Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

Deadlier than the Male (1967) ****

Now revealed as the first film seen by Quentin Tarantino – at the age of five.

For a movie intended to set up a series character in the vein of James Bond, it was ironic that it was the women who stole the show, not just from their tendency to turn up in bikinis but for their outrageous villainy. Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) are the seductive assassins in the hire of Carl Petersen (Nigel Green) who has designs on an Arab oil empire. On her own Irma dispatches mogul Henry Keller (Dervis Ward) then the pair – emerging from the sea like a pair of latter-day Ursula Andresses – harpoon his colleague Wyngarde (John Stone).   

Soon Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), investigating the death of Wyngarde, becomes a target  and that sets him off, with nephew Robert (Steve Carlson) in tow,  to the Mediterranean and the yacht of oil-rich King Fedra (Zia Mohyeddin) where, of course, the girls lie in wait.

Dispensing with the gadgets – except for one item employed by the villainesses – and gimmicks of Bond, but retaining the quips, this is a fun ride with a more down-to-earth leading man – like the early Bonds – smarter girls, a more old-fashioned mystery, a hefty thug Chang (Milton Reid)  in the Oddjob mold, a castle doubling as the villain’s lair, a suave master criminal, some detective work, and a super scene involving giant robotic chess men.

The bickering between Irma and Penelope, who is not just a tad sadistic but a kleptomaniac especially as far as her partner is concerned, coupled with their overweening confidence, makes them much more human than any Bond Girl and the character traits explored have a pay-off at the climax. Equally interesting are the mind games, Drummond vs. Peterson but also Drummond vs. Irma. And that the female baddies see it as points on their scoreboard to seduce Drummond rather than the other way round.

Drummond is every bit as capable a seducer as Bond and equally ruthless, stripping a suspect naked. Petersen is also a clever character, faking his own death and running a very smooth operation, and certainly his recruitment techniques are second to none.

Some ideas were certainly ahead of their time, the chess men are the equivalent of a modern computer game while the human bomb has, unfortunately, entered the modern lexicon and there are enough female serial killers around to prevent anyone believing they are always (to use an outmoded sexist phrase) the gentle sex. However, in the middle 1960s, the concept that women would be partial to murder and torture not to mention repeatedly seducing males went so much against the grain of the male authority figures that the British censor slapped an X-certificate on the movie.

Shakespearian actor Richard Johnson was a one time MGM contract player, but his only previous top-billed outing was the Italian-made The Witch (1966). He certainly made a splash with this character, investing it with a great deal more gravitas than Flint or Helm. The Teutonic Elke Sommer (The Venetian Affair, 1966) is brilliant as one half of the assassin tag-team with a batch of one-liners for every occasion. Sylva Koscina (A Lovely Way To Die, 1968), nose always put out of joint, almost steals the show.  Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), while his usual sardonic self, has the playfulness of the rich and powerful.

Steve Carlsen, in his movie debut, doesn’t make much of an impact in a largely lame role. Zia Mohyeddin has a more interesting part as the oil kingpin wanting to help his people. As you can expect in a spy picture there are a host of beautiful women – Suzanna Leigh (The Lost Continent, 1968) a defector, Virginia North, also making her debut, Justine Lord (Night after Night after Night, 1969), and Didi Sydow in her only screen appearance.

The light comedy experience of director Ralph Thomas (Doctor in Distress, 1963) comes is very handy, as his sense of comic timing is excellent, but, perhaps learning from his previous brush with espionage in Agent 8¾ / Hot Enough for June (1964) brings a bigger punch to the action scenes. And it’s a bold ploy to start with an action sequence revolving around Irma and Penelope rather than our star man.

The screenplay was a team effort – Jimmy Sangster (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964), taking a break from Hammer duties, David D. Osborn (Maroc 7, 1967) and Liz Charles-Williams, making her screen debut  – all involved.  This was familiar territory for composer Malcolm Lockyer (Five Golden Men, 1967). British pop act The Walker Brothers had a hit with the theme tune.

