Going to take a break from trashy sci-fi movies, getting a little burned out on those. How about a nearly 40-year old Italian war movie?
One of the better European war movies, Commandos was released to Italian theaters on November 19, 1968. It was seen in America first under the title of Sullivan's Marauders, later changed back to Commandos. It has been part of the public domain for the last 20 years or so, and I was able to find a copy on DVD dirt cheap at Wal-Mart, courtesy of the Platinum Disc Corporation.
Commandos clocks in at 98 minutes, which is just about right. The film quality is rather good, with the colors only a bit washed out, but otherwise complaint free. The night battle scene is fairly well-lit, as are most interior building scenes, and overall the sound and music are clean. Not bad at all for a few bucks spent and a few hours on the couch.
And now on to our show...
Our first image is a card that reads, "October, 1942. On the eve of the American landings in North Africa. A secret American commando base. Somewhere in the Mediterranean."
We open in a barracks at this secret base, where Master Sergeant Sullivan is showing a movie to a group of US Army commandos. The movie is stock footage of the Italian war effort in North Africa, which was a mixed bag of impressive victories and smashing defeats. A fair amount of the stock footage shows those flimsy Italian tanks that the English ate like crumpets when they met them.
Master Sergeant Sullivan is played by 43-year old Lee Van Cleef. With his distinctive looks and voice, Van Cleef made a career playing both villains and heroes, especially in westerns. He appeared in 91 movies and 108 television roles, in a very busy span of 38 years. In the mid 1960s, he became a star in Italy, getting meaty roles in numerous Italian spaghetti westerns and action movies (including this one). For my unique tastes, I remember him as Doctor Anderson in 1956's It Conquered the World and the police commish in 1981's Escape From New York. He's a big, imposing man, tall and stocky. In our movie, he's the prototypical hard-driving, battle-hardened, emotionally-stunted, angry, bitter, grumpy old soldier. Van Cleef really went hog wild in post-production, dubbing his lines with exceptional growly vigor. Before coming to the European theater, Sullivan was in the Pacific, where he and a few men "had an entire Jap battalion tied up in the mountains" near Bataan. Only Sullivan and two other men made it out alive, and this brutal fight in the Philippines has made Sullivan so mean and hard.
Sullivan is Top Sarge of a hand-picked unit of Italian-American commandos, selected due to their ethnic ancestry, appearance, fluency in Italian and combat skill. They're being prepped for a daring commando operation behind enemy lines, one that requires that they pose as an Italian supply unit to fool the axis powers. The objective is to raid and seize an isolated but strategically vital watering post out in the desert, killing the Italian Army garrison and taking their place. The oasis will then be relieved by the soon-to-be-landed American Army. These commandos have been training for a full month and are fully capable and ready to accomplish the raid's objectives.
Unfortunately, it seems that the unit's commanding officer was recently injured in a training accident, and now a replacement officer is coming. This will prove to be Captain Valli, played by 40-year old Jack Kelly. A hard-working character actor, Kelly appeared in numerous television and movie roles, I remember him as Jerry Farman from 1956's Forbidden Planet. Wow, he really looks like Richard Crenna!
Sullivan is sure this is going to be a disaster, with this Rear Echelon Mo-Fo who will most likely get them all killed. He mumbles, "There is a machine in the brass department, and it's designed to screw Sullivan." And indeed, Captain Valli, while being smart and a career soldier, has zero combat experience. This fact is most irritating to Sullivan, who constantly (constantly!) reminds everyone that he has killed more than his fair share.
So the Captain comes to visit Sullivan in his room, seeking to break some of the tension. The Captain is conciliatory, honestly trying to enlist the sergeant's aid in helping him complete this mission. He understands that success is dependent on Sullivan's full effort and cooperation. Sullivan, however, is in full-bore bitter, resentful, dangerous, haunted man mode here, hamming it up outrageously. He basically tells the Captain that he thinks he's a worthless OCS wimp and will probably get them all killed. He even waves his knife in front of the Captain's face, taunting him with his lack of combat experience. The Captain, impressively, does not immediately relieve Sullivan of his post for this. They will both do the mission, but neither man is happy about working with the other.
Sullivan vs. Valli, round one.
Now it's night, and a single transport plane drones over the barren North African desert. The stock footage plane is a Piaggio SM.81, a model flown by the Italians in WWII, which makes sense if they are posing as Italians. Inside, Sullivan is making his rounds, inspecting the commandos' gear. He takes a photo of a pretty girl from one of the men, looks on the back, and then tears up the picture. The man leaps to his feet and there's a struggle that the Captain has to break up. Sullivan shows them all that on the back of the photo is "Empire State Photographers", which is a clear breach of "operational security". Oh, please! Sullivan is such an asshole, operational security or not.
