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Herbert B. Leonard
I've recently become enamored with the Italian Euro War genre, a very obscure part of Italian cult cinema from 1967 to about 1970 when the financial success of films like THE DIRTY DOZEN, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE caught the attention of Italian producers who sensed that the glory years of the Spaghetti Western (1964 - 1968) were winding down. The cinema is an industry just like any other and there was a need to find new things to make movies about.
So between 1967 (right on the heels of THE DIRTY DOZEN) and 1971 about 50 - 75 of these war potboilers were made; A concise list of all candidates from the classic period would be helpful to see how the trend changed from experimental & rather daring efforts like DESERT COMMANDOS to jumbled garbage like Joe D'amato's HEROES IN HELL (1973). Upon closer inspection the best known examples (FIVE FOR HELL, BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, "Eagles Over London") emerge as Spaghetti Westerns re-defined to depict battle carnage rather than dusty shootouts between Pistoleros & Gringos. The majority of them are rather bland & un-involving (CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS, THE RANGERS) some unexpectedly moving in a way that transcends their nature as B-grade genre films (SALT IN THE WOUND/THE LIBERATORS) and others are just plain weird enough to be remarkable (COMMANDOS, HELL IN NORMANDY) simply by having been made at all.
There are also sub-routines to plot structure and settings that became the formulas by which stories would be spun out of a vacuum -- none of them are really based on actual events (BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN being the big exception, and perhaps the most satisfying on a traditional basis as a "war movie") and usually involved small unit military operations to keep budgets under control. The two main categories were Desert Epics such as this one, set in Northern Africa and making good use of the desert conditions as plot devices, and then the French Villa Commando Raid Missions, where elite special ops squads would be sent to infiltrate command facilities or weapons labs (usually housed in large French villas in the middle of the woods) to avert certain doom for their armies at Normandy -- universally depicted by edited-in newsreel footage of WW2 destruction, usually tastefully tinted in some sort of Robert Indiana like neon pop art method, and with the Spanish countryside subbing for France.
This is of course an example of the Desert Epic crossed with the Commando Raid genres and emerges as one of the more potent efforts, with convincing location photography filmed in Morocco, excellent performances by the ensemble cast of genre actors (Horst Frank from THE GRAND DUEL and good old Franco Fantasia from MURDER MANSION being the most recognizable faces), noble attention to period detail and a script that allows for some genuine conflict within the group to build as the obstacles against them mount. And true to form the Italians even work a gorgeous, exotic woman or five into the mix (including a Peplum-inspired Belly Dancing Scene), with a crackerjack twist ending that manages to tweak a good War Is Hell moment out of thin air.
The War Is Hell moment is of course always going to be the payoff when looking at these films, since because of their subject matter they cannot simply be entertainments -- something the Italians themselves seemed aware of even when stumbling around the issue at times. Usually these moments are imposed on the story by showing atrocities like German massacres of civilians (CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS) or the execution of the movie's leading lady (FIVE FOR HELL). By contrast, DESERT COMMANDOS actually has two or three War Is Hell moments but they are so cleverly worked into the structure of the plot that you don't notice. The film is also rather daring in that it's "heroes" are clearly the German commandos -- who's leaders were trying to conquer the world, remember -- and if they accomplish their mission (assassinating Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at a summit meeting in Casablanca) they will win the war. By getting us to sympathize with and root for the plucky, resourceful and seemingly rational & honorable German commandos, Umberto Lenzi sets up the viewer for a shock that would not have been nearly as potent as if these were allied commandos going after der Shickelgruber.
What is interesting is that the shock comes after the movie is over when you realize what you may have been hoping for, rather than it being spelled out by some heavy-handed revelation. The whole movie has a sort of existentialist agenda to it that examines what it might have been like to try and cross the desert for sure, but also what it must have been like to be a German officer & realize that not only was your side doomed to defeat, but would be judged to be on the wrong side of history when all of the bodies are counted. From that perspective the entire movie is a War Is Hell moment, or rather a series of them broken up by the formula scenes involving tanks, gunfights, narrow escapes, heroic sacrifices, bold speeches about the nature of humanity and a request for us to consider the German army like our own army -- as a collection of men, each with their own strengths & weaknesses. DESERT COMMANDOS was way ahead of it's time and there may be a lesson in here for those of us who have perhaps forgotten what war is really all about, which is breaking things and killing people. Being ruthless and unapologetic may seem cruel or barbaric, but it can often result in the only thing good about war, which is it's ending.
8/10: Look for this on cheapo box set called "50 ACTION CLASSICS" and on a double movie DVD you can sometime find at the dollar stores. You'll watch it more than once.
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