This is more fun than camp, not a send-up of the genre like Derek Flint and Matt Helm, but a spy picture with a believable leading men and excellent villains. But the plot is more centred on filthy lucre rather than global control and there is a genuine understanding of how businesses work – takeovers, mergers, dirty dealings – though small wonder Petersen would like to be shot of pedantic boardroom nuisances like Bridgenorth (Leonard Rossiter) – wouldn’t we all?

Bulldog Drummond was an international crime-buster invented by “Sapper,” the pen-name of H.C. McNeile. Bulldog Drummond had been a Hollywood mainstay for over four decades, the twenty-plus pictures attracting stars like Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond, 1929, and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, 1934), Ray Milland (Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937), Walter Pidgeon (Calling Bulldog Drummond, 1951) and a young Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, 1934). But the notion, in the Swinging Sixties, of tagging any leading man by the moniker of ‘Bulldog’ did not seem like a good idea, so the character underwent wholesale reinvention and his nickname is never mentioned.  

The title comes from a line in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species. That was the original title of the film and also of a Sapper book.

You can get his on a double bill with the sequel Some Girls Do from Network at a very reasonable price. Will be reviewing Some Girls Do next.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****

An absolute delight, great storytelling married to groundbreaking special effects produces an adventure picture of the highest order. Though mostly known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, its success also relied heavily on the direction of Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) and a great script. It’s one of the few films to benefit from not being viewed in its original size, the small screen minimizing the flaws of the special effects. In essence it’s a combination of three genres – the Italian peplum, the men-on-a-mission picture and the classic detective story. it was originally entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece (see below).

Plus there are interesting stabs at philosophy – if man refuses to believe in the gods do they cease to exist? And if the golden fleece brings peace and prosperity to a nation what will happen to that country when it is stolen?  And if various people can call on their own gods for help will that not create conflict in heaven as much as on earth? And the ultimately question – what can man achieve without celestial interference?

While the episodic structure derives from the clues meted out piecemeal to hero Jason (Todd Armstrong) during his long voyage to find the golden fleece these often come minus vital pieces of information ensuring that surprise remains a key element.

Without doubt the special effects are the triumph, although some work better than others. The highlights for me were the towering bronze statue of Talos and the skeleton warriors. I can’t be the only one who thinks that some of the visuals in Game of Thrones were inspired by the sight of Talos astride two land masses separated by the sea. Talos is not so much a man-mountain as an actual mountain, first viewed coming round the corner of a cliff top, his head topping it. But where, except for cunning Jason, the crewmen are viewed primarily in miniature in relation to the giant Talos, the skeletons are the same size as the adventurers and that fight scene all the more impressive as the ensuing battle appears completely real.

Scale allows Harryhausen to wriggle out of the problems of contact. If the creatures are out of reach anyway, there’s little need to attempt to bring them into close proximity. The way the Harpies are utilised, close enough to strip clothes from a blind man but otherwise hovering just out of reach, is a classic example of clever direction. The multi-headed Hydra, on the other hand, is the least convincing monster simply because it is impossible for Jason to get close to the beast. Scale is also one of the film’s best weapons. The scenes where a miniaturized Jason is transported to Mount Olympus to face the gods are well done as are the occasions when the gods peer down on tiny man.

Outside of the special effects and the varying degrees of excitement aroused, in the background is constant intrigue. Jason is the son of the King of Thessaly slain by the usurper Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) and his crew includes Acastus (Gary Raymond), son of Pelias, whose task is to cause trouble and if Jason succeeds in his endeavor to kill him. On top of that, there is a heavenly battle over Jason’s fate. Jason, having defied Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) by first of all refusing to believe he exists and that his life is determined by fate, becomes enmeshed in a battle between the king of the gods and his wife Hera (Honor Blackman) who grants Jason a get-out-jail-free card, the ability to call on her help, but only five times.

