Thursday, October 2, 2008


When British Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger of "North to Alaska") with his stiff upper lip meets the five convicts from all parts of the globe who are going to help him carry out his difficult but important mission, he informs them from the start: "You men were not my choice for this mission. Intelligence seems to think that your peculiar talents could be of some value but don't for a moment imagine that serving under me will be easier than the prisons you came from. You've all been offered pardons to undertake this mission. You've given your word to cooperate and I expect you to keep it." Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone of "Nevada Smith") is the most literate with a college degree in psychology and he becomes the organizer of the bunch. Mickey Rooney of the famous MGM "Andy Hardy" movies is an Irishman named Terry Scanlon; his specialties including picking locks and demolitions unless he can find a good bottle of corn whiskey to distract him. Edd Byrnes of TV's "77 Sunset Strip" is the forger Simon Fell. Tough guy actor Henry Silva of "Ocean's 11" is the cold-blooded assassin John Durrell, a man of few words whose actions speak far more eloquently than his language. Finally, William Campbell is pretty boy Jean Saval who can impersonate anybody. Mace and these men are part of an overall Allied invasion of the southern Europe, principally the Balkans. Their mission is to distract the Nazis from the actual invasion by liberating a high-ranking officer General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte of "A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die") from a Nazi prison stronghold who can unite the partisans and keep the German Army busy.

Producer & director Roger Corman earned a reputation cranking out low budget, drive-in movie creature features, but "The Secret Invasion" represents a drastic departure of his usual nonsense. This above-average World War II epic is bolstered by a strong cast headed by English actor Stewart Granger and scenic locations in both Croatia and Yugoslavia that lend a sense of authenticity to this impossible mission epic. Furthermore, produced as it was in 1964, "The Secret Invasion" beat director Robert Aldritch's superior pardon the convicts for a top secret classified mission "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) by three years. Mind you, "The Secret Invasion" wasn't the top box office draw of 1964 that "The Dirty Dozen" proved it was in 1967, but this offbeat World War II movie is still pretty damned good in and of itself.

Our heroes enter the Balkans by way of a fishing boat, rather like Gregory Peck and his companions in "The Guns of Navarone," but things go awry when Simon tries to escape and the others have to dive over the side and swim around behind a Nazi patrol boat to kill the enemy. Once they enter the country, they start to work on a plan, but their plans are short-lived because the Nazis capture a resistance leader and he cracks under torture. Eventually, after a running roof-top gun battle between our heroes and the Nazis, the Germans are able to capture the good guys. As Roberto observes when the Nazis demand their surrender, they had planned all along to get into the prison one way or another. Once they are prisoners, they have to put up with the former commandant's eternal interrogations, but our heroes fool him long enough for Scanlon to pick the lock of their cell with a tool devised from dinner ware while Saval impersonates him. They manage to escape with General Quadri. The first convict to bite the dust is Simon Fell. Scanlon manages to blow up a machine gun nest in a fortified battlement but Major Mace receives a nasty leg wound and opts to lead their pursuers in the wrong direction. When the remainder of the convicts reach the resistance holed up in a monastery, they are surprised to learn that General Quadri is not General Quadri but instead an imposter! Now, how do they get out of this tight spot? "The Secret Invasion" qualifies as one of the few times that director Roger Corman proved that he could make a bigger budget picture. There's nothing really outlandish in R. Wright Campbell's formulaic screenplay. One of the most memorable scenes has one of the convicts smothering an infant to keep it from crying out and alerting the Nazis about their whereabouts. The irony is that the character that smothers the child while its mother stood beside him had no idea what he was doing when he did it.

Hardcore World War II movie fanatics shouldn't miss this landmark pardon the convicts spectacle.

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