This movie from Pasquale Festa Campanile goes someway towards bridging a gap between the two forms of cinema for which Italy is generally noted: realism and 'Spaghetti' westerns. Another distinctive score from Ennio Morricone swings from the quirky hiccups of wordless vocals to the lush, melancholic strings that swell each time Umberto Orsini's private and Virna Lisi's illiterate peasant woman enjoy a tender moment, while the obvious eye on an international market is displayed by the casting of Rod Steiger in the role of the general.
More a road movie than a war film, the conflict merely acts as a backdrop to writer Luigi Malerba's examination of the lengths to which people will go to survive and the manner in which personal honour is forsaken at times of extreme hardship. The three principal characters can be seen as representatives of the characters of war officers, foot soldiers and civilians. All are mistrustful of the other for much of the film, and constantly betray one another; despite entering into an uneasy liaison to transport the General behind Italian lines in return for a 1000 lira reward, the private and the peasant woman steal or hide food from each other, even as they fall in love, while the General treats both with a kind of weary contempt for much of the picture. However, the simple wisdom of the otherwise vaguely oafish private ("If the world were full of gentlemen there'd be no war" he declares when the General tries to explain the Geneva Convention as a gentlemen's agreement to him), coupled with the desire of the peasant woman to better herself, gradually chip away at his cold exterior until, as the film approaches its climax, the trio are transformed from captors and prisoner into travelling companions who must work together to survive. Ironically, as the imbalance of their relative social standings is erased, another lower class must be found and is done so in the ragged form of a one-eared donkey.
Filmed in lush colour that almost saturates the screen at times, the film offers some marvellous landscapes of Italian countryside contrasted with frequent shots of rocky terrain. The characters stumble through this landscape with little idea of where they are headed, following the sounds of battle as they seek to catch the retreating Italian lines. Steiger rarely stretches himself in his role as the General, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; in full flow he can be a little overbearing, and this isn't the kind of film to benefit from that kind of performance. Orsini, seemingly a little-known actor outside of his native country, gives a decent performance in a role that is occasionally in danger of becoming a little bland at times, while the wonderful Virna Lisi puts in a terrific performance that indicates how badly Hollywood misused her talents during her brief unsuccessful sojourn in the States. Only some abrupt cuts at moments when it appears that we are about to gain a little more insight into the characters, and some poor continuity between scenes mars a film that could otherwise be highly recommended.
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