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Leon Klimovsky's LEGION OF NO RETURN (or BRIDGE OVER THE ELBE) is another one of those Italian & Spanish made European genre films from the 1967 - 1971 period when THE DIRTY DOZEN and GUNS OF NAVARRONE were the big formulas to rip off. The film is essentially a Spaghetti Western, as evidenced by Michele Lacerenza's seemingly misplaced musical score, with guys dressed up like G.I. Joe instead of cowboys, driving in jeeps instead of riding horses, and carrying machine guns instead of six-shooters.
And like any Spaghetti Western worth it's salt we get a name-brand American star (Tab Hunter) collecting some alimony money during the tail end of his career, a stable of familiar looking Euro genre actors hiding under their US surplus military garb instead of peeking out from under cowboy hats (Daniele Vargas, Barta Barri, Claudio Trionfi, Ángel del Pozo), and the scriptwriters were even resourceful enough to write in a couple of roles for some good looking women (Erika Wallner and veteran genre actress Rosanna Yanni) to remind us of what we were fighting for.
And like a good Italian/Spanish Spaghetti Western, history goes out the window with any sense of realism, which is remarkable since the story is derived from a novel about the incident in question by Lou Carrigan. I've not read Carrigan's novel but the pulp potboiler basics of the story is familiar territory to anyone who may have seen a couple of these Italian produced WW2 films from the late 1960s: A platoon of hand-picked commandos with unsavory pasts & specialized killing skills is sent to try and win the entire Second World War by beating the Russians to an important bridge spanning the Elbe River, which looks remarkably like either a cheap special effects model or a secondary road crossing spanning some irrigation canal in the Spanish countryside, but never mind. The interchangeable plot combines elements of THE DIRTY DOZEN's misfit commando squad formula with THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE's impregnable fortress idea, with the bridge guarded by a battalion of crack German Waffentroops under the command of a brutal crazed Gruppenfuhrer (complete with a "Dr. Strangelove" inspired dead arm strapped to his Iron Cross) who's cynicism about the way the war has turned against Germany is only matched by his single-minded devotion to the order to allow no one to cross the bridge and to take no prisoners. This applies even his own men, since after all War Is Hell.
Guys scamper around dressed up in army uniforms and pretending to spout off military jargon, with the quirky individual traits of the commando squad being employed in a reverse order of who gets killed off, the most memorable character being a gruff, amoral gunnery sergeant type who brought his pet chicken to WW2 with him. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Klimovsky and his scriptwriters manage to re-define the obligatory opening montage of WW2 stock footage to set the film up, complete with a doleful sounding narrator who more or less sums up the complexity of the Normandy invasion into a fifteen second sound byte.
I adore these Euro War potboilers because they resemble more than anything else me & my knuckle-headed brothers, relatives and friends playing Army Guy in the sand pit near the summer home of our uncle off Watchik Lake up in Maine. Nobody in the entire film recites one mundane line of dialog, which is all right out of the pages of "Sgt. Rock" and allows the Yankee squad -- who don't seem to be carrying much in the way of equipment or even ammunition on their commando mission -- lots of time to sit around having Spaghetti Western type discussions out in the open behind enemy lines. The film is a display of sentiment, the prevailing sentiment being an apparent wish by the Italians & Spaniards who made the film to cast themselves on the sides of the Allies and show that while their own governments of the times may have collaborated with the Germans, they weren't as scurrilous or evil as the Nazis. To demonstrate this we get lots of scenes of Nazis strutting around while playing the Shickelgruber role to the hilt, while inflicting unspeakable losses on the implacable allies in extended War Is Hell sequences that are meant to demonstrate that while fun is fun, War Is Hell.
The two main objections to these films is that they care not one bit about historical accuracy of details like weapons + equipment, and that they try to achieve a sense of being morality plays by having the Hell of war serve as the backdrop for the human dynamics at work in the screenplay. Since it is impossible to deconstruct the insane tragedy of war it's difficult to genuinely object to the formulaic nature of the approach because they celebrate our victory over the Nazis. This one moves along at a brisk pace with a peppy musical score and as such might prove more entertaining than others, and fans of Klimovsky's horror films will have fun trying to spot the recycled sets & locations from his werewolf films with Spanish star Paul Naschy, whom one half expects to see slink out of the background at times to paw at Rosanna Yanni.
It's disposable plastic cinema, made as inexpensively as possible with the intent being to toss it on a double bill with something more or less along the same lines to sell tickets in a movie theater for a week or two. The following week there'd be something just like them there instead to continue the cycle. The only things that made them unique would be who the starring name brand actor was, or who composed the music. Just like a Spaghetti Western.
5/10: Relaxingly stupid, and ultimately worthy of it's obscurity.
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