Tag Archive for macaroni combat

Don’t Miss the Bus

Daniel Stephen in "Warbus" (1985)

As Hollywood films shifted away from “men-on-a-mission”-style war films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), so did the “macaroni combat” films of Italy. In the mid-1980s, gung ho Vietnam revenge fantasies were all the rage. Missing in Action (1984) was released first to get the jump on its competition, essentially copying the James Cameron story treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). While it may have struck first, generating $22.8M on a paltry $1.5M budget, the Stallone/Cameron film managed to strike best with over $300M on a $25.5M investment.

All the poor reviews, critical disdain, and Razzie Awards couldn’t discourage international markets from wanting a piece of this particular pie. Soon, it seemed like you couldn’t set foot on the shores of the Philippines without stumbling across an Italian, Turkish, or Filipino knock-off in production. In honor of “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture” and the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, we’re going to take a look at one such knock-off, Ferdinando Baldi’s intriguingly titled Warbus (1985).

Banner for the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

Click above for more of the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

Indeed, when I told my lovely (and patient) wife the title of this film, her eyes grew wide with grindhouse fervor. “Is it like the bus from the Dawn of the Dead remake, but in World War Two?”

I’m sure she was envisioning something like the Landmasters in Damnation Alley (1977), and I didn’t want to disappoint. “Better,” I said. “It’s set in Vietnam.”

Her grin faltered. “Wait… How do you drive a tricked out bus through the jungle?”

I just smiled. If you’re worried about logic like that in a flick like this, you are already lost.

Warbus (1985)

Co-written with John Fitzsimmons, Warbus is the work of Ferdinando Baldi (billed here under his Americanized alias of “Ted Kaplan”). Baldi is infamous for the 1980s 3-D action spectacles Comin’ at Ya! (1981) and Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983), both starring Tony Anthony. A third 3-D film, a space opera starring Anthony, was set to follow, but never got off the ground.

Our opening credits are shown over footage of The Three Soldiers memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating those American servicemen who served in the Vietnam War. Patriotic music takes us to the thick of that conflict, some twelve years before or so. At first glance, the Viet Cong seem to be using mortars to shell a waterfall. What the waterfall did to them is anybody’s guess.

Finally, we see some ARVN soldiers guarding an elementary school at the top of the waterfall, an irresistible target, I guess. Civilian missionaries are hastily evacuated via school bus, and we’ve got our first glimpse of the title MacGuffin, though it’s far less impressive than the bus in Dawn of the Dead (2004) or the RV in Stripes (1981) or, hell, even the Sweet Pickles Bus.

The bus is soon halted by a trio of G.I.s separated from their unit. Led by Sarge (Daniel Stephen), they commandeer the bus to head south for a rendezvous with their fellows, ignoring the protests of missionary Anne (Gwendolyn Hung). The driver, it seems, is actually working for “Charlie”, and driving them due north. Found out, he flees into the bush, only to get tracked down and shot by G.I. Ben (Urs Althaus).

VHS box cover to "Warbus" (1985)

VHS box cover to Warbus (1985)

Daniel Stephen was a stuntman and extra in Warrior of the Lost World (1983) and Joe D’Amato’s 2020 Texas Gladiators (1984). Warbus (1985) clearly wasn’t the starring vehicle Stephen had hoped, pardon the pun, and he only acted sporadically through the 1990s and 2000s. Granted, he did do some modeling work. Here, he looks like a Baldwin/Estévez cross-breed, though Warbus (1985) predates Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) by about a year.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the 6’1″ Urs Althaus was the first black model ever to appear on the cover of the American fashion magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly (now GQ). He worked primarily in Italian comedies and dramas, often for television. Althaus appeared in Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982) as an uncredited “sex show performer” and as one of the mercenaries in Warrior of the Lost World (1983).

Our three G.I.s are a cinematic representation of The Three Soldiers statue, with the white Sarge, the black Ben, and the hispanic Gus.

Stopping to ford a river, Gus (Romano Kristoff) butts heads with the willful Anne. SVA Major Kutran (played by prolific Filipino actor Ernie Zarate) tries to warn them that the VC will surely have mined the opposite bank, which proves to be true, injuring Gus. Having gained their confidence, Kutran tells of a bridge further down river which, if it still stands, will take them to the Sa Tien Pass, and eventually to an American supply base (possibly Da Nang).

We get to meet some of our other passengers. Benito Stefanelli plays an Australian entomologist, reminiscent of Joachim Fuchsberger’s “Professor” in Commandos (1968). Stefanelli was a stuntman on Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). He also served as unofficial English translator and go-between for Clint Eastwood and the Italian cast. He subsequently appeared in all three installments of “The Dollars Trilogy” and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as well as many derivative rip-offs.

Gus also makes the acquaintance of a madam who runs two brothels in Saigon, here to fetch her daughter from the mission. A runaway, perhaps? Hard to say.

After Anne’s husband Ronny (Don Gordon Bell) shows them how low they are on fuel, it doesn’t look like they’ll make 50 of the 100 miles to Da Nang. Major Kutran has noted an American supply base on the map, but Sarge explains that their orders are to leave nothing behind when they move out. Kutran hopes there’s some fuel left behind just the same and encourages them to seek a defensible position to rest overnight.

Romano Kristoff, Gwendolyn Hung, and Don Gordon Bell were part of a roster of supporting actors from Jun Gallardo’s Filipino action/exploitation films, including Rescue Team (1983), Mad Dog II (1983), Intrusion: Cambodia (1983), and Slash (1984).

