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Sarah Frances Conkle
One Of The Best Italian Spaghetti Euro War Thrillers
I cannot speak highly enough of this movie. Made available over the years under such varied titles as WAR DEVILS, THE LEOPARDS OF WAR and CODE NAME RED DEVIL, Bitto Albertini's contribution to the 1967 - 1971 Italian Spaghetti Euro War cycle is one of the most enjoyable entries to the mini-boom of low budget WW2 potboilers churned out by the Italians in the wake of the box office success of THE DIRTY DOZEN and TOBRUK. I am completely fascinated by the mini-genre, mostly because of how the films tend to have had a cartoonish air of make believe about them that is reminiscent of playing Army Guy as a kid in the sandpit near the lake house up in Maine during summer vacations. They are B grade genre movie quickies made on the cheap, and this one is probably better than most.
The stories usually took one of two forms, either "French Villa" commando raids ala THE DIRTY DOZEN, with a squad of misfits on a do or die mission to infiltrate & destroy some country manor where the Nazis are cooking up a secret weapon, or the "Desert Battle" variant where a legion of soldiers would face off in Tunisia to try and stop Rommel from paving over North Africa. Then there would be the standard plot points for the story to check off: The Training Sequence, the Withering Assault meant to trim the cast down just to those with speaking roles; the Sadistic Gruppenfuhrer scene were the vicious SS kommandant of the Nazi legions demonstrates that while the Italians may have started out as Fascists who collaborated with the Germans in WW2 they weren't as bad as the Nazis; a War Is Hell interlude with some unspeakable atrocity meant to demonstrate that while the movie may be fun, fun is fun but War Is Hell; a Disarming The Mine sequence where the soldiers have a tense moment or three trying to disarm a landmine, a cheap but effective way to build tension; the Singing Nazis interlude where the decadent Nazi officers are seen drinking schnapps and singing some drunken ode to der Vaterland; the Heroic Sacrifice treatment when one of the team members sacrifices himself heroically for the good of the mission; and a Final Showdown usually between the intrepid commando leader and the less vicious, honorable Wehrmacht officer who has found mutual respect for the intrepid commando leader. There are slight variations including the obligatory Romantic Partisan or Lost Nurses angle thrown in by the Italians, who always made a point to work some attractive 20 year old women into their war movies. God bless 'em.
What makes WAR DEVILS so remarkable is that Bitto Albertini managed to not only combine both the French Villa raid and Desert Battle variations into a single script, but actually infuses the story with a genuine sense of humanity for once. The plot here concerns a good-natured Wehrmach commander (Venantino Venantini, who's baritone voice opens the film & sets up composer Marcello Giombini's memorable musical score) and a devil may care American commando squad leader (Guy Madison, professional, smooth and cool as always) who find themselves stranded in the desert together after a tank battle -- comprised of footage from Georgio Ferroni's THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN to keep the production costs down -- who's two units must work together to get back to their respective lines before dying of dehydration. After a "parting scene" that is right out of a Western the film changes gear and the two find themselves pitted against each other again in France when Madison's commandos (a different squad, since they all bought the farm out in the desert) are assigned to a mission raiding a French Villa who's forces are under Venantini's command. The twist on the story being that instead of destroying a Nazi secret weapon the commandos are instead assigned to rescue an allied officer with knowledge of a secret weapon program, who is himself sworn to secrecy or death.
The reason why it all works is largely due to Venantino Venantini's performance as a principled, level-headed man who is weary of the war and it's endless carnage, and has learned to value the life of even those who should be his enemy. He has found himself in command not because he seeks glory, but because he is loyal to his country and can see the duality of war as a necessary evil. Guy Madison is also good but plays his role with a more cynical sense of chagrin, and when he tells Venantini that he'll see him in Berlin there's a sense of inevitability to it that even Venantini accepts. He knows Germany is doomed but it's his duty to serve, and will do so even if it means that someday one of them will have to shoot the other in the back. War is, after all, Hell.
But because of the way the plot is structured this is a fast moving and rather energetic little potboiler, with great music, offbeat though low-key cinematography, some great lines about the futility of war and a high enough body count & images of things being blown up real good to keep any action/adventure fan entertained, regardless of whether or not the uniforms are right and the equipment accurate to the period. You get caught up in the film's human story, which is the quality that WAR DEVILS shares with the other exceptional efforts from the Euro War fad: DESERT COMMANDOS, THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, FIVE FOR HELL, EAGLES OVER London and DESERT BATTLE. They may not have been on the same scope as the great Hollywood war epics but for low budget B grade cinema you can do a lot worse.
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