This one could have easily been called LITTLE LOST PANZER ON THE RANGE, and is a nearly brain dead but nonetheless enjoyable Spaghetti Western masquerading as a war thriller. Since Spaghetti Westerns are essentially cartoons for grown-ups, I can see how BATTLE OF THE LAST PANZER has confused many viewers into thinking it a failure. There are no "good guys" in this movie (a quality shared with Spaghetti), but there are no real "bad guys" either, which is perhaps the movie's biggest flaw -- it's hard to figure out whom exactly one should be rooting for, but one of the characters helpfully states straight out the movie's agenda: There are no good or bad nations, only good or bad men. A worthy and romantic conclusion to be sure but in direct conflict with the traditional role that Germans play in mainstream WW2 movies, which is to be the villains. Just ask Steven Spielberg.
So like Umberto Lenzi's DESERT COMMANDOS, here is a low budget pre- DAS BOOT war movie that asks us to consider the German soldiers as people with the same kind of good/bad dualities that exist within even the most noble of us. "Stan Cooper" plays a more or less straight-laced young German Lt. in command of what is portrayed as the last functioning Panzer tank still fighting World War II, cut off from German lines after a devastating ambush knocks out all of the other Panzers in his column retreating from Normandy after the allied D-Day invasion, the German war effort obviously lost beyond any hope & the Nazis in a near panic as defeat looms. The majority of the film depicts Cooper and his crew roaming the faux-French countryside -- which will look eerily familiar to anyone who has seen at least three Spaghetti Westerns, since most were filmed on the same Spanish exterior locations -- encountering various indigenous locals, fighting off allied elements, and contemplating the meaning of service, loyalty, the value of life, and the price of failure to follow orders. The usual stuff, competently staged & filmed by true professionals. Whether or not the tanks or other equipment used are historically accurate is irrelevant: get over it. This is a well made movie, even if incredibly stupid if you stop to think about it.
Regardless, all of that works pretty well until the film stumbles when the element of a woman is arbitrarily interjected, and Cooper finds himself falling in love with a hostage (blond Erna Schürer, a classic beauty in every sense of the term) who has volunteered to lead the wayward tank crew back to German lines. Skirmishes with odd looking war surplus garbed Partisans and headline Gringo star Guy Madison's ineffectual American brigade kill time and raise the body count, punctuated by a fascinating combat sequence where director Jose Luis Merino -- best known for his Gothic Horror thrillers -- colors his film with nearly opaque red and blue filters. Another interesting moment comes when Cooper is allowed access to the body of his new lust-thang and the thought of his men, his mission, and the danger they are in causes a certain amount of post traumatic stress disorder coitus interruptus, much to the annoyance of his would be squeeze. The romance subplot is perhaps the film's other major flaw but it does allow for some dimension to be added to the character of this zealous, ultra-loyal German officer and leads to the eventual cracking of his surface to let some of the humanity come through.
But the ending is almost an unforgivable cop-out, a seemingly arbitrary "War Is Hell" moment added to show viewers the futility of it all, in case we missed the point on our own & were having fun. In the end Merino's message seems to be that war isn't fun but it can be entertaining for others to watch, especially if you can get your hands on a big, cool looking working tank, a pretty girl or two and some moments of choreographed destruction. The final tank battle is actually very reminiscent of a show down on the streets of a dusty Western town between the hero & the villain, and Merino chose to have the two tanks be identical to sort of tell us that one is just like the other, like Radio Raheem's LOVE and HATE knuckle dusters from DO THE RIGHT THING. It's not the most profound insight into human character ever to pop up in a war movie, but in this case it will have to do.
All in all the movie goes on for about 10 minutes longer than it should have, and while the story is involving for sure it never really resonates on the emotional level that the subject matter would usually endow on a film. So it really is almost a pure example of how the Euro cult genre directors re-tooled their Spaghetti Western approach to ape war movies for the brief period of time (1968 to 1970 or so) that this strange little "Euro War" genre was all the rage, and stands as an instructive example of the process at work. Fans of the Euro B-movie scene from the 1960's/1970's will be well served by taking a look, but anyone in search of a history lesson might want to just see what's on the History Channel. That's not what these movies were made for, and holding it accountable for failing to rise to a standard imposed upon it by a future generation with different social mores isn't fair.
7/10; look for it on one of those bargain priced multi-disc DVD box sets for about $9, and make up your own mind.
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