Kristoff is purportedly an ex-Foreign Legion Spanish actor with a black belt in karate. He played a helicopter pilot in Antonio Margheriti’s ‘Nam flicks The Last Hunter (1980) and The Last Blood (1983, aka Tornado), though appearances in the latter may just be recycled footage from the former.

Gwendolyn Hung was born Elizabeth Gwendolyn Cook in Long Beach, CA. She took a break from acting to attend college, but was disabled while heroically working as a rescue volunteer during the 1990 Luzon earthquake. She is now mostly retired, residing in the Philippines where she enjoys SCUBA diving.

Prior to Warbus, Don Gordon Bell had a few bit parts in bigger films. He was a soldier in Apocalypse Now (1979) and a henchman in Enter the Ninja (1981). He also helped write both Rescue Team and Intrusion: Cambodia.

When it looks like his newfound madam friend is going to wander off, Gus seems to assault her, grabbing her by the hair, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s saving her from a booby trap triggered via tripwire. My copy of Warbus appears to be cut right around here because I have none of the dialogue in the Danish video trailer below (starting at right about the 2:00 mark with Ben’s creepy “Hi there”). His delivery of the line and the way the daughter initially reacts led me to believe it was a rape scene that was cut, but Sarge doesn’t seem to address it as such, and it doesn’t jibe with her later interactions with Ben. You never can tell in these grindhouse exploitation flicks, though, so fair warning.

“All they want is to get back home, but the enemy forced them
to leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake.”

While the three G.I.s scout the supply base, Ronny (Don Gordon Bell) refuels the bus from a secret stash, but is interrupted by Kutran, who puts a pistol to his head. There’s also some missing footage here, methinks, since I’ve seen a fight between the two referenced elsewhere. Disappointing.

Despite being warned earlier by Kutran to not play hero, the G.I.s sneak into the back of a truck to smuggle themselves into the enemy-held base. Standard commando hijinks ensue, including sentries taken out with thrown knives and negotiating barbed wire barricades. The men steal a jeep, but seem incapable of avoiding loud empty metal drums, the kind that are ubiquitous in First Person Shooter video games and that usually explode when shot.

You would think that a bunch of alarmed VC with higher ground and cover would have the advantage over an open jeep with three unarmored targets, but you would be so wrong. The guys just lay waste to the opposition with volleys of lead, not even pausing to aim. Their primary evasive maneuver appears to be a forward somersault roll that makes them impossible to hit before they come up shooting.

Eventually, however, their luck runs out, and Sarge is pinned down. Ben and Gus are shocked to see headlights from beyond the compound. The Warbus, driven by the Aussie, has come to their rescue! It barrels through the gate and drives right through the support pillar of a guard tower, sending it toppling to the ground. While the guys load up some fuel, Sarge lets ‘er rip on those barrels, and the whole place explodes in a fiery inferno.

Back at camp, Gus strings up the treacherous Ronny. He begs not to be left behind, but even his wife is unsympathetic. Sarge finally relents and has Ben cut him free.

Scenes from "Warbus" (1985)

Selected Scenes from Warbus (1985)

When they reach the bridge, Ben tells a story about a stolen car and a police roadblock that informs their ruse. They act like the bus is broken down, even going so far as to pop the hood. Sputtering along, they creep towards the crossing. With Sarge firing through the windshield with his machine gun, the Aussie puts the hammer down and zooms across. Gus, meanwhile, sneaks around under the bridge and comes up behind the Viet Cong bunker. With Ben lobbing a grenade, the three G.I.s don’t seem satisfied until every enemy is dead. Victory appears to get the ladies all worked up such that, afterward, Anne openly flirts with the Aussie while her husband rides topside, mom paws at Gus, and her daughter tends to Ben.

The bus ends up at a literal dead end with canyon walls on three sides and dead Americans staked out. Sarge warns that it’s a booby trap, and when Gus sets them off with his rifle, it’s really just an excuse for explosions and maudlin music. Sarge sends the bus back to a cave for safety and sets off to scout with his boys.

They spot a train carrying bamboo, and Ben nearly misses it by pausing to take a dump. No, seriously. They hitch a ride, hopping off when they spot an American helicopter touching down amidst the Cong. The old “grenade down the chimney” routine gets them entry to what turns out to be a torture chamber where they find the chopper crew dead.

Meanwhile, the bus has been discovered and surrounded. After an extended firefight, the G.I.s come to the rescue. Using grenades and the tactic of leaping from high places in slow motion, they blow up a bunch of stuff.

They load up and set out, stopping at a river bank 20 miles west of Da Nang. With Sarge exhausted, the Australian volunteers to reconnoiter with Gus. Major Kutran gives him a flare to fire when it’s safe, otherwise they’ll set out for Da Nang at dawn. During the night, Ronny has an epileptic seizure. As Anne informs Major Kutran, he also suffers from schizophrenia. Embarrassed and angry, she lashes out at Kutran and his so-called civilization with a speech that would do Conan proud.

The flare goes up and the group heads into the abandoned camp. Here, they jazz up the radio and wait for rescue. Predictably, as is common in “macaroni combat”, the film takes a dark and nihilistic turn at its climax and is far more downbeat than American fare of its type.

Character development in this film is admittedly pretty shallow. Many characters aren’t even addressed by name more than once or twice in the film, making it difficult to sort out who’s who at times. Sarge and Kutran are obvious exceptions. There are also a high volume of significant glances that would convey more, or at times, any meaning if delivered by more capable actors.

