Seems you couldn’t make a moive about defeat in the 1960s, you had to find something in the story that sounded victorious. Although the Allied landings at Anzio in January 1944 eventually led to the liberation of Rome, the whole operation was a mess. So instead of concentrating on outnumbered American and British troops being pounded to pieces on the beaches, director Edward Dmytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) opts for the men-on-a-mission angle.
Somewhat bizarre is the insertion of war correspondent Ennis (Robert Mitchum) into the story. Sure, because he’s not going to get busted for insubordination, he can challenge and/or lambast fictional commanding officers General Carson (Robert Ryan) and Major General Lasky (Arthur Kennedy) but it seems odd that he goes around spreading anti-war sentiment when the people escorting him are in serious danger of ebing killed. On the plus side are three sequences depicting the brutal reality of war in a way that no other picture of the period dared.
After landing unopposed Laskey decides not to risk moving forward, leaving his troops open to being trapped by advancing Germans even though Ennis, after commandeering a jeep, managed to reach Rome with encountering any opposition.
A Ranger battalion is sent to scout the surrounding countryside and the movie chooses to concentrate on a small platoon unit within that, headed by Sgt Stimmler (Earl Holliman) and including the fun-loving Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk), the kind of guy who spends the night before the landing entertaining three sex workers in the back of stolen ambulance who are of course desperate to learn the words to “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”
After the Rangers are cut to pieces at the Battle of Cisterna, the unit escapes through a minefield, discovers a massive German construction site, holes up in house with three Italian women, is pinned down by snipers in a field of shell-holes and finally makes it back.
American tropps being slaughtered at Cisterna is a helluva note as the movie switches tack from exposing leadership folly to just getting the platoon out of this mess. Pursued by a flame-throwing Panzer, they pick their way through a minefield using the quite clever device of lobbing onto it large chunks of stone and then walking across on the stones as if crossing a dangerous river.
Wanting to find out more about the mysterious construction work results in Ennis causing the death of one of the gang. When they hide out in the Italian house, eventually killing off investigating Germans, the naïve Ennis wants to take the women with them.
Trapped by snipers in open country, they are being picked off one by one with only clever tricks and sacrifice offering a way out. One of the notions is to throw a fake grenade the snipers’ way. The instant reaction to any soldier to an incoming grenade is to get the hell out of the way, turning themselves into a turkey shoot. But the only other way to entice the snipers to reveal themselves is for the soldiers to take turns in presenting themselves as targets.
One of the ongoing themes of the picture is Ennis refusing to bear arms, and although the trailer shows him blasting away with a machine gun that only occurs at this climax when he seizes the weapon from a dead German. Ennis is an odd character for a war picture. None of the soldiers can believe anyone would not just volunteer to participate in a bloody war but carry nothing to defend themselves with. It’s a bit tiresome to hear him being reminded that he doesn’t have to be here, and to turn down the offer or a rifle or a grenade.
And for a non-combatant he’s not exactly uninvolved in strategic matters. A couple of times, as if he’s the most entitled grunt you ever came across, he virtually assumes command, barking orders that the others obey. Admittedly, it’s his cleverness that gets them through the minefield, but it’s his stupidity that gets others killed and to have him pontificating at the end that men go to war “because they like it” is incredibly facile, although in keeping with the anti-Vietnam sentiments of the time (1968, that is, not 1944).
Rabinoff, the only other character about whom we learn anything, is unfortunately on the preposterous side.
While the movie is far from dire, and as I said, very realistic when in portraying war actuality, it’s not the picture I guess audiences expected. While the scene-stealing of Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) gets in the way, Robert Mitchum (5 Card Stud, 1968) proves an interesting character, although he is also laden down by having to spout a bunch of dumb lines. Arthur Kennedy (Fantastic Voyage, 1966) is the pick, especially at the end facing up to the ignominy of being relieved of command.
This kind of movie is potentially a breakout for the supporting cast. But here, with the exception of Falk, the script lets them down, nobody given the kind of distinctive characterisation that elevated The Dirty Dozen (1967), for example, above the norm. Apart from Earl Holliman (The Power, 1968) and Italian Giancarlo Giannini (The Sisters, 1969) this was not a career-making movie. You can spot Mark Damon (Dead Men Don’t Count, 1968), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, 1971), Anthony Steel (The Story of O, 1975), Rene Santoni (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969), Wolfgang Preiss (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge, 1965).
Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) does a reasonable job with the materials to hand, and the minefield and sniper scenes are first class. Italian veteran Duilio Coletti (Under Ten Flags, 1960) directed the Italian version though I’ve no idea what that was, or if it differed in any way from the Dmytryk cut. Coletti also had a hand in fashioning the screenplay along with H.A.L. Craig (Fraulein Doktor, 1969), Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose, 1977) and Giuseppe Mangione (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968).