Ski Troop Attack (1960)

Ski Troop Attack is a Roger Corman production (really!), a quickie shot in less than two weeks in the mountains of South Dakota during breaks while filming his bigger-budget Beast from Haunted Cave. Despite the rush-job and the very limited budget, however, Ski Troop Attack turns out to be a fairly entertaining little movie. The cast is refreshingly small, just six people with speaking roles do all the work, everyone else is either a bit part with no lines or stock footage, and the action is steady and realistic.

The movie concerns the actions of a small five-man ski patrol unit of the US Army in World War II. This recon unit is deep behind enemy lines in Germany during the allied drive into the Nazi heartland during the winter of 1944. Cut off from help, they must find a way to survive and complete their mission on their own. Sounds awesome, eh?

We open our movie as the recon unit ambushes a small German patrol out in the snowy forests. The GIs race down the hill at them on their skis, firing like mad with their M-1 carbines (which are modified with the stocks cut off, which might be historically accurate). Once upon the disorganized Germans, the Americans finish the battle with bayonets and knives and fists. Now, I played enough Advanced Squad Leader as a kid to know a thing or two about small unit combat tactics, and that was not the best way to do that, but it worked. The Germans' shoulder patches show them to be from the "7th Wafflen SS Division", a fact that they report back to their HQ on their radio.

As this scene wraps up, we get the first hints of tension between the older, experienced Sergeant and the young buck Lieutenant who leads this troop. This sort of conflict between the career Army guy and the ROTC FNG is depressingly common in war movies of every era and quality, and in our movie it follows those same well-worn cliche ruts. Two guess how it turns out. The other three men are enlisted privates, and are generally the type to follow orders.

Our ski troop.

They camp for the night in a copse of trees (though their rucksacks are so small they clearly don't have any tents or sleeping bags so I assume they just slept in the snow?). During this scene we get to know the other soldiers a bit. Not much, mind you, but just enough rough character sketches so that we care a smidgen about them as the movie goes on.

The next day they are chased off a road by a stock footage German armored column! The actors ham it up as they stare off-screen, while stock footage soldiers and tracked assault guns clank by. They seem surprised to see this large of an enemy force moving west towards the battlefront, as no such German unit was supposed to be here.

Watching the stock footage (that's the LT and the Sergeant).

They radio it in to their HQ, only to learn that at this very moment, the fabled "Battle of the Bulge" is raging all along the front. This, of course, was Hitler's last gasping attempt to stem the tide of the Allied advance into Germany in the last month of 1944. The offensive was doomed to fail from day one, but it did cause a lot of death and destruction on both sides before it was smashed and driven back.

With their world exploding all around them, the GIs debate it and decide to stay out in the field and report back about the German advance. The ultra-gung-ho Sergeant votes to go back and fight with the Division, but the LT makes the smart call to keep with the recon mission. If there is indeed a general offensive happening, they could provide their fellows with much-needed intelligence.

So now we have a stock footage celebration! It's all from German archives and shows a lot of Wehrmacht soldiers wandering around in winter camouflage. There are also tank shots, showing a number of Wespe 105mm self-propelled artillery guns, an out-of-place Mark III tank, and a number of squat StG-IV assault guns (one with a cool anti-bazooka armored skirt). All this footage is intercut with insert scenes of our GIs watching them with concerned faces and reporting back on their radio.

Stock footage tank (that's a Wespe).

They then ambush a column of five German soldiers who are out on patrol. They lose one man in the process, killed in the explosion of a German potato masher grenade, but they slaughter the Germans. There are remarkably few tears shed over the man's loss, and the Sergeant even uses his death to poke the LT some more. I guess in 1944, when America was suffering 9,000 casualties a month in Europe, you couldn't get too sentimental about one more death.

Running critically low on supplies, they find a log cabin nestled in a grove of snow-covered pine trees. Inside is a single woman, who is the representation of every uber-patriot Nordic German frau ever seen in a crappy war movie. Her husband is on the Eastern Front, though she's convinced they will be in Moscow soon. She also firmly believes Hitler when he says the Allies will be driven back into the sea shortly. She tries to poison them and then pulls out a Luger and gets shot.