Still, much like its WWII predecessors, Warbus is action-packed and a good bit of fun. This blogathon has been a good bit of fun as well. Thanks to the Nitrate Diva and all the other contributors. Until next time, ciao!

No Guts, No Glory

Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in "The Inglorious Bastards" (1978)

It’s Week 4 of the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, celebrating “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture”. Here at WeirdFlix, we continue our exploration of Italian war film, affectionately known as “macaroni combat”.

When you talk about macaroni combat films, one name inevitably comes up. Writer-director Enzo G. Castellari has been called “the poor man’s Peckinpah.” While he may not achieve the cynical greatness of that particular auteur, he certainly knew how to make action movies on the cheap. His crowning achievement is perhaps The Inglorious Bastards (1978), not to be confused with the similarly titled Quentin Tarantino homage. Indeed, Tarantino’s appreciation for Enzino borders on the embarrassing, but it did manage to bring Castellari’s films and the whole macaroni combat genre to the fore.

Movie Poster for "The Inglorious Bastards" (1978)

Movie Poster for “The Inglorious Bastards” (1978)

The Inglorious Bastards (1978) stars Bo Svenson, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani, and Jackie Basehart as the titular “Bastards”, but they get some help along the way from Raimund Harmstorf, Michel Constantin, Debra Berger, and Ian Bannen. The literally hundreds of German soldiers that get shot up, blown up, knifed, and run over by a train are nameless fodder for the most part, but they do a great job of flying through the air or wiggling morbidly as they get riddled with pretend bullets.

6’4″ Swede Bo Svenson is perhaps best known for portraying real life Tennessee tough guy Buford Pusser in two Walking Tall films and an NBC television series (1981). These made him the highest paid television personality at the time, eclipsed only by Johnny Carson. A 6-year stint in the U.S. Marines gives him credibility as a soldier, and his athletic accomplishments are considerable and varied. He was a U.S. Armed Forces Far East Heavyweight Division Judo Champion in 1961, won silver in the 2009 USA Judo National Championships at the age of 68 despite suffering three broken ribs just a few days earlier, and was subsequently inducted into the Martial Arts Masters Hall of Fame later that year. He’s a licensed NASCAR driver and played in NHL Celebrity hockey games against the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins Legends teams. Admittedly, his cinematic accomplishments aren’t nearly as impressive, but he’s always gotten work and continues to perform into his 70s.

After playing in Super Bowl I and retiring from the NFL, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson starred in a string of blaxploitation films, many with titles too racially charged to list here, others alongside fellow blaxploitation icons Jim Brown and Jim Kelly. While filming The Inglorious Bastards, Fred used the equipment and crew to shoot his own movie, Mr. Mean (1977), without the producers’ knowledge. Bastards was later re-cut and rereleased as G.I. Bro to capitalize on his appeal.

Peter Hooten was primarily a television actor with the notable exception of a supporting role in the Dino de Laurentiis debacle Orca (1977). Hooten has a difficult role with the largely unlikeable loudmouth Tony. With considerably more hair and a moustache to make a porn star jealous, he would appear in the little-seen TV pilot for Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange (1978). We’ll certainly get to that one someday.

Michael Pergolani debuts here and really shines as the thief with the long hair and impressive moustache, a kind of Italian take on the anachronistic hippy Sgt. Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes (1970). Jackie Basehart made his acting debut back in 1967 alongside his father, Richard Basehart, in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea television series. Though born in Santa Monica, he appeared in a number of Italian television and film productions.

Raimund Harmstorf was primarily a veteran of German television, but appeared in the Jack London adaptation of The Call of the Wild (1972) with Chuck Heston. This likely contributed to his casting in Lucio Fulci’s White Fang films. Michel Constantin appeared in one of the first Italian Dirty Dozen rip-offs, Dirty Heroes (1967). Both went on to appear in a wide variety of Italian films.

Debra Berger is the daughter of spaghetti western veteran William Berger (Ringo’s Big Night (1966), If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968), Sabata (1969)). She appeared in three films with him, Terminal (1974), The Marvelous Visit (1974), and Parapsycho – Spectrum of Fear (1975). Though nominally the love interest here, she isn’t afraid to get her hands (and hair) dirty as French partisan Nicole.

Lastly, as Col. Charles Thomas Buckner, Ian Bannen is certainly the most celebrated actor in the cast. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). After Bastards, Bannen was originally slated to replace David Niven as Miller in the Alistair MacLean sequel Force 10 from Navarone (1978), but clashed with a producer and was, in turn, replaced by Edward Fox. With a long list of credits that includes such British genre stalwarts as Fright (1971), Doomwatch (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974), I’m sure this won’t be the last time we talk about Mr. Bannen.

The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

France 1944. Our opening shot is straight from Tarantino’s own playbook. From total darkness, a canvas covering is lifted away so that we can see out the back of a truck where military prisoners are being loaded towards our viewpoint.

Our first two “Bastards” are a nervous Berle Hayes (Jackie Basehart) and the more resigned Canfield (Fred Williamson). As one MP describes, “Hayes went AWOL and the black guy’s a killer.” Up next are Tony (Peter Hooten) and the gloriously mustachioed Nick (Michael Pergolani). Tony is our resident clown and smooth talker. A pal hurries up to lay twenty bucks at three-to-one odds that Tony avoids court martial yet again, but considers his bet lost when Tony confesses that he’s up for murder this time around. Nick is a thief and pickpocket, displaying his sleight of hand skills by lifting the watch right off the lead MP.