Jason determines to recruit his own team and in the manner of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Professionals (1966) they are all experts in their fields but unlike that film and The Dirty Dozen (1967) are willing conscripts. The team also includes Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney) and in the first of the film’s many surprises and reversals, the weedy latter is able to beat the muscular former in a contest of strength.

There is enough incident to keep the story ticking along but Don Chaffey fills in the blanks with montage, the various essentials of a ship – sails, oarsmen, sides, stern, figurehead, pace set by drumbeat  – and a full color palette from the bright blue sky, from dawn and dusk to sunset and night, a wonderful image of rowers at sunset on the sea the pick. He also makes great use of the sea – pounding surf, storms, the sea turned tempest by the clashing rocks, a shipwreck. And we have dancing girls, colorful costumes, ancient backdrops and the sense that the budget has been well spent

Some scenes call for immense skills in coupling special effects with real characters. For the clashing rocks sequence five elements are simultaneously in play: the crew in danger, a tempest, rocks crashing into the water, the ship itself and Neptune.

And the romance is well handled dramatically: if Jason rescues Medea (Nancy Kovack) then she too rescues him. Love produces conflict. To love Jason, Medea must betray her country. There is hardly a moment when Jason, confronted either by monsters or kings, does not face death.  

In addition, there is a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, 1960).

Any top-notch acting would have been overshadowed in any case by the special effects. Which is just as well because the entire cast is drawn from the lower strata of the stardom ladder. Todd Armstrong, from the Manhunt tv series (1961), needs only not to mess up, which he manages adequately. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman, 1963) does well to make an impact given she does not appear until the final third. This did not turn out to be much of a star-making vehicle for either. Honor Blackman drops the slinky persona with which she had made her name in The Avengers tv series (1962-1964) and instead plays a confident goddess willing to out-maneuver husband Zeus.

The rest of the cast comprises a regiment of future movie supporting actors – Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), Niall MacGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966). Future television stars ranged from Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who) and Scottish actor John Cairney (This Man Craig, 1966-1967) to Laurence Naismith (The Persuaders, 1971), Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968), Mike Gwynn (Poison Island, 1965) and Andrew Faulds (The Protectors, 1964).

The screenplay was written by Jan Read (First Men on the Moon, 1964) and Beverley Cross (The Long Ships, 1964), husband of Maggie Smith. Cross returned to ancient worlds again for producer Charles H. Schneer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981)

Although the ending appeared to leave the door open for a sequel, none was made. A huge box office hit in Britain, it did not repeat its success elsewhere.

I first saw this film as a boy and was so enthralled I wouldn’t have noticed if there was anything awry with the special effects. I have not seen it since. Coming at it with some degree of scepticism I found that attitude misplaced for I was equally enthralled.

Catch-Up: Nigel Green’s portrayal of Hercules was a far cry from his normal screen persona of martinet. His movies previously reviewed in the Blog are The Skull (1965), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Africa Texas Style (1967).

Africa – Texas Style (1967) ***

Falling into the unusual category of Saturday afternoon matinee with a message, American cowboy Jim Sinclair (Hugh O’Brian) and sidekick Jim Henry (Tom Nardini) hightail it across the Atlantic to help the wildlife conservation efforts of game rancher Wing Commander Hayes (John Mills) who faces sabotage at every turn by another rancher Karl Bekker (Nigel Green). It combines Hatari!-style action and interesting storylines with Disney-animal-cuteness (a domesticated zebra called Pyjama Tops).

To get the conservation element out of the way – Hayes is concerned that letting animals roam free will result in overgrazing, turning the countryside into a dustbowl and endangering a variety of species. That Hayes is already talking about animals becoming extinct is way ahead of the common perception of Africa at the time. His plan is to round up the wild animals and fence them in, this kind of ranching preventing foodstocks becoming depleted. Bekker’s objection is that wild animals carry infections such as East Coast Fever that will endanger his herd.  

