A bit more directorial bombast and this could have matched Apocalypse Now (1979) in the surrealist war stakes. Never mind the odd incidents surrounding a small unit of G.I.s taking over a magnificent Belgian castle towards the end of World War II prior to what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge, this has on occasion such a dreamlike quality you wonder if it is all a figment of the imagination of one of the characters, wannabe writer Private Benjamin (Al Freeman Jr.). Throw in a stunning image, for the beleaguered soldiers at the start, of a horsewoman charging by in a yellow cloak, so out of place that it carries as much visual impact as the unicorn in Blade Runner (1982), and we are in definite cult territory.
One of the unusual elements is that, in this unexpected respite from battle, the soldiers are defined by character traits rather than dialogue or bravery as would be the norm. This ranges from baker Sergeant Rossi (Peter Falk) taking over the village boulangerie and bedding the baker’s wife (Olga Bisera), mechanic Corporal Clearboy (Scott Wilson) diving into a lake to rescue a Volkswagen he has adopted and the troops receiving a lecture on art history from Captain Beckman (Patrick O’Neal).
Commander Major Falconer (Burt Lancaster) is not only brilliant in the art of war, but calmly mentors Beckman through a firefight with an enemy airplane, teaches local sex workers how to make Molotov cocktails and, evoking ancient aristocratic tradition, enjoys conjugal relations with the conquered countess (Astrid Heeren), whose impotent husband (Jean-Pierre Aumont) encourages the relationship since the castle needs an heir.
There is wistful revelation, Beckman clearly hankering after his turn with the countess, a trainee minister who wishes he had the courage to join the boys in the brothel, the young soldiers there being treated as children rather than customers. And there are juvenile pranks – moustaches are painted on statues, wine bottles used for ten-pin bowling practice.
But the surreal moments keep mounting up. The Volkwagen, though riddled with bullets, refuses to sink in the lake, a hidden German reveals himself by playing the same tune on a flute as one of the enemy, the countess often appearing as an ethereal vision.
Through it all is rank realism. Falconer knows a German previously shared the countess’s bed. The count will do anything to safeguard his castle and maintain the family line, even to the extent of incest, since his wife is actually his niece. But above all, while his troops believe the war is at an end and enjoy the pleasures at hand, Major Falconer prepares for rearguard action by the Germans, filling the moat with gasoline, planning to pull up the drawbridge and control the high ground. The battle, when it comes, is vivid and brutal, the initial skirmish hand-to-hand in the village before the Germans advance to the castle.
Burt Lancaster (The Swimmer, 1968) is superb, far removed from his normal aggressive or athletic persona, slipping with pragmatic ease from the countess’s bed to battle stations. War films in the 1960s were full of great individual conflicts often won on a twist of ingenious strategy but seldom have we encountered a soldier like Falconer who knows every detail of war, from where and how the enemy will approach, to the details of the range of weaponry, and knows that shooting dead four soldiers from a German scouting mission still leaves one man unaccounted for.
Patrick O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) also leaves behind his usual steely-eyed screen persona, here essaying a somewhat timid and thoughtful character. Peter Falk’s (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) baker is a beauty, a man who abandons war, if only temporarily, for a second “home,” baking bread, adopting a wife and child. In a rare major Hollywood outing French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont (Five Miles to Midnight, 1962) carries off a difficult role as a count willing to accept the humiliation of being cuckolded if it improves his chances of an heir. In one of only four screen appearances German actress Astrid Heeren (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) makes the transition from a woman going to bed with whoever offers the greatest chance of saving the beloved castle to one gently falling in love.
There is an excellent supporting cast. Bruce Dern (Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969) makes the most of a standout role as a conscientious objector. You will also find Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, 1967), Al Freeman Jr. (The Detective, 1968), future director Tony Bill (Ice Station Zebra, 1968) and Michael Conrad (Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang, 1968).
Two top-name writers converted William Eastlake’s novel into a screenplay – Oscar-winning Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, 1966) and newcomer David Rayfiel who would work with Lancaster again on Valdez Is Coming (1971) and with Pollack on Three Days of the Condor (1973) and Havana (1990)
Sydney Pollack (This Property Is Condemned, 1966), who had teamed up with Lancaster on western The Scalphunters, 1968), does a terrific job of marshalling the material, casting an hypnotic spell in pulling this tantalising picture together, giving characters space and producing some wonderful images, but more especially for having the courage to leave it all hanging between fantasy and reality.
Expressions like “we have been here before,” “once upon a time,” “the supernatural” and “a thousand years old” take solid root as the narrative develops and will likely keep spinning in your mind as you try to work out what it’s all about.