Last, but certainly not least, is an officer. Lt. Robert Yeager (Bo Svenson), U.S. Army Air Force, may be a great fighter pilot, but jaunting off in his plane to visit his girlfriend in London was frowned upon by his superiors. After two warnings, the third time was the charm and landed him a court martial. In his brown leather aviator’s jacket and sunglasses, Yeager is a tower of swaggering insubordination.

With our cast of misfits assembled, we get a good look at the impressive motor pool before heading out to division HQ. There are some other prisoners in the truck, but they might as well be wearing red Starfleet uniforms because those unnamed grunts are clearly doomed. While changing a tire, the truck comes under fire by a German Stuka. Canfield is the first to flee and dive into a ditch, but the MPs gun down the next two prisoners to follow his lead. During the multiple strafing runs and execution of fleeing prisoners, Canfield is able to sneak around and choke the lead MP out from behind. This gives Yeager the opening to secure a submachine gun of his own and get the MPs to surrender.

Once the “Bastards” are free of their shackles, Yeager force marches the MPs back the way they came at gunpoint. He motivates them with bullets kicking up dust at their heels. He offers the enlisteds the MPs’ jeep and takes the truck, but, since he seems to have a plan, they race to jump on board. His plan involves a run for the Swiss border, only 160 miles away. Canfield likes the idea since, “them Swiss banks have mucho dinero.”

Subsequent scenes reinforce the roles of Nick as one-man supply depot, Yeager as take-charge leader, Berle as cowardly mechanic, and Tony as a loudmouthed gambler. After a German mortar team forces them to flee their truck, they take shelter in a gutted farmstead. There, Tony, perhaps out of boredom, tries to goad Canfield into a fight using racist rhetoric. He also claims to have worked for “Big” Mike Banion back in Chicago, but that’s likely just bravado. Yeager puts an end to the shenanigans with his SMG.

As they’re planning their next move, Canfield uncovers a lurker in the hay loft. It seems Adolf Sachs (Raimund Harmstorf) was an escaped prisoner himself, only from the other side. Yeager speaks fluent German and is opposed to Tony’s idea of summary execution. Instead, he believes Sachs can guide them to the border and freedom.

While Canfield seems comfortable laying low during a German ambush, Yeager can’t help himself. Duty calls. Soon, both he and Canfield are ambushing the ambushers. All goes well as they cross the forest until they run afoul of a German convoy, complete with halftracks. The only play is to let Adolf take them prisoner. There is a surprising amount of German spoken in the film, all without subtitles, but body language and inflection make it clear what is being said, if not the exact words being used. It’s actually very well done and keeps the authenticity high in the face of over-the-top action and silly schemes.

Once separated from the majority of their foes, the “Bastards” drop the ruse and overpower their would-be captors. Adolf even tosses the Lieutenant a submachine gun, validating his status as an honorary “Bastard”. Victory is short-lived as they find themselves cheering for Allied bombers up until the bombs start dropping a little too close for comfort. The sequence ends with an impressive matte composite shot of the bombed out convoy. Our erstwhile “heroes” are forced to pick through the wreckage to find a salvageable vehicle. In doing so, they manage to score a veritable arsenal’s worth of small arms and some German uniforms.

Tasked with forging some paperwork, Nick invents correction fluid seven years early, but, given his reputation, it’s easy to see why he would be unable to take credit. Both the paperwork and uniforms are insufficient to get past the first checkpoint, especially once the Germans get a glimpse of Canfield, but the rearmed “Bastards” shoot their way out with ease.

Michael Pergolani in "The Inglorious Bastards" (1978)

Nick (Michael Pergolani) can hardly believe his eyes in The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

Stopping at a river to wash and rest, Nick is astonished and overjoyed to see some German girls skinny-dipping. Keeping up their charade as German soldiers, the boys frolic in the spray until Canfield blows their cover. The girls prove to be heavily-armed, and send the would-be Casanovas packing under a hail of submachine gun fire.

While the “Bastards” hide under a bridge like a band of trolls, their truck out of fuel, Canfield spies a truck with seven Germans on the other side. Adolf asks to be allowed to parlay with them to hopefully get refueled. Tony warns Yeager against trusting the German deserter.

Once Adolf converses with the seven, he turns and shouts “Americans! Americans!” It’s deliberately vague who opens fire first, but it’s crystal clear that Adolf is the first to get gunned down. The ensuing firefight leaves all seven dead, along with Adolf, and Berle injured. Tony is smug in his “I-told-you-so” attitude.

As the gang rests and tends to the wounded Berle, they find themselves surrounded by the French Resistance. The armed partisans ask for Lt. Sykes, so the “Bastards” all point to a confused Yeager, who plays along and meets with their leader, Veronique (Michel Constantin).

Veronique thinks their mission was suicide with seven, but will be nearly impossible with only five, especially since one of them is clearly black. Yeager is still at a loss. Tony soon figures out that they made a horrible mistake and killed their own men. Adolf wasn’t ratting them out, he was trying to tell them the Germans were also disguised Americans, a misunderstanding Adolf paid for with his life.

Berle is shown to Nicole (Debra Berger), the closest they have to a proper nurse. Believing him to have volunteered for Sykes’ mission, she thinks he must be very brave. He’s immediately smitten with the young lass. When Tony starts harassing Berle about her, Canfield takes a very physical exception. Once again, their altercation is interrupted by Yeager, who explains that their assumed mission is to attack a train.