Romantic interest is supplied by the already-engaged nurse Fay Carter (Adrienne Corri) while orphan Sampson (Charles Malinda) tugs at the heart strings. There is a fair measure of authenticity, glorious aerial shots of elephants and buffalo and other species, tribal dances by the Masai while the Sinclair/Henry rodeo-style method of catching wild animals, with lasso rather than giants nets as in Hatari!, ramps up the excitement quotient, not least when Sinclair goes one-on-one with an enraged rhino. As you might expect, there is also ample opportunity for Sinclair to encounter a deadly snake and crocodile and it wouldn’t be an African picture without a stampede.  

Although villainous, Bekker is not without logical argument, not just the fear of infection which would decimate wildlife as much as soil erosion, but his own concerns that taming wild animals would upset the balance of nature, and, on a personal level, the lack of respect for territorial rights. Of course, when push comes to shove, he resorts to rifle and fist to settle  arguments.

Atmospheric, well-made, engaging and at times exciting, there is enough going on here to keep the picture ticking along – a hunt for a lost and bewildered Sinclair, questions about home, and the spectacular wildlife rodeo show. Unlike Born Free (1966) and any other animal picture for that matter although wildlife takes narrative center stage we are not subjected to countless cute four-legged specimens.

Hugh O’Brian (Ambush Bay, 1966) could be a latter-day Tarzan (or more correctly Jungle Jim since he is never in loincloth) but Scottish actress Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967) is less jungle adventuress more principled counter to his easy manner. With every chance to rely on the stiff-upper-lip of an English war hero, John Mills (The Family Way, 1966) does anything but and turns in another engaging performance and if you are looking for a decent chap to deliver a conservation message he is definitely your man without being obsessively annoying. Nigel Green (The Skull, 1965) adds to his portfolio of interesting characters as a smooth-talking rough-edged bad guy while Tom Nardini (Cat Ballou, 1965) impresses. Look out for a fleeting glimpse of Hayley Mills  at the start.

Director Andrew Marton, who had been involved in helming The Longest Day (1962) and second unit director of Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), was something of a wild animal specialist with Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) in the kitty as well as a dozen episodes in total of television series Flipper (1965) and Daktari (1966). But he is at home as much with the human aspects of the story as with the animal. Producer Ivan Tors was a sometime rival to Walt Disney in the family film market with Flipper (1963) and Zebra in the Kitchen (1965) as well as small-screen Flipper and Daktari.

Mistakenly described on imdb as a TV pilot, this was a genuine feature film that happened to produce a television spin-off series Cowboy in Africa. It was screened for the trade in the U.S. on May 5, 1967, reviewed in the feature film section of Variety on May 17, and its U.S. box office figures can be tracked through Variety – opening in 1967 in San Francisco and Kansas City in June, for example, Baltimore in July, Detroit in August and Boston and Louisville in September. In some situations it was double-billed with El Dorado (1967).

CATCH-UP:  John Mills’ versatility can be seen from movies already reviewed in the Blog: The Truth About Spring (1965), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Wrong Box (1966) and The Family Way (1966).

Beat Girl / Wild for Kicks (1960) **

More social document than drama, but that aspect somewhat diluted by the moviemakers’ attempts at exposing rebellious youth while taking for granted more sordid adult behavior. Sold under the exploitation banner – “this could be your teenage daughter” – narrative flow is interrupted now and then to showcase Adam Faith’s singing and to accommodate a few striptease acts. Probably more interesting is the array of new talent on show.

Spoiled teenager Jennifer (Gillian Hills) heads for the wild side of town to experience the beatnik lifestyle in Soho coffee shops and cellars. That there’s no drugs involved and that alcohol is considered “square” – as for that matter is violence – may come as a surprise to students of the period. Apart from one episode of road-racing and playing “chicken” along a railway track, most of the time the gang listen to music or go dancing until Jennifer gets it into her head that joining a striptease show might give her life the thrill it is missing.

VHS cover.

