Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Movie Review: Anzio (1968)

An occasionally clunky World War II movie preoccupied with questioning the value of war, Anzio enjoys some moments of good combat tension wedged within tentative commentary about why men fight, coloured by the mounting anti-war sentiment of the late 1960s.

Thoughtful war correspondent Dick Ennis (Robert Mitchum) joins the US Army Rangers as they successfully execute an unopposed landing on the beaches of Anzio, out-flanking the stalemated Italian front. Battle-hardened Colonel Jack Rabinoff (Peter Falk) is an expert at incursions behind enemy lines, and along with Ennis he realizes that the road to Rome is wide open: the Germans have been caught flat-footed, and a bold drive forward by the Rangers could achieve a spectacular victory. But the US General in command, Jack Lesley (Arthur Kennedy), is careful, insisting that the beachhead be fortified before any inland incursions. The delay allows German Field Marshall Kesselring (Wolfgang Preiss) to regroup and plan a sturdy defence.

By the time several hundred Rangers move forward on a scouting mission with Ennis in tow, they are ambushed by an overwhelming German force, and the Rangers take high casualties. Rabinoff, Ennis and a few others survive but are trapped behind enemy lines, and have to use a combination of stealth and hit-and-run tactics to chart a tortuous path back to the beach.

An American-Italian co-production produced by the master of cut-rate epics Dino De Laurentiis, Anzio aims high but is missing the full layer of quality lamination needed to achieve its vision. The script (a four person collaboration to adapt a book, never a good sign) is full of good ideas, but the writing is dull and the execution perfunctory. Director Edward Dmytryk gives the impression of going through the motions, failing to add excitement or sharpness despite several opportunities presented to him.

Robert Mitchum trudges through the countryside carrying quite a few pounds more than he needs to, and generally delivers a performance alternating between leaden and predictable. It's left to Peter Falk to add much of the punch that invigorates Anzio, but even his character is more interesting because of what we have seen the dedicated but independent soldier do in other movies, rather than this one. Preiss gets one and a half scenes, but he is effective as Kesselring first frantically tries to react to the unexpected landing and then regains the upper hand as the Americans fumble the initiative. The likes of Robert Ryan, Reni Santoni, Earl Holliman and Mark Damon fill out the cast of those firing guns and those commanding them to do so.

Anzio does enjoy a few highlights. Dmytryk finally comes to life when Ennis and the Rangers have to traverse a minefield under the threat of a menacing tank, and the final cat-and-mouse battle with deadly German snipers is reasonably well handled. Although it says much about the film that the sniper battle is simply dropped into the movie with nothing that resembles context.

When Ennis and Rabinoff are not in the heat of battle, they spend a lot of time talking about why wars are fought and why men insist on killing each other. Both Ennis and Rabinoff have good excuses to be safely back home, and both have decided that they prefer to remain participants in harm's way rather than observers, although they may not know exactly why. Anzio is clearly siding with anti-war sentiments, but these moments of reflection do resonate, and both characters benefit from a modicum of enhanced compassion.

Like the beach landing itself, Anzio builds anticipation for fireworks, but washes up onto the shore rather uneventfully.

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  1. A pedestrian war movie to be sure. They didn't have the courage to name the American general Mark Clark (the actual general responsible for the Anzio fumble) and Falk's character is one of the famed Black Devils, who were better served that same year in 'The Devils' Brigade'.

    1. Thanks for the comment - and I'll keep an eye out for The Devil's Brigade.


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