Tony feigns injury to get some quality time with Nicole. He proves to have the gift of gab when he wants to, and sweet talks her into sympathy, but not much more before Col. Buckner’s arrival is imminent. Bonfires are lit, and Buckner makes a hell of an entrance via late night parachute drop.

Debra Berger and Peter Hooten in "The Inglorious Bastards" (1978)

Tony (Peter Hooten) benefits from the healing hands of
Nicole (Debra Berger) in The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

Col. Buckner can tell immediately that the Lt. Sykes he’s supposed to rendezvous with is not the blonde giant standing in the glare of headlights. Yeager gets the Colonel to keep his cover, drawing him off to parlay off-camera. By the time the story thus far is told, it’s the next morning, and Buckner is beside himself with anger.

The Colonel is unimpressed with the “Bastards” before him, but Berle offers that his brother was a railroad man and he can run a locomotive. Yeager offers that he can speak fluent German and his men have proven themselves in combat. When Buckner promises a firing squad for all of them, Yeager pulls a pistol and tells him about the promise he made to the “Bastards”, to get them to Switzerland.

Yeager sets out to raid an SS Command Post in a nearby castle for a working truck with Canfield and Buckner playing prisoners. The sequence, though picturesque, is primarily played for laughs and without gunfire since the Italian government had suddenly banned all firearms on set, even those that fired only blanks. What few prop guns are used in the castle raid are never fired. Instead, the “Bastards” use a slingshot, a halberd, a dagger, and a crossbow to effect their plan. With the tone of the other related hijinks, it makes for a surprisingly fun and lighthearted diversion.

“…And you have the guts to offer me in exchange
a gang of deserters… cutthroats… and thieves?”

Once the truck is secured and the SS Command Post disabled, Buckner is clearly impressed. Briefing the team on their mission, he explains the main objective is a rail car laboratory carrying a prototype of the new V-2 rocket warhead. The aim of the mission is to capture the gyroscope in the rocket’s guidance system. Buckner and Yeager will disguise themselves as rocket experts and smuggle the device off the train.

Berle and Tony will blow a bridge on the train’s route, forcing it to back up and shunt down a side line. When the train has stopped to reverse direction, they will board the train and uncouple the armored car carrying the escort. Canfield and Veronique’s partisans will attack the train and drive it towards the Allied lines.

Nick inquires about his role in the operation. Aside from forging a stack of documents, he’ll be in charge of signalling to Rene that the train has been successfully boarded by Buckner and Yeager, or else Rene will blow the bridge with the train on it.

At high noon, the partisans intercept the command car carrying the two rocket experts. Nick uses it to drive Buckner and Yeager, in disguise, to the rail yard to board the train. Nick watches with glee as his forged papers pass muster. He sets out to covertly signal Rene, but the car’s door is knocked shut, breaking the radio.

Nick is forced to steal a motorcycle and race to the bridge in advance of the train to keep it from being blown up with Buckner and Yeager on board. Meanwhile, Tony, Berle, and Rene all wait at the river bank, trying desperately to hail Nick on the radio while preparing for the worst. Jumping a machine gun nest, Nick’s motorcycle takes a round in the gas tank, but the Macaroni MacGyver seals it up with a comically large wad of chewing gum.

Bo Svenson in "The Inglorious Bastards" (1978)

Col. Buckner (Ian Bannen) and Lt. Yeager (Bo Svenson)
bide their time in The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

Looking over the blueprints in the mobile laboratory, Col. Buckner identifies a self-destruct mechanism that will blow the whole rocket and take the lab with it. When the door to the lab unlocks, Yeager creeps in and takes out the remaining rocket scientists.

Within sight of the bridge, Nick runs afoul of a patrol and is shot down. He still manages to crawl his way to the bridge and, with his dying breaths, gives the word to blow the bridge according to plan. As expected, the train stops, and the armed escort gets off to address the situation. During the onslaught, Berle and Tony sneak onto the train and take command of the engine. Tony uncouples the escort car while the Colonel starts dismantling the warhead.

At Pont Mossons, Nicole, Veronique, Canfield, and the rest of the partisans take over the depot. They are soon met with an unpleasant surprise, however. The next locomotive to arrive is not the one they expected with the mobile laboratory attached, but a whole new train full of German reinforcements. Some dismount to retake the station, with Veronique getting a live “potato masher” grenade dropped at his feet.

The rest keep on rollin’, with Canfield and Nicole in pursuit. They split up, and things start happening very quickly like a cinematic runaway train. Berle gets shot in the back while feeding the engine, but finally musters the courage to turn and fire back. Finding him already dead, Tony jumps from the roof of the train onto a signal tower to escape. Buckner gets the gyroscope out, but accidentally activates the self-destruct mechanism. Yeager blocks the trigger with a pencil. Canfield reaches an overpass and drops down onto the train.

He reaches Yeager and warns him about the Germans waiting at the station just before getting shot up by a guard. After eliminating the threat, Yeager checks on Canfield and throws him off the train. “See you in Switzerland!” he shouts.

After bidding farewell to Yeager, Buckner jumps off the train with the gyroscope. Yeager is en route to blow up the rocket when he is shot in the back by a German hiding under a desk. As the Germans lurk in ambush at Pont Mossons, Yeager pulls the pencil free and blows up the train. It derails and crashes through the station in spectacular fashion. The ensuing HO scale destruction is a far cry from John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964). Still, there’s some cool shots of German soldiers running around on fire, and the music gets suitably dramatic to make the big finish satisfying, if admittedly silly-looking.