This is prompted by the discovery that her new too-young stepmother Nichole (Noelle Adams) has been a stripper and most likely a sex worker in Paris before marrying wealthy architect Paul (David Farrar), cueing a round-robin of confrontations. Strangely enough, from the narrative perspective, none of the young bucks appear romantically interested in the provocatively-dressed Jennifer and so it is left to creepy club owner Kenny (Christopher Lee) to make a move.

The gaping hole left by lack of narrative drive is not offset by immersion in the beatnik or striptease scene. Back in the day the British censors took the editing scissors to the striptease  but although restored versions available now contain nudity you are left wishing that there was some lost element to the beatnik sections that would have given the picture the energy it required.

Gillian Hills (Les Liaisions Dangereuses, 1959), comes over as a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Diana Dors without having an ounce of the sex appeal of either. All pout and flounce, she is unable to inject any heart into her two-dimensional character, although given her youth and inexperience this was hardly surprising. Former British star David Farrar (Black Narcissus, 1947) was coming to the end of his career and in a thankless role as a frustrated father could do little to rescue the project.

Father and headache of a daughter – David Farrar and Gillian Hills.

French actress Noelle Gordon (Sergeant X of the Foreign Legion, 1960) could have been Jennifer’s mother given her own tendencies towards wiggle and pout but at least she makes a stab at trying to overcome her step-daughter’s hostility.

In the main, the picture’s delight is bringing to the fore a whole chorus of new faces. Pick of the supporting cast is Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) who doesn’t just have a knowing look but looks as if she knows what’s she doing acting-wise. Making his movie debut was teen pop idol Adam Faith, who had made his name playing in coffee bars. He had already notched up a couple of number one singles, but doesn’t quite set the screen on fire. Peter McEnery (The Fighting Prince of Donegal, 1966) plays his inebriated pal. You can also spot Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969), Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, 1965), Claire Gordon (Cool It, Carol, 1970) and Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963).

Perhaps the most important debut belonged to composer John Barry. He had already been working with Adam Faith. Barry’s music for the film was the first British soundtrack album ever released, reaching number eleven on the charts, and opening the doors for future soundtrack albums, not least of which was the rich vein of theme tunes produced by Barry in the next few years. 

French director Edmond T. Greville, who brought little panache to the subject matter, would redeem himself with his next picture The Hands of Orlac (1960). 

This doesn’t fall into the “so-bad-it’s-good” category, nor has it been unfairly overlooked, and probably is better known as an example of the kind of exploitation B-picture that the Americans do so much better and a reminder that, except on rare occasions such as The Wild One (1953), older moviemakers seem incapable of capturing the essence of youth.

Tobruk (1967) ****

Occasionally ingenious action-packed men-on-a-mission picture that teams reluctant hero Major Craig (Rock Hudson) with Captain Bergman (George Peppard) who heads up a team of Jewish German commandos (i.e good guys). You might think the idea of German-born Jewish commandoes was a dramatic flight of fancy. But, in fact, these guys existed. They were called X-Troop although whether they actually took part in something close to this fictional operation is of course open to question.

Arthur Hiller (Promise Her Anything, 1966) directs with some skill and to increase tension often utilizes silence in Hitchcockian fashion. He meshes innate antagonism between the two principals and stiff-upper-lip British Colonel Harker (Nigel Green), two subplots that have a bearing on the final outcome, and explosive battle scenes. In addition, in supporting roles is a Sgt Major (Jack Watson) unusually solicitous of his troops and a grunt (Norman Rossington) with a fund of one-liners.

Craig is liberated by frogmen from a prison ship and flown into the Sahara on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein to guide a strike force 800 miles across the desert to blow up Rommel’s underground fuel tanks in Tobruk, Bergman’s outfit providing the perfect cover as Germans escorting British prisoners. “It’s suicide,” protests Craig. “It’s orders,” retorts Harker.