Oh, and somebody explain this to me. We see the Captain about to put on a pair of sunglasses. As he does, someone starts to whistle a distinctive tune. At this, the Captain looks around in disgust and tosses the sunglasses away as Sullivan smirks. What the hell was that about? What was that tune?
A few notes about the commando team. Nowhere is an exact number given, but by counting heads during a few scenes of them all together, I can guess that there are at least 22 commandos, plus the Captain and Sullivan. They seem to be armed with M3 Grease Gun submachineguns, Thompson submachineguns, pistols, pineapple-style grenades, and at least three bazookas. The inclusion of the M3s is a technical flub, as they were not introduced into service until 1944 (remember that our movie takes place in 1942).
The time comes to jump, and out into the dark night they leap. They all land safely, bury their chutes and reform. The oasis is just a few miles away, so they line up and head off. Hmm...just a few miles? I'd think that they would be able to hear the airplane from that distance, especially in the open desert. Perhaps they should have jumped in a further distance away?
But, it turns out that they were not heard. The oasis is really more like a small village, with several large buildings spread around the wellhead in an open compound. The commandos sneak up to the perimeter wire, cut it, and spread out. Some men go to the radio shack and capture the operator, assuring that no SOS call will be made. Others sneak into the barracks, creeping through the halls full of sleeping soldiers. Notice on the wall the large framed picture of Mussolini and Hitler standing side by side, a neat touch. Knives flash in the darkness and men die quickly and silently, many not even waking up before they die. In short order we see ten Italians killed, four of them by Sullivan himself. Even the Captain gets his hands bloody, though he clearly isn't the killer that Sullivan is.
Check out the picture behind him.
In one of the weirder and out-of-place moments in the entire film, we zoom in on Sullivan's face as he creeps through the camp. In a quick orange-tinted flashback we see Sullivan's POV as a Japanese soldier charges with a bayonet. The moment fades just as quick, but we're left with the impression that Sullivan is a very unstable man.
Now, unbeknownst to the commandos, there are four German engineers staying the night here, from a nearby German unit. One of them is out taking a stroll because it's too hot for him to sleep and happens across a dead sentry. The German runs for the tool shed where the other engineers are sleeping in their Kubelwagon. He wakes them up and tells them that commandos are in the camp! The Germans wisely decide to get the hell out of there. They slide open the door and push the Kubelwagon outside before starting it up on the roll. They would have escaped, but two commandos see them leaving the shed and open fire. With the first staccato burst of submachinegun fire, the camp becomes a very hot place to be.
In the barracks a fierce firefight develops as the sleeping Italians awake to find knife-wielding commandos in their midst. Guns are grabbed, fighting breaks out and it gets ugly. Elsewhere, a number of Italians hole up in a large stone building, armed with at least two Breda light machineguns. Pinned down for a bit, the commandos eventually storm the building covered by bazooka fire and grenades.
The entire fight is filmed at night, so many shots are dark and murky. Based solely on what I can see onscreen, once the shooting starts, three German engineers and eleven more Italian soldiers die in gunfights, four more of the Italians killed by Sullivan himself. The German Kubelwagon is also destroyed in a flaming boom. In the firefight we see two American commandos killed.
In the end, a number of Italians surrender in the barracks. Watch as they step forward, one of them looks down to see the mark on the floor where he is supposed to stand to be in frame. Sullivan wants to shoot them all down on the spot, but the Captain suddenly has a turn of heart and orders his men to stand down. In other parts of the camp, prisoners are also taken, and when all the fighting is over, the commandos now have a sizeable group of twelve Italian prisoners to deal with. The plan, remember, was to "take no prisoners", but clearly many of the commandos were not happy with killing unarmed men to begin with, so the Captain's change of heart is welcomed. Except by Sullivan, of course, who sees it as nothing but a sign of weakness on the Captain's part. He makes his feelings known vocally and sarcastically, further eroding the commanding presence of the Captain in front of his men.
Of the dozen Italians, the main captive is the commander of the oasis garrison, a Lieutenant Tomassini, played by 29-year old Marino Mase. Mase made a lot of Italian films, but later moved to Hollywood. Here he's a very competent and respected leader, and acts at all times to preserve the lives of his men once they have been taken prisoner. He and Sullivan are obviously at odds, and snarl at each other for the beginning. He looks striking like an older Wilmer Valderrama from That '70s Show.