Banner for the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

Click above for more of the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

Nicole catches up to Tony amidst the flames to give us our supposed happy ending. Despite the romantic musical cues and his heroic actions, I can’t be won over. He’s a jerk. More appropriately, I guess, he’s a real “Bastard”. Roll credits.

In all, a super fun time. The film is no Saving Private Ryan (1998) and certainly not meant for WWII purists, but in the vein of war comics like Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, there’s worse ways to spend 99 minutes. Some day, I’ll probably take a look at Enzo’s other big macaroni combat epic, Eagles Over London (1969), but first, we’re going to see how macaroni combat changed with the times. The 1980s were the era of Rambo and rampant historical revisionism, and Italian genre film wasn’t going to let low-budget American actioners have all the fun. Warbus (1985) will be rolling into this blog real soon. Don’t miss it.

Also, be sure to click on the poncho above to explore some of the other entries in the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva. There’s some great work being done to honor “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture”.

Macaroni Combat… “It’s a Hot Smell”

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Okay, I’m going to confess something that may undermine what little credibility I might have as a film blogger. I don’t like John Wayne. I like his movies even less. This iconoclastic opinion has threatened to end friendships. I’m usually forced to steer the conversation back towards classic film icons I do appreciate and adore, like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart.

For largely this reason alone, I spent most of my youth under the mistaken impression that I didn’t like war movies or westerns, since John Wayne was all over both, especially in anything that ran on a Turner cable network. Long before I had ever heard the term “spaghetti western,” I discovered Clint Eastwood and his “Man with No Name.” Now, here was a western anti-hero I could wrap my mind around.

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The Duke’s movies always felt trite and condescending to me. It was like a grown man telling me that if I didn’t eat my peas then Santa Claus wouldn’t bring me presents. I wanted to shove him into a muddy ditch with flag in hand. Sergio Leone’s western characters didn’t wear white hats or black; their morality was colored in shades of grey. Imagine my surprise and joy to find this same ethic applied to the Italian war films of the same era, “macaroni combat” if you will.

In honor of “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture” and the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, let’s take a look at one of my favorite entries in the genre. Commandos (1968) stars spaghetti western icon Lee Van Cleef as MSgt. Sullivan, a soldier haunted by the war that threatens to break his mind, body, and soul. If the dreaded Afrika Korps doesn’t kill him, there’s a good chance Captain Valli (Jack Kelly) might, either by malicious intent or sheer incompetence.

WARNING! The screen shots in this post are press photos and not actual screencaps from the film. They are a suggestion of scenes rather than a genuine representation of what was filmed. Most prints are so murky that you’ll never see the film remotely this clear. Mine looks like it was filmed through a fish tank.

Commandos (1968)

Commandos is based on a short story by Israeli Roger Corman understudy Menahem Golan. Golan had cut his teeth as a production manager/assistant director/production assistant on Corman’s The Young Racers (1963) alongside a little upcoming director named Francis Ford Coppola. For Commandos, Golan’s story got some spit and polish from screenwriter Dario Argento just before his big break, director Armando Crispino, and Stefano Strucchi. Director Crispino had only two directing credits under his belt before helming Commandos, the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Pleasant Nights (1966) and the spaghetti western John the Bastard (1967).

October 1942

On the eve of the American landings in North Africa,
A secret American commando base,
Somewhere in the Mediterranean.

MSgt. Sullivan begins by briefing his commandos on their cover identities, that of Italian fascists from Brescia in the shadow of the Alps. This provides ample excuse for an opening credits sequence largely composed of stock footage being viewed by the titular commandos. They are also shown footage of their new “allies”, Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps.

The arrival of untested Captain Valli doesn’t exactly fill Sullivan with confidence. “There’s a machine in the brass department. It’s designed to screw Sullivan.” He greets Valli with a mocking Nazi salute, then tries to play it off as part of his cover while only reluctantly taking the offered handshake. Sullivan has good reason to be wary. Valli replaces Lt. Freeman, a man Sullivan and his pal Dino grew close to during the grueling Battle of Bataan in the Pacific Theater, with the three of them being the only survivors from their unit.

Lobby Cards for
Commandos (1968)
(click to enlarge)

Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)

Jack Kelly (Forbidden Planet, Maverick) plays Valli as straight as an arrow, all smiles, sunglasses, and starch, stiff as a flagpole. He’s clearly educated and bright, but also has no battle experience, and is unused to leading men of action. This becomes apparent as Sullivan awkwardly introduces Valli to the team and vice-versa. These men were chosen because of their Italian heritage and special training, but Valli is surprised to find some are actually Italian-born with an oblique reference made to Chicago mob ties.

Afterwards, Valli tries to allay some of Sullivan’s fears in private. To say it goes poorly is a grand understatement. Sullivan puts down his drink and tries to hear the captain out, but the booze has already done its damage and he’s beyond surly. Valli may know his plan “exactly, right down to the last detail,” but Sarge knows firsthand how worthless plans are in the face of the enemy.

