Tuesday 22 January 2013

Movie Review: Commandos (1968)

An Italian World War Two action drama, Commandos struggles against an atrocious script filled with tin-eared dialogue, but does enjoy some brisk scenes of combat and a few memorable character definition moments.

Sergeant Sullivan (Lee Van Cleef) is in charge of an American commando unit, tasked with parachuting into North Africa to seize and hold a strategic water supply site at a desert oasis. Sullivan and his men are to eliminate the Italian squad defending the well, and fool the nearby German units until the full American invasion force arrives to relieve the pressure.

Sullivan immediately clashes with Captain Valli (Jack Kelly), an inexperienced officer assigned to lead the operation. Sullivan had previously narrowly survived a mission on Bataan, a harrowing experience that haunts him in flashback, and he blames that fiasco on incompetent leadership. The North Africa mission initially unfolds relatively smoothly, except that Valli refuses to kill all the Italian defenders, taking some as prisoners instead. The ruse to convince the Germans that all is well at the oasis hits some rough spots when a German engineering unit makes an unexpected appearance at the well, and the mission ultimately begins to unravel when the Italian prisoners take the initiative.

With Americans pretending to be Italians holding actual Italians as prisoners and then pretending to be allies of the Germans while everyone speaks in English, Commandos quite quickly gets stuck knee deep in the desert sands, trying but failing to draw out the distinction between enemies. Other than the overstressed personality of Sergeant Sullivan, everyone else here is predominantly bland and interchangeable.

An army of writers (including Menahem Golan) get all their pencils crossed trying to conjure up meaningful dialogue, but all they are able to produce are tired, sometimes cringe-inducing exchanges. The outcome is wooden actors spouting stock lines scraped from the bottom of countless combat boots. In amongst the dross, Van Cleef does get to hiss, through clenched teeth, his version of what it takes to knife a man to death, his beady eyes shooting daggers at the overmatched Jack Kelly. Watching Van Cleef emotionally dominate Kelly is an unfair fight, like a spider devouring a small insect hopelessly captured in its web.

Leave it to an Italian production to find an excuse to insert a luscious whore into the barren desert, Marilu Tolo getting the dubious privilege of portraying a live-in hooker who still gets paid, despite having apparently no option to say no and nowhere obvious to spend her hard-earned cash. She somehow just disappears partway through the movie. 

Commandos does come to life when the shooting starts, the bazookas swing into action, and the bodies start to dramatically fall. Although director Armando Crispino never quite seems to get the pacing and editing right, the cuts jarring as the scenes switch from the shooter to the shot, there are enough flying bullets, rumbling tanks, and grim faced men exchanging chaotic fire to inject a reasonably satisfying boost of action. Otherwise, the tension is confined to plenty of skulking around in the murky dark, not helped by a buzzy monotonal soundtrack (with the tone often inexplicably jumping with the edits) that serves only to annoy.

Commandos does find a unique and memorable ending, a quiet anti-war moment forcing reflection on the wastes of war. The desert is where bad dialogue goes to die, but the sands of time reassert their message.

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