The Italian Lieutenant, with Valli.
They also have taken prisoner the local Arab family (led by Abu Ali) that I assume owned the oasis before the Italians took it. And as well, they find a prostitute in the main house, a working girl from Italy named Adriana.
She takes the commando raid in stride, seeing it as just a change of customers. Adriana is pretty damn hot, I must say, and spends quite a bit of screen time dressed only in a pair of black panties and a matching bra.
Closest you get to nekkidness in this movie.
Ok, now we have a little interlude away from the oasis. To the north of that oasis is lagered a German Army Tank Regiment (from where the four engineers were attached). We see a number of tanks driving around and a large open-sided tent for the officers. The tanks are actually American-built M-41 Walker Bulldogs and M-24 Chaffees, borrowed from an Italian Army unit for this movie, painted Afrika Korps tan with swastikas and palm tree badges. Just a guess, but as our movie was filmed entirely on the island of Sardinia, I think they're from the 21st Infantry Division, the famed "Sardinia Grenadiers".
Here we will meet two German officers, two Oberleutnants, one a former professor, and the other an idealistic young Nazi Party member. The fervent Nazi Oberleutnant Rudi is played by 30-year old Gotz George, one of Germany's best-known television actors today. He has the most perfectly combed hair I've ever seen.
Oberleutnant Agen is played by 61-year old Joachim Fuchs Berger (who's credited here as "Akim Berg"). Much more than a popular German movie and television actor, Fuchsberger is also a tourist ambassador to Tasmania, a former German representative for UNICEF, and a stadium announcer for the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. I'm just going to call him "the Professor".
Back at the oasis, as the morning progresses, the commandos switch into Italian mode. They don their Italian uniforms, switch out their weapons and kits, and clean up the oasis from the fighting. Hmm...that big house took a lot of firepower in the raid, how are they going to cover up all those bullet holes and fire damage? The plan is to hold the oasis until the Allies land and arrive. This means that, until the landing, the commandos have to run the day-to-day operations of the oasis. This entails servicing the daily Italian convoys that come here to fill up on water.
So here comes the first convoy of three trucks. The Captain orders the Italian Lieutenant to stand beside him and act like nothing is the matter. The water convoy comes in, takes their fill, gets their paperwork signed, and heads off without a hitch. One down. Hmmm...so what about the whole "no prisoners" thing? Wasn't the plan to kill all the garrison, the Lieutenant included, and run the oasis themselves? The Captain sure makes a big deal about getting the Italian Lieutenant to help them, what were they planning on doing if he was dead? If they were planning on serving the convoys themselves anyway, why not just leave the Italian Lieutenant in the cell with the other prisoners? Seems strange.
Captain Valli chews scenery.
We also see that one of the four German engineers survived the battle the night before. Though wounded by a bullet in the chest, the man is still alive and hiding in the tool shed. The actor really sells the trapped and wounded man role here, and we feel some sympathy for his plight. He attempts to alert the Italian water convoy, but is unable to. We will have to watch out for him.
With the convoy gone, the Italian Lieutenant is put back in with his men. There, the twelve men are left alone, locked in a cellar. They immediately begin formulating plans to escape, using their brains and not much else. Over the course of this movie, we actually get to know these captives more than most of the commandos, which is a interesting twist on a war movie. The relationship between the Lieutenant and his men is friendly and respectful, the total opposite of Sullivan and his men, who fear the sergeant more than anything.
During the above scene, one of the captives says about one of the commandos, "He's from Partinico", to which the American says, "Not me, my grandfather." The tone of this conversation makes it seem like Partinico is some hellhole, like Mogadishu or Newark. Anyone from Italy able to explain this?
I googled "Partinico" and found that the lovely lady on the far right is the reigning Miss Partinico, so it can't be all that bad.
However, I then discovered that this dude is Mister Partinico...
We next see Sullivan and the Captain in the radio room, scanning the airwaves for signs of the American beach landings. There's nothing yet, and you can see that the Captain getting a little nervous. Sullivan takes this opportunity to poke the man some more, and an argument ensues.
Sullivan vs. Valli, round two.
Their testosterone-fueled ranting is interrupted by the radio. It seems that the command staff of the German Tank Regiment to the north is coming to visit tonight! Now more than ever, the ruse has to be perfect. The Captain sets everything up the best he can, staging his men in tactical locations to monitor the Germans' moves when they arrive. In the ceiling above the table where he plans on dining with the Germans, the Captain has a peep-hole drilled so that Sullivan can watch from above and listen. The Italian Lieutenant is further threatened and warned to be on his absolute best behavior.