“Exactly? What the hell do you know about ‘exactly’? You got a lot of bright ideas, Captain, but do you know what killin’ is? Exactly? With these? (jazz commando hands) Or with this? (draws a commando knife) You stick the knife in his throat or gut and twist, and you’ve got to hug him tight because if he gets loose he might get away before the job’s done. Do you know what blood smells like, Captain? It’s a hot smell. And you can get things messed up, too, Captain, because most men die hard. But how the hell would you know? Exactly.”

Lee Van Cleef’s aggressive body language and post-production dubbing go far beyond mere chewing up the scenery into full on over-the-top awesome that leaves nothing standing in its wake. It’s like an F-5 of testosterone-driven machismo. Wait until his character meets the enemy!

The next day, Valli gives our mission briefing in front of a ludicrously large map. Sullivan and Valli take a moment to clarify that they will take no prisoners and that they will have to preserve their cover identities at all costs. Their German “allies” will be just a short distance away.

On the night flight to the oasis, Sullivan spots a commando with a picture of his sweetheart. He takes it away, examines it, then rips it into pieces in what seems, at first, to be a moment of pure churlishness. When Valli and others get upset, Sullivan points out the trademark for Empire State Photographers, a dead giveaway that they’re Americans.

Parachuting in and approaching the target oasis goes surprisingly well. There’s some classic commando cliché from burying their parachutes to snipping barbed wire to silenced pistols.

One enemy soldier takes a moonlit stroll for a cigarette, unable to sleep on account of the oppressive heat, and avoids the carnage. This will become important later.

Valli and Sullivan personally secure the radio room to prevent any calls for assistance. During the raid, we get our first glimpse that all is not well with MSgt. Sullivan. He goes all thousand-yard stare, and we see a flash of fire from his perspective. When asked what’s wrong, a guilty “nothing” is all he can muster as he pulls on his gloves for the dirty work of killing men in their sleep.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

They’re briefly interrupted by a watchman rousing some men for shift change. Sullivan and Dino take care of that with some thrown commando knives to the back. Clearly, this ain’t their first rodeo.

Meanwhile, our cigarette-smoking insomniac stumbles upon one of the murdered sentries and instead of raising the alarm, heads to the garage for a rendezvous. He and his comrades try to roll out, but are spotted, identified as visiting Germans, and gunned down. So much for silence and stealth. An all-out firefight ensues in which Valli grows a conscience and stops Sullivan from executing unarmed prisoners out of hand. Valli even “shoots down” Sullivan’s very practical suggestion of using the Italian prisoners as cover to take a couple of machine gun nests. Instead, they’re forced to waste a precious bazooka shell.

They soon find out what the machine guns were so desperately defending when they kick in a door and find the deliciously scandalous Marilù Tolo clutching a pillow. By 1968, Tolo was already a veteran of many peplum and Eurospy films, with a few spaghetti westerns thrown in for spice. Here, she’s the last working girl standing and didn’t leave with her erstwhile business partners, choosing to corner the market instead. Square jaw that he is, Captain Valli immediately puts her on lock down.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Marilù Tolo and Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Marilù Tolo and Lee Van Cleef

Valli has questions for his prisoners, most notably Lt. Tomassini (Marino Masé). Question # 1 is “What were those three Germans doing here?”, and one of the other prisoners can’t help but point out that there were four, and one of them must have gotten away. This drives Sullivan crazy which, in turn, makes Tomassini clam up. Valli plays his trump card. If Tomassini won’t cooperate, then all of his men will be summarily executed. Conscience only goes so far.

Marino Masé is almost slumming here as the captured officer, having previously appeared in Luchino Visconti’s costume period epic The Leopard and Jean-Luc Godard’s The Carabineers, both in 1963, with the lead role in the latter. Still, he was no stranger to genre fare, having appeared in the peplum Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus and Nightmare Castle, both in 1965 and both alongside the incomparable Helga Liné. He even got some commando experience in the short-lived CBS television series Jericho (1966), in which he played a French weapons expert on the side of the Allies.

With the lives of his men in jeopardy, Lt. Tomassini has no choice but to answer the question. The Germans were mining the well and they were expected to leave this morning. That puts a definite time limit on Valli’s little take and hold operation.

Movie Poster for "Commandos" (1968)

Movie Poster for Commandos (1968)

As if to hammer home the danger, we immediately cut across the desert, where the Afrika Korps are rolling around in their Panzers (actually Italian and American tanks, but I’m not going to take them too much to task for that; Crispino’s no Spielberg). Here, we’re introduced to Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen, “The Professor”, (Joachim Fuchsberger). Agen is fatigued by being in the rear with the gear, and his men jokingly compare him to the “Desert Fox” himself, Erwin Rommel. There’s clearly some tension between the aristocratic “Professor” and his working class troops, “the field promotion type” as he disparagingly refers to one.

The story of Joachim “Blacky” Fuchsberger is almost more interesting than the film itself. Billed here as Akim Berg, he was an honest-to-goodness(?) Hitler Youth, recruited as an elite paratrooper and shipped off to the Eastern Front at 16. Joachim was wounded and captured by the Red Army and spent time as a prisoner of the Soviets, British, and Americans.

After the war, he worked as a coal miner and an engineer, as well as in advertising and radio. He tried a bit of acting, but really hit his stride in Krimis, German adaptations of mystery stories written by Edgar Wallace. Joachim appeared in the first, Face of the Frog (1959), and would go on to make a dozen more through 1972.

In the early 1960s, he talked producer Horst Wendlandt out of accepting film rights from Ian Fleming, thinking it too expensive to transition from black-and-white Krimis to a full color exotic spy film. Joachim had been Wendlandt’s pick to play Fleming’s spy character “James Bond”. For his part, Fuchsberger isn’t bitter and is still acting as of this writing.

