Wow. I had to watch it again to be certain, and sure enough this is one of the finest movies about war I have ever seen. That it was made as part of the Italian Euro War phenomenon of 1967 - 1970 is even more remarkable & results in a rating score that is perhaps a bit inflated, but totally earned. Don't let the low budget deceive you: this movie is a masterpiece.
The highlight of the film for me is during the climactic battle scene where three Yanks (George Hilton, Ray Saunders, and the insane Klaus Kinski) hold off a battalion of Waffentroops in a display of scrotal fortitude that needs to be seen to be believed. At one point Klaus goes bonkers, single handedly charges into an approaching German Panzer column & takes no prisoners. The rage seething from Kinski's every pore is infectious, making viewers howl with glee as he metes out death and for about a minute Klaus becomes a physical embodiment of the Hell that is war. It is a frightening, hilarious and exhilarating moment that has no precedent and nothing since quite like it.
The version I located is the 93 minute English language print of SALT IN THE WOUND, which ends on a very poignant note with George Hilton saluting a nameless cross in a generic looking American WW2 cemetery in the Italian countryside. Europe is dotted with such places, which are a physical reminder of how the world faced down evil, with American blood watering the roots of freedom for people in other lands. Another great testament to Kinski's brilliance as an actor is how even with his voice dubbed by some guy that sounds like Bert from "Sesame Street" he *STILL* plays an American G.I. that comes across as more real than any American actor could have done. That his character is a seemingly worthless, unredeemable maggot on society makes the final show of bravado in the face of the enemy even more prescient. We are, after all, a nation of killers. Kinski & the director/writer are merely messengers reminding us of this.
Kinski and Ray Saunders play two American soldiers who have committed murders so heinous that they are condemned for execution before a firing squad. George Hilton portrays the green as grass West Point graduate student playing soldier, who takes custody of the pair and finds himself on a strange journey reminiscent of THE DEFIANT ONES after the execution party is ambushed by German troops. The trio learn to hate each other's guts with respect and take shelter in a fortress like city in Ye Olde Italy that has been waiting for liberation by allied forces, leading to an awkwardly appropriate scene where the three are welcomed as conquering heroes. Surprises await as German forces target the town for annihilation & the three find out that the townspeople's first impression of them as heroes was absolutely correct.
The majority of these Italian Euro War movies are Spaghetti Westerns with tanks instead of horses. This one is different. Sure, there is the sort of heavy handed larger than life characterization of the main players which the best of the Spaghetti's are all distinguished by. There is also an intoxicating artiness to certain shots: Misty battlefields, the ancient Italian village, bizarre footage of the Panzer tanks crashing down trees in a way that makes them seem to burst right out of the screen. The film has a cartoonish hyper reality to it that makes the authenticity of costuming or equipment secondary to the moments created -- another quality shared with a Western. But at the end there's a lump in your throat, and you actually do understand something about the nature of war & the men that fought it. It is unexpectedly moving and totally unique.
Most of the Euro War movies I have encountered have a sort of imposed emotional impact that never quite resonates, artificially added onto what are essentially popcorn crunchers. I'm actually working on a theory about why the genre seems to be so universally ridiculed, which is that the writers & directors sought to add weightiness to their B-grade genre thrillers by having them be about the weightiest subject of all, World War II. The annoyance comes in having the movies essentially result in an entertainment rather than a documentary about the horrors of combat with cleverly simulated battle scenes, like PLATOON or ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. The Italians seemed more interested in providing entertainments than lessons in history. And certainly could not have cared less about painting an accurate picture of how being caught up in such a situation would literally change a man, finding both the worst and best in their human character even without them realizing it was happening.
Well, here is one that does, and it deserves to be seen by modern day audiences restored to it's complete length (Calling Blue Underground??). People might actually be able to learn something from it, and reflect upon the price that must be paid to confront tyranny. SALT IN THE WOUND neither truly glorifies war nor does it completely condemn the practice, just examines how it profoundly shapes the men who fight it, and the change of pace will catch even the most jaded viewer off guard.
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