Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Commandos (1968)

Sgt. Frank Rock and "the combat-happy Joes" of Easy Company (with nicknames such as Bulldozer, Ice Cream Soldier, Wildman, and so on) were created in 1959 by writer Bob Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert for DC Comics' Our Army At War #83 (though the Rock character had existed in a couple different variations going all the way back to that January's G.I. Combat #68). It's been debated that Bob Haney wrote the first appearance of the Rock in Our Army At War #81, drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, but that was more an early model for what would come shortly. Most, if not all, of the Sgt. Rock stories center on the eponymous character either teaching an object lesson (typically to a new member of Easy Co., where "nothin' ever comes easy") or being taught one (typically by a new member of Easy Co.). Rock liked being a sergeant. He liked being in the field with his grunts. He disdained desk jockey officers, and often pushed them to the point of flagrant insubordination. These tales can be a bit one-note, especially when read back to back, but let's face it; they were never intended that way, and for a kid rummaging through the comics at the local corner store, they were straight from heaven. With that in mind, I would like to simply say rest in peace and thank you to Mr. Kanigher and Mr. Kubert. You made it look easy.

The year is 1942. A ragtag group of soldiers have been gathered under Sgt. Sullivan (Lee Van Cleef) and his right hand man Dino (Romano Puppo) to execute the plan of Captain Valli (Jack Kelly). The Captain's "Operation: Torch" calls for the men to quietly take over an oasis in Africa currently occupied by the Italian army in the service of Germany's Army Corps Africa, where oil wells have been tapped to keep the enemy's Panzers on the move. The men put on happy faces and take in the Germans, including Oberleutnants Rudi (Götz George) and Heitzel (Joachim Fuchsberger, billed as Akim Berg), while trying to keep the remaining Italians, led by Lt. Tomassini (Marino Masé), from escaping and putting the sprags to the whole mission and maybe even losing the war for the Allies (okay, not really). 

At its core, Commandos (aka Sullivan's Marauders) is director Armando Crispino's Macaroni Combat cash-in on The Dirty Dozen. However, the script (co-written by Dario Argento from a story by Menahem Golan) takes some noticeable (and in its own way, distinctly Italian) departures from the American model. The set up requires the American soldiers to be fluent in Italian to pull off the sham (essentially a play on the Battle of the Bulge, where German soldiers masqueraded as Americans), but here the soldiers are generally indistinct from one another. There is no Franko, no Wladislaw, not even a Vladek. These men are a group, and aside from the more senior characters, it's difficult to tell them from the enemy. The only real exception to this is Aldo (Giampiero Albertini), who plays an integral part in the finale and summation of the film. It seems to me a shame to waste such talented character actors as Puppo and Pier Paolo Capponi, but there you have it. I suppose their colorful faces were enough for the filmmakers (and it should be said there's a certain value in that, as well).

Sullivan dislikes officers, as most cinematic non-coms are wont to do, but his animosity reaches levels of outright insubordination and physical menace that would have any other soldier shot. He has his reasons, of course, but his initial confrontation with Valli feels misplaced and uncalled for, at best. So of course, Sullivan will be proved correct. What's frustrating is the amount of vacillation that goes on with Sullivan wanting to alternately kill Valli and carry out his orders. It can be argued that this was intentional; an attempt to show the conflict taking place inside the sergeant, but the way it's handled by Crispino, it comes across as a matter of convenience. When it makes for dramatic conflict, Sullivan will defy Valli, and when it's time to kill Nazis, they're pals.

This defiance extends from Sullivan's back story. As a character, he is emotionally damaged; quasi-psychotic, even. He blames his traumatic experience on an officer who was willing to sacrifice his men to get commendations for himself. At multiple points, Sullivan becomes bloodthirsty, wanting to slay everything in his path. He projects his past onto the present, and in his mind, he is taking revenge for what happened not only to him but also to his platoon, which we must assume included at least a few close friends (of which we know Dino is definitely one). But there's a difference between sacrificing oneself and being sacrificed. Sullivan knows the difference. Valli does not, and while the end has a reconciliation of a sort between the two men (as it must for this type of film), it feels superficial and tenuous. Perhaps a non-resolution of the tensions between the men could have made for a more nuanced conclusion; a more realistic depiction of the eternal relationship between those who lead and those who are lead (the man on the ground understands the relationship perfectly, while the one above him can't grasp it on account of his perspective and distance from his subordinates, necessary or not). The filmmakers' representation of this, however, lacks the definition needed to provide a solid sense of closure by film's end. 

The production value of the film is quite high, and the film (an Italian and German co-production) puts every penny up on the screen. Crispino shows a deft hand at directing large-scale action (the most important aspect of which is maintaining a sense of space, I would argue), and the battle scenes are great to watch. He fills the frame when appropriate and focuses on individual acts when appropriate. By that same token, the director also shows an aptitude for directing the stealthy, quieter scenes which generate the suspense on which the entire film is structured. The acting is solid all-around, though it does veer off into the overwrought at several points (but let's face it; that's half the fun). Also of interest is the film's score by Mario Nascimbene, which consists largely of variations on Franz Liszt's Totentanz (aka Dance Of The Dead) and provides a layer of both foreshadowing as well as a bit of punctuation on the film. So, while the film is nothing all that original, it does have enough European flourishes to make it interesting for casual viewers and cinephiles alike. My recommendation is for you to commandeer Commandos for yourself and give it a spin (see what I did there?).

MVT: The whole movie is loaded not only with tense scenes but also with an air of tension overall. Crispino and company manage to make it just bearable enough to sustain interest, without becoming off-putting and stale.

Make Or Break: The Make is the scene when a certain soldier buries another soldier (I'm trying not to give away anything here). It doesn't quite attain heights of heart-string-pluckery, but it is effective. It also illustrates the film's larger theme slightly better than the very end, which was well-played but felt more like an afterthought than anything else, to me. 

Score: 6.5/10

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