So here come the Germans, arriving in a Kubelwagon and a large truck. The Professor and the Loyal Nazi Oberleutnant are here, along with about a dozen other men. They sit down to a nice meal, chatting about the war and the times, etc. The language barrier is a question here, as it would be in real life. The Germans and Italians had difficulty working together in North Africa, often because of an inability to effectively communicate at the local unit level. This is hard to portray on film without being ponderous, so they just have everyone speak English (though accented in their native tongues).
Lunch amongst enemies.
The Loyal Nazi eventually asks about his engineers. The Captain's face clouds over and he says that they left that morning, and maybe they got lost in the desert. The Loyal Nazi shakes his head and says these four men were seasoned veterans and he explicitly told them to wait here for them. At the mention of "four engineers", Sullivan's ears perk up. Up until now, they thought there were only three engineers.
Ok, now we get an extremely long and talky section where the German officers and the Captain chat about everything from the war to politics, to philosophy and women. The Professor takes an instant liking to the intelligent and erudite Captain, and over the course of the evening, the Captain begins to like the Professor as well. All of this is watched from above by Sullivan, and he is not happy one bit.
Sergeant Sullivan, not a happy man.
So, while the Captain is drinking and chatting with the enemy, Sullivan steams and boils. He walks out into the night, raging to himself about the war, the Germans, his mustache, his acting career, everything. While he's out in the dark, the wounded engineer has managed to get out of the tool shed, after killing an American sentry with a pipe to the head. The German sneaks up behind Sullivan and tries to brain him with the smae pipe. Sullivan, senses the attack and blocks it, and then chokes the poor German to death. In the struggle, however, the German manages to grab Sullivan's pistol and get a shot off into the air.
At the sound of the shot, the Germans and Americans alike charge out of the tavern. Thinking quickly, Sullivan pulls the dead German up to him and holds him up like he's talking to him. One of the men covers for him by claiming he fired at a jackal in the dark. While things calm down and everyone goes back inside, Sullivan just stares into the dead face of the engineer. His flashbacks start to come hot and heavy now, and you can see the mental pain wracking Sullivan's brain. This is a man teetering on the edge.
So, the night over, the Germans load up and leave. The Professor says that he will return soon and bring a bottle of cognac for the Captain. I was really happy to see the Germans in this movie portrayed in such equal lights. But, then again, this movie was a German-Italian co-production, so I guess that's not too surprising.
That same night, the Italian captives make their escape move. The two American guards on duty outside the cellar apparently had never watched a movie in their entire lives, because they both fall for that prisoner-fakes-an-illness bit. They enter the room and are promptly jumped on and beat and strangled to death. So now the Italians have some guns and knives, and they head out into the dark. They aim to steal a truck, and put sand in the gas tanks of the other trucks so they can't be pursued.
Their plan almost goes off without a hitch, but they're discovered and a gunfight develops. Two American commandos die, with no losses on the other side. The Italians jump in the truck and roar off into the night, headed for the German Tank Regiment lager to raise the alarm.
Fleeing in a truck.
Back in the camp, the Americans are aware that they have to catch the fleeing Italians before they reach the Germans. One truck is still operational and a bunch of commandos jump in and give chase. As the sun comes up, across the wide open desert they chase each other, engaging in a running gun battle along the way. We really see here the weakness of the bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano carbine used by the Italians, their slower rate of fire versus the Americans submachineguns is really telling. Six Italians die, as well as one of the Americans. Eventually the Italians enter a German-laid minefield and their truck goes boom.
Now, one of the Americans was also wounded, a man named Dino. Dino and Sullivan go way back, and Dino was with Sullivan in Bataan when Sullivan first went nutso. It's clear that Dino's presence this entire movie has been the only thing that has kept Sullivan even reasonably sane.
Back now at the oasis, Dino expires dramatically in Sullivan's arms. This is the end of the rope for Sullivan, who carries Dino's body off and buries him in the sand. Coming back, he confronts the Captain, who he blames for Dino's death. Van Cleef is really munching scenery here, emoting every word of every line and rewriting the definition of overacting. It looks like Sullivan is going to shoot the Captain dead when the cry comes out, "Vehicles are approaching!".
Sullivan vs. Valli, round three.
