Tuesday, November 4, 2008


"Hell's Brigade" director Jose Luis Merino's "La Battaglia dell'ultimo panzer" (** out of ****) is a standard-issue World War II actioneer made on a dime-store budget with countless anachronisms, but it isn't as atrocious as most critics contend.

First,this drive-in style movie probably was never intended to be shown in the United States, and its producers were willing to do whatever it took to get their movie made so they cut numerous corners. Second, like every World War II movie made since the 1950s, a lot of the physical elements are clearly wrong. The infamous Nazi Tiger tank is in fact an American M-47 Patton tank, but what else could the producers have done? All Tiger tanks were destroyed in World War II, and this was before the age of digital effects wizardry? Indeed, it appears that the filmmakers turned to the Spanish army to get all those tanks. Unfortunately,unlike their air force with its scores of vintage Nazi training planes, the Spanish military didn't have any Tiger tanks to loan them like they did with their aircraft in the United Artists blockbuster "The Battle of Britain." Look at all those American World War II movies since 1945, they have M-48 Patton tanks clanking through them. The chief difference between the M-47 and the M-48 is in the shape of the turret. Yes, I'd have to agree that the U.S. uniforms are rather lame, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get a movie made.

Nevertheless, I'd say that Giuspee Chiarollo, Giulana Garavaglia & Jose Luis Merino screenplay about one enemy tank caught behind Allied lines after D-Day was a pretty interesting departure for any war movie. Guy Madison of TV's "Buffalo Bill" plays an American commander who thought that he had destroyed all of the Tiger tanks. Predictably, with all its errors, "La Battaglia dell'ultimo panzer" presents itself as an easy target to eviserate for most serious-minded movie consumers who think that they have the critical credentials for the job. Naturally, the dubbing is execrable, but again the producers—like those on the ten-thousand abominable kung fu movies churned out in China—had to work fast. Remember,however, the late 1960s were still the time when most American movie audiences couldn't stand to read subtitles. I remember watching the historically accurate but dramatically lackluster "Tora, Tora, Tora" and the white subtitles used to translate the Japanese leaders, except that these white subtitles got lost in the picture when they appeared against the white Japanese uniforms. Yes, at times the music sounds straight out of a spaghetti western, but it does have the usual drumbeats that mark a military movie.

Remember, these producers probably couldn't afford to pay for the likes of Jerry "Patton" Goldsmith, Elmer "The Great Escape" Bernstein, or Ron "633 Squadron" & "Where Eagles Dare" Goodwin to score the movie. The idea that the U.S. Army would disguise a German tank to get sneak into enemy lines wasn't so bad either. Similarly, portraying the French resistance in such an unsavory light is at least DIFFERENT! Like a lot of late 1960s Spanish/Italian war movies, "La Battaglia dell'ultimo panzer" qualifies as an anti-war movie. Indeed, most war movies are anti-war, but you have to have the blood splattered butchery of warfare to get that point of across. While the Nazi leader (Stan Cooper) is your run-of-the-mill, foaming-at-the-mouth Nazi fanatic, the other Germans emerge as less gung-ho. I like the German war correspondent who wanted to murder the tank commander. You don't see stuff like that in every W.W. II movie. At one point, the movie makes the legitimate statement that nations aren't good or bad but that people can be good and bad. Now, on the serious side, upon learning that the Americans are arriving in their French village to liberate them, a blonde innkeeper babe with the wrong era hair style observes pungently that the Americans liberate everybody except Americans. This was a legitimate complaint that real Nazi propagandists made about the U.S. during World War II about our hypocritical treatment of African-Americans. You don't hear that kind of stuff in Darryl F. Zanuck's "The Longest Day" or Richard Attenborough's "A Bridge Too Far." Granted, "La Battaglia dell'ultimo panzer" is not designed for short-sighted, authenticity-oriented, armchair historians who bring unrealistic expectations to every film that they see.

As an historian with a Ph.D. in World War II movies, I have seen virtually every World War II movie ever made and I'd prefer this lamentable but off-beat epic to one of those pretentious piles of junk with budgets out the butt that make the same mistakes with uniforms, armored equipment, and small arms that this one makes. As a colleague of mine at the university where I work is prone to say: "Remember, it's just a movie."

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