Thursday, November 26, 2009


"Autopsy" director Armando Crispino's historically inaccurate but nevertheless gripping World War II behind-enemy-lines, secret-mission thriller "Commandos" (***1/2 out of ****) qualifies as a rugged, gritty, suspenseful combat epic. This cynical Italian produced melodrama about a group of Italian-Americans masquerading as Royal Italian infantry so they can capture an oasis on the eve of the North African campaign in early 1942 removes any traces of glamour about war. Crispino and fellow scenarists Lucio Battistrada of "Crime Boss," Stefano Strucchi, and Dario Argento of "Suspiria" drew their robust screenplay from a short story by Israel filmmaker Menahem Golan as well as a story by Don Martin of "The Storm Rider" and Teutonic producer Arthur Brauner. Brauner is a landmark German filmmaker who refurbished the "Dr. Mabuse" franchise in the early 1960s. Lee Van Cleef of “For A Few Dollars More” delivers a riveting performance as a belligerent, battle-scarred Bataan hero who survived, along with two other companions, a death-defying ordeal. He relives the horror of the experience throughout “Commandos.” Van Cleef has a lot to sink his teeth into and he dominates the action.

The supporting cast is good, particularly Joachim Fuchsberger as Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen, nicknamed the professor because he studied insects at the university. Götz George shines as Oberleutnant Rudi, the type who could have excelled as dedicated Hitler Youth. The most unusual role—as it says something about the difference between the Allied armies and the Axis foe—belongs to actress Marilù Tolo who plays a prostitute named Adriana. Although she doesn't play a major part, she poses an interesting complication for our heroes. Interestingly, she points out that she canearn more money in the army camp than back home. The two characters who triumph over adversity at the conclusion were well known character actors. Giovanni Scratuglia played in many Spaghetti westerns, while Heinz Reincke played one of the two German pilots that strafed the beaches in “The Longest Day.”

The conceit of "Commandos" is that our heroes are descendents of genuine Italians, and Sergeant Sullivan and his right-hand man Dino (Romano Puppo of "Death Rides A Horse") have spent a month training them for the mission. Sullivan has little regard for most of them, but he has nothing but sheer contempt for his superior officer, Captain Valli (Jack Kelly of "To Hell & Back") who has never baptized in combat. Sullivan and Valli get off to a bad start when Sullivan describes their objective as “some harebrained mission you made up yourself.” Valli defends the mission and his knowledge. “I know this operation exactly, right down to the last detail.” Sullivan criticizes Valli’s shortage of experience. “You got a lot of bright ideas, Captain, but do you know what killing is—exactly—with these (makes gestures with his hands) and (brandishing a bayonet) this?”

Later, during the inevitable briefing session,Valli explains they will parachute near their destination. They will drop two or three miles from the objective and then take an hour to march to the Italian garrison and occupy it. Arriving after dark, they encounter soon opposition and have to resort to their machine guns instead of knives. Captain Valli refuses to watch Sullivan turn the raid into a massacre and he spares the lives of Italian Lt. Tomassini (Marino Mase of "The Five Man Army") and many of his troops. Valli warns Tomassini that the lives of his men depend on his cooperation with Sullivan and him. “I mean exactly what I say so you better get that through your head.” Germans from a nearby base show up for spaghetti and our heroes struggle to suppress any suspicious behavior, especially from Rudi who wants to locate his missing engineers. Sullivan kills the surviving German engineer, but during the struggle the German fires Sullivan's pistol. Everybody stops what they are doing and disperses into the open with guns drawn. A soldier apologizes for shooting at a jackal. No sooner do the Germans leave than the Italian hatch a plan of escape.

They rig up a hook that enables them to shut off the electricity in the barracks where they are being held. They jump the guards, disarm them, disable a couple of transports and take off in another truck to the German camp. Early the next day, Valli and Sullivan cut them off and gun them down. Meanwhile, the Germans are about to pull out and the German commanding officer lets Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen inform the Italians to blow up the wells before they leave. Initially, Agen believes that he is just going to visit an old friend. After Agen leaves, one of the wounded Italians makes it to the German lines and informs them that the Italians are impostors. Agen is wearing the headset and talking to his commandant when he learns this alarming news. Eventually, the Germans arrive and it turns into a pitched battle. Only one Italian and one German survive the firefight and they throw away their guns and march off into the desert at fade-out

The themes of "Commandos" include the inhumanity of war, experienced versus inexperienced combatants, battlefield shock, and the duty that an officer has both to his men and the mission. The irony is that the Germans and the Italians are depicted with greater sympathy than the tough guy Americans. The German soldiers get along with each other as do the Italians, but the Americans clash, principally Sullivan and Valli. Other instances of irony occur that heighten the philosophical mindset of “Commandos.” The ending summarizes the madness of war as depicted here. Allied command scrubs the mission that Captain Valli has carefully orchestrated and he cannot accept this change of mind. Surprisingly, Sergeant Sullivan refuses to obey higher authority. Consequently, "Commandos" concludes with the Americans exploding the water holes and fighting the Germans with tragic results for both Sullivan and Valli.

Mind you, the authenticity of the action doesn't bear close scrutiny. Most military
enthusiasts will recognize the flaws immediately. For example, the Afrika Korps tanks are not the genuine vehicles. Instead, they are repainted U.S. Army Chaffee and Walker Bulldog tanks with German insignia, and the M3A1 submachine guns that the Americans tote weren't available for another year. Allowances must be made, however, and the Cold War tanks overlooked since the German tanks were long since kaput, while the "Dirty Dozen" machine guns look cool. Incidentally, the first American commandos were the U.S. Rangers as portrayed in the James Garner World War II movie "Darby's Rangers."

The sun-scorched widescreen photography of "Taste of Death" lenser Benito Frattari makes this desert-locked minor war film look sprawling and the nocturnal actions scenes have a perilous, primitive quality. The strident music of composer Mario Nascimbene enhances the suspense, especially when Sullivan and his men search for a wounded German engineer who remains at large in the compound. Nascimbene makes superb use of classical music from composer Edvard Grieg, specifically "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Whatever the case, “Commandos” neither glorifies nor glamorizes combat. Fighting is a hard sweaty business. Sergeant Sullivan summarizes it succinctly to Captain Valli in an earlier scene. “Do you know what blood smells like, Captain? It’s a hot smell, and it can get things messed up, too, because most men die hard.”