The fight forgotten for the moment, they all go out to see that the Germans have returned. It's the Professor and a bunch of men in a Kubelwagon, three trucks and two motorcycles. They are here to warn the Italians of the American landings (Hmm...this must be Operation Torch, the allied landings?), to fill up on water for the coming offensive, and for the Professor to give the Captain that bottle of cognac he promised.
While he's there, the Professor receives a radio call from his unit. It seems that the Italian Lieutenant survived his truck hitting the mine and was picked up by the Germans. Now they know that commandos have taken the oasis, and they are sending reinforcements. The Professor is to stall as long as possible until the reinforcements arrive.
The Professor is clearly emotionally crushed by this news, he had really grown to like the Captain as an intellectual equal and a friend. But, he knows his duty and does his best to stall for time. This fact is noticed by the already-suspicious Sullivan, who orders all their weapons readied. They had buried their bazookas and Thompsons in a shallow trench, and these are now retrieved.
The gig is up quickly after that, as the Professor confronts Sullivan and shots ring out. Everyone starts blasting away, chaos reins and blood flows. Soon, the German reinforcements arrive, in the form of a truck full of soldiers and three M-24 Chaffee/Panzers. The battle then really kicks into high gear, with tanks rumbling, trucks exploding, and more men dying violent deaths in the sand. This is one of the better action sequences you will see in a movie, especially one with a smaller budget like this one.
The tanks in action are especially well done, with a lot of really close-up scenes with the actors in frame with the moving and firing tanks. They're firing fake shots, clearly, as the tanks show no recoil jump at all. The bazookas are also used effectively, and dialogue tells us that these are new weapons, not seen by the Germans before. Tanks and trucks explode with nice, rolling, gas-fueled explosions that would make Toho Studios weep with envy. Hmm...though on several occasions, a vehicle drives behind a stack of barrels, a weapon fires at them, and the barrels explode, the fireball hiding the vehicle. Unless you watch carefully, however, you think that the actual vehicle blew up.
I'm not going to describe the entire battle blow-by-blow, mostly because I can't. There's so much going on, both in the foreground and the background of almost every shot that it would take forever to sort it all out. The fact that both sides are wearing similar uniforms and armed with similar weapons doesn't help either. The best I can do is keep track of our main characters and their fates. I think I'll just list them below...
The Captain: The Captain starts out slow, hiding more than anything, but as the action heats up, he gets more involved. Firing his Thompson from a variety of protected positions, the Captain accounts for nine German soldiers. In the end, he is shot down by a German, falling to lie beside Sullivan's dead body.
Sullivan: The consummate warrior, Sullivan is in the thick of the fight from the first shot. Using his pistol, a Thompson, a grenade, and a bazooka, Sullivan destroys two tanks and two trucks, as well as killing six German soldiers. In the end, he's killed by the explosion of his own grenade, used to disable the last German tank.
The Professor: Despite his image as the sophisticated man, the Professor turns in an extremely effective performance, leading his men to a draw before the tanks arrive. He also kills two Americans with his MP40. In the end, he has a shot at the Captain, but can't pull the trigger. He even shouts out Valli's name, which only draws Sullivan's attention, who guns him down dead.
Oberleutnant Rudi: Arriving half way through the battle, Rudi's three tanks are what turns the tide against the Americans. Having little but khaki shirts and bad teeth, the commandos are nearly slaughtered before they manage to knock out the tanks. Emerging from his crippled Panzer, Rudi is shot down by the Captain. His death scene is one of the best ever, falling out of the turret hatch, hanging briefly on the gun barrel, and then writhing on the ground before dying.
The Italian Lieutenant: Arriving with the tanks in the truck full of soldiers, the Italian Lieutenant seeks to exact revenge for the deaths of his men. In the end, he doesn't get any kills, and is shot numerous times. Before dying, however, he succeeds in blowing up the well, sending a river of water flowing across the battlefield.
Adriana: Well, don't know about her, but we do get a shot of a tank round bursting in a window in the main building where we saw her earlier locked in her room. For that matter, we don't know what happened to the two Arab locals.
In the end, all the vehicles are destroyed and only two men are still standing. Strangely, these are two non-descript soldiers, one American and one German. Facing each other down in the carnage-filled ruined oasis, they both toss down their weapons. Working together, the two former enemies gather up the dead and line them up. The movie ends as they sigh deeply and continue to search for the bodies of their friends.
The last scene.
Bonus! Some handy statistics for you.
34: Number of cigarettes smoked by our cast (12 by Sullivan alone).
8: Number of bazooka rounds fired.
1: Number of females in the entire movie.
Written in September 2005 by Nathan Decker.
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