Monday, November 3, 2008


British commandos parachute into Nazi-occupied France before the June 6th Allied invasion scheduled for Normandy against Fortress Europe to destroy a dam in Maurizio Pradeaux's above-average World War II secret mission movie "Churchill's Leopards" (*** out of ****), toplining expatriate American leading man Richard Harrison and German character actor Klaus Kinski. Pradeaux's serious-minded, behind-enemy-lines thriller duplicates the familiar line-up of events that inevitably culminate in the pyrotechnics at the dam at the end of the film. The chief problem here is the hackneyed gimmick of identical twin brothers on which the plausibility of the mission rests and mediocre special effects when the dam is blown to smithereens. "Churchill's Leopards" generates sufficient suspense to keep you interested. The two chief flaws are its paucity of surprises and its cookie-cutter characters bereft of any memorable characteristics.

Italian peplum/Spaghetti western actor Richard Harrison plays dual roles in this Macaroni war movie. He is cast capably enough as both British Army lieutenant Richard Benson and German Wehrmacht officer Hauptman Hans Muller. We are told that Benson and Muller were the sons of a British father and a German mother. The mother ardently supported the policies of Adolf Hitler before she died.

Pradeaux immerses audiences with black & white, documentary World War II footage to establish the proper mood. As the movie opens, a sexy female French Resistance agent stabs Muller to death while he is making love to her in bed. Interestingly, Pradeaux doesn't show the cold, hard steel of the knife plunging into the German's flesh. Moments later, Benson steps into his death brother's boots with a twinge of regret. Later, he is informed that nobody could have been done to prevent Muller's death. The masquerade proves to be no picnic for Benson. He has to contend with the likes of an evil, sagacious Nazi Gestapo officer Captain Holtz (Klaus Kinski of "For A Few Dollars More") who persistently checks up on Benson and chides him about his lust for women. The only thing that differentiates Benson and Muller is a large, ugly scar on his lower right-hand side of his back. This identifying mark plays an important role later in the film.

Meanwhile, in England, the British plan to blast the huge dam with a sophisticated underwater drill furnished to them by the Royal Navy. "Because of the narrowness of the gorge and the position of the dam, it is impregnable to air attack," an older, superior British officer explains to Major Powell (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart of "The Revenge of Spartacus") in the usual briefing before the big mission scene. At least, Pradeaux gets this obligatory scene out of the way early. "If we can break it, the water released will wash away all the roads and important bridges for miles and miles around." The colonel adds that the supply lines of two Panzer divisions will be destroyed. When Powell asked about high altitude bombing as an alternative, his commander points out that the Americans advanced that argument initially, but the experts felt that it wouldn't have been as effective as place a charge in the dam.

The first moment of genuine suspense occurs 28 minutes into the picture when the good guys are hidden in a wagon piled high with hay that the Nazis decide to give the pitchfork test. Appropriately enough, complications make things none-too-easy for Powell and his commandos. The aerial drop took a toll on their explosives equipment. As a result, Powell has to impersonate a priest to confer with Benson about obtaining replacement parts. This hasty arranged rendezvous gets Powell in trouble when a Nazi patrol demands to see his permit and they have to kill them. Holtz selects twenty villagers to execute unless the killer or killers come forward. Pradeaux drums up some suspense in this scene as well as in the final part of the movie as the commandos laboriously drill a hole large enough into the dam to seat a large, cylindrical explosives charge. The Germans storm the dam with Holtz leading the charge.

Klaus Kinski could sleep walk through this role, since he played a similar S.S. Officer in Gianfranco Parolini's "Five for Hell." Incidentally, Kinski served in the German Army in World War II and the British took him prisoner in the Netherlands. Harrison gives his standard but sympathetic tight-lipped performance as a British lieutenant. He has been dubbed as was the entire cast. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Giacomo Rossi-Stuart comes off looking curiously bland. The scenery is spectacular and the dam looks impressive until the pyro-technicians provide a sloppy substitute for it when it explodes.

Wild East Productions has done a superlative job of transferring "I Leopardi di Churchill" to DVD; it's an immaculate widescreen print in 1.85.1 with crisp, clear colors. This formulaic, war-as-a-thrilling-adventure action yarn with the British whipping the Nazis once again, is paired on the Wild East DVD with the Klaus Kinski & George Hilton World War II movie "Salt in the Wound," a.k.a. "The Liberators." Yes, "Salt in the Wound" is more substantial than the superficial but competently staged "I Leopardi di Churchill."

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