The Frau.

They then recon a bit more, and spend Christmas in a railroad tunnel, drinking booze and eating c-rations. They decide to recon a bit more, into another section to see what the Germans are up to (they are busy getting chewed up in the Ardennes, but our troop doesn't know this).

They soon find a single-track train bridge in the saddle of a snowy mountain. The LT makes the call that this is the route where the Germans are advancing, and also states that the bridge would be "nearly impossible" to bomb from the air (what? Why not, it looks like a perfect target for the USAAF). Thus, the LT decides that they must blow it up themselves.

Strangely, there's a German mortar position emplaced nearby (huh? Out in the middle of nowhere?). The LT makes the plan that they will ambush the mortar team, take the shells and use them to make bombs to bring down the bridge. Sounds crazy enough to work! So they blitz the mortar crew, rappelling down from above to jump on top of them and stab them all to death. One of the privates is a self-professed demolitions expert and he's certain that they can make the bombs work, especially as they conveniently find a land mine laying around that they can use to set the charges off.

Ambushing the mortar team (that is the WORST rappelling technique I have ever seen).

Now they have to climb up the side of the mountain to get to the saddle where the bridge supports are. It's a stiff climb, and there's some tension as they negotiate the slick icy slopes and frozen rocky ledges. Hey, where did they get those ice axes from? I haven't seen them before and they couldn't have been in their little backpacks. Anyway, let's just enjoy the climbing scenes, which really are nice and authentic looking.

Ah, but other players are in the hunt. Our GIs are being chased by a seven-man German ski troop (led by Roger Corman himself in a fairly cool cameo). The Germans have been tracking them for a while, since the incident at the log cabin, and have finally caught up with them here. Armed with Mauser carbines, MP-40 submachine guns, and grenades, the German troop seems to be more than a match for the underarmed and undermanned Americans.

The German troop.

Now we have a lengthy running gunfight along a snowy rocky ledge as the Germans chase the Americans. Two Germans die here, and a copious amount of ammunition is expended by both sides. Though we never once see anyone reload in this entire movie, kudos to the prop department for having real guns firing blanks with ejected cartridges, instead of just prop guns with dorky barrel squibs.

With one of their number staying back to provide covering fire, the other three GIs reach the base of the bridge. Clambering up the steel support trestles, they set the mortar shell charges. The LT and the Sergeant go back to help out the man holding off the Germans while the last GI works his way up to the top of the bridge to place the mine. A wire runs back from the mine, which I guess is somehow supposed to carry a charge back down to the mortar bombs far down on the trestle bases (did I miss something?).

Setting the bombs.

In an amazing coincidence, at that exact moment a German supply train is barreling down the tracks! When the mine slips out of position, the GI sacrifices himself for the cause by swiftly moving the mine back, even though in doing so he assures his own death. Give that man a Silver Star! The train hits the mine, the mine goes boom and sets off the charges, and the entire bridge comes collapsing down in a huge boiling gout of smoke.

With the mission accomplished, the three remaining Americans fight their way down the mountainside. The remaining five Germans fire on them constantly, though they are lousy shots, despite having protected high-ground positions. Two more Germans take hits and go down here.

Holding off the Krauts.

The final scene is a desperate ski race down a slope after both sides retrieve their skis. Kinda reminds me of the opening scene of For Your Eyes Only when James Bond and the baddies battled down the slope before Bond jumped off that cliff with the Union Jack parachute (fucking awesome, dude!). Anyway, nothing that exciting happens in our movie, though it's still an action-packed scene. All three Germans die eventually, but in the end only the LT and the Sergeant survive, the other GI dying valiantly holding off the enemy (oddly, he dies by a tossed ski pole imbedded in his chest).

And that's the end. Not a bad little movie, I say. Had to check again before I believed this was a Corman production, nice to see he had some unexpected range.

Written in March 2008 by Nathan Decker.

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