing, violence, and will there ever be peace or will the war just go on and on and on? The philosophy is strictly routine, and if it weren't for minor touches in the direction and some of the acting -- Jeanne Moreau and Richard Baseheart -- the film would be more ordinary than it is. Carla Gravina has a tall, fey presence that's almost worth the price Steve Forrest pays for impregnating her. Barbara Bel Geddes is miscast. She's not a Yugoslav peasant in black stockings and German boots. She's the well-bred, middle-class illustrator of "Vertigo" and the well-bred, middle-class wife of a Public Health Service officer in "Panic in the Streets." I'm sorry. I just don't see her rolling around in a muddy pig style with some German enlisted man.
I don't know why, but I remember seeing this with my brother in a theater on North Broad Street in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when it was released. Something to do with long-term memory. Tell me, Doc, is my hippocampus turning into flan? Give it to me straight. I can take it.
While all given Yugoslav names, the five women of the title are plainly cast with the international box office in mind; although neither of the American contingent - Vera Miles & Barbara Bel Geddes - get sufficient screen time to make much of an impression. With the exception of Richard Basehart's Good German, the principal male characters all come across as creeps. Van Heflin's partisan leader is a sanctimonious bore, while Harry Guardino's overactive loins (SPOILER COMING) directly lead to Miles' death. (He plainly made no attempt to enlighten the court martial that it was entirely him who was responsible and it that it was he who left his post to get his paws on Miles; instead he just brags about all the Germans he's killed. The other partisans meanwhile are far too quick to stick her in front of the firing squad along with him.)
The whole thing leaves a pretty bad taste in the mouth, and you certainly come away from it feeling soiled at the waste and squalor depicted, although not necessarily in the ways that the film's makers intended.