Meanwhile at the oasis… The Italian water trucks show up, and it’s time for charades. Everyone act natural.

End Act I, right at about the 30-minute mark.

Complications predictably ensue. A kicked soccer ball keeps Lt. Tomassini from turning an invoice into a rescue note, a commando intercepts a horny Italian with his heart and wallet set on visiting Adriana, and the missing fourth German is too wounded from his cigarette break slash firefight to raise much of an alarm.

In the radio room, they find out the Germans are on their way for dinner. Adriana is “encouraged” to drink herself unconscious. To keep him from losing his cool, Sullivan is put in the attic to observe through a knothole in the floor.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

“Professor” Agen meets Captain Valli for the first time and seems pleased to make his acquaintance, happy to break bread with a fellow officer. Oberleutnant Rudi immediately wants to know where his engineers are. Lt. Tomassini tries to convince them that they have already left, and Valli even jokes that they may have gotten lost or deserted. This only serves to infuriate their commander, who trained them himself, and Agen has to calm Rudi down.

During their dinner conversation, we learn that “The Professor” was an entomologist before the war, and he seems wistful about those bygone scholarly pursuits. Captain Valli and Agen bond over quoting Goethe. Sullivan, rattled about Germans wandering around unchecked, interrupts and almost blows their cover.

This whole sequence reminded me of the “Twenty Questions” scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, especially the brief cut to Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz gritting his teeth to keep from choking the Nazi officer to death while haunted by his own personal flashback hell just like Sullivan. Given his pedigree, it’s hard to imagine Tarantino was not influenced by Commandos.

Sullivan goes out alone for some air and to clear his head of Bataan flashbacks when he runs afoul of our missing engineer. He dispatches him with a gunshot, but that draws everyone out from their spaghetti dinner. After an awkward pause, someone takes credit for shooting at a jackal. “Professor” Agen jokes that he hoped it was commandos. The Germans depart, happy and none-the-wiser, taking us to…

End Act II, right at about the 60-minute mark.

Lt. Tomassini returns to his men, and we can see some distinct juxtaposition here as they are loyal to each other, unlike either Valli’s or Agen’s relationship with their respective troops. It’s escape time, and the ever popular “This guy’s sick” routine works like a charm. Soon, they’ve got guns and head out under cover of darkness. They steal a truck and sabotage the others with a little sand in the ol’ gas tank.

The transition here’s a little rough as morning comes in the blink of an eye. Tomassini and his boys find themselves pursued across the dunes by Valli, Sullivan, and the commandos in a salvaged truck. Sullivan warns that if they reach the Germans, it’s all over but the shooting.

The Italians get reckless and get themselves stuck in the sand. As they’re pushing with the commandos coming over the horizon, we get a great exploitation shot of one man getting caught under the wheels. Still, it gives them the traction they need to get out of their rut.

Close enough to shoot at each other, the chase is now in full gear. Even Valli loses his patience and executes a surrendering Italian with his sidearm. Dino takes a bullet just as the Italians drive into a mine field, and Valli calls for a halt. As Sullivan struggles to bandage his friend, an explosion in the distance indicates the final fate of Tomassini and the escapees. We get a glimpse of the truth, however, and see a critically wounded Lt. Tomassini crawl to his feet.

Even though the engineers have yeat to be found, the Afrika Korps is moving out to engage the Americans. Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen asks for permission to go fill up the water trucks at the oasis and bid farewell to his newfound friend, Captain Valli, over a bottle of cognac. After he leaves, Tomassini stumbles into the camp a bloody mess.

Just as Sullivan is burying Dino, a plane flies over, dropping a parcel. The note orders Valli and the commandos to move out as their mission has been scratched. Taking and holding the oasis was for naught. The commandos, used to this sort of behavior from the high command, take it all in stride, but Valli refuses to abandon his meticulous plans without confirmation via radio. Sullivan, enraged, takes charge with pistol in hand, insubordination be damned. “The Professor” and company arrive in time to prevent Sullivan from ending Valli’s commission with a bullet.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef, Joachim Fuchsberger, and Jack Kelly

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef, Joachim Fuchsberger, and Jack Kelly

Agen inquires about the missing Lt. Tomassini, but is called to the radio room before getting even an improvised answer. With the headset on, “The Professor” is warned that Tomassini escaped from a team of American commandos and that he should hold tight until they can arrive with their tanks.

Now, it is Agen’s turn to bluff. He breaks into the cognac and shares a toast with Valli, thanking him for their pleasant dinner and camaraderie. Agen presses his luck by ordering Sullivan to drink with him, and Sullivan disobeys by dropping the bottle to draw his pistol, predictably causing all hell to break loose for our explosive finale.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Bazookas, tanks, dynamite, and even an anti-aircraft gun all come into play as the commandos fight for their lives and not much else. Agen finds he cannot kill his friend Valli, but Sullivan sure has no qualms about killing “The Professor”. The carnage is nearly absolute, and one has to assume that even Adriana buys the farm as the whole oasis compound gets destroyed.

In the end, with only a single unnamed soldier to a side left, they lay down their arms and set about burying their dead… together.


War sucks. How delightfully Italian.

Check out some of the other contributions to the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Here at WeirdFlix, I’m sure we’ll be cooking up some more “macaroni combat” real soon. Just be warned, “It’s a hot smell.”