Most action pictures get by on action and personality clashes against authority but this is distinguished as well by clever ruses. First off, hemmed in by an Italian tank squadron on one side and the Germans on the other, Harker’s unit fires mortars into each, convincing them to open fire on one another. Craig, on whose topographical skills the unit depends, goes the desert version of off-piste, leading the group through a minefield, personally acting as sweeper with a bayonet as his rudimentary tool, his understanding of how the enemy lays its mines allowing him to virtually explode them all at once. But, ironically, their cover is so complete that they are strafed by a British plane, and equally ironically, have to shoot down one of their own.

Along the way they pick up a stranded father-and-daughter Henry (Liam Redmond) and Heidy Hunt (Cheryl Portman) who are on another mission entirely, to help create a Moslem uprising against the British in Egypt. Their arrival reveals the presence of a traitor in the camp. Naturally, this isn’t the only complication and problems mount as they approach Tobruk and, finding it vastly more populated with German troops than expected, they now, in addition to tackling the virtually impenetrable fuel dumps, have to knock out the city’s radio mast and neutralize the German big guns protecting the beaches.

So it’s basically one dicey situation after another, ingenuity solving problems where sheer force is not enough, and twists all the way to the end.

All the battles are particularly well done, pretty ferocious stuff, flamethrowers especially prominent, but the team are also adept at hijacking tanks, and in another brilliant ruse capturing one without blowing it up. The screenplay by Leo Gordon (The Tower of London, 1962) supplies all the main characters with considerable depth. While Craig isn’t exactly a coward, he is not interested in laying down his life for a cause. Although Harker seems a typical officious British officer, he, too, has surprising depths. But it is Bergman who is given the weightiest part, not just a German seeking revenge against his own countrymen for the treatment of Jews but a man looking to a future when Jews will fight for their own homeland in Israel.  

Hudson had begun his career in action films, mostly of the western variety, before being seduced by the likes of Doris Day and Gina Lollobrigida in romantic comedies and this is a welcome return to tough guy form. George Peppard made it two Germans in a row after The Blue Max (1966) but this is a far more nuanced performance. There are star turns from Nigel Green, Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste, 1966) as Peppard’s sidekick and the aforementioned Jack Watson (The Hill, 1965) and Norman Rossington.

This was pretty much dismissed on initial release as a straightforward gung-ho actioner and one that tipped Rock Hudson’s career in a downward spiral, but I found it both thoughtful and inventive and had much more of an on-the-ground feeling to it, with nothing going according to plan and alternatives quickly need to be found. Under-rated and well worth a look.

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961) ***

The last swashbuckler to cut a genuine dash was The Crimson Pirate (1952) with an athletic Burt Lancaster romancing Virginia Mayo in a big-budget Hollywood spectacular. The chance of Hollywood ponying up for further offerings of this caliber was remote once television began to cut the swashbuckler genre down to small-screen size. Britain’s ITV network churned out series based on Sir Lancelot, William Tell and The Count of Monte Cristo and 30-minute episodes (143 in all) of The Adventures of Robin Hood. So when Hammer decided to rework the series as a movie, their first port-of-call was series star Richard Greene.

And to encourage television viewers to follow the adventures of their hero on the big screen, Hammer sensibly dumped the small screen’s black-and-white photography in favour of widescreen color and then lit up the canvas at the outset with aerial tracking shots of the glorious bucolic greenery of the English countryside (actually Ireland). Further temptation for staid television viewers came in the form of Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) bathing naked in a lake. Robin Hood is soon hooked.  

Sarah Branch was given the cover girl treatment in British fan magazine “Picture Show and TV Mirror” but this preceded “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and instead was for “Sands of the Desert” (1960), a Charlie Drake comedy in which she plays a travel agent kidnapped by a sheik. Branch only made four pictures, with Maid Marian her final film role.

Two main plots run side-by-side. The first is obvious. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) is quietly defrauding people through legal means. The second takes a while to come to fruition. Robin Hood is hired by for his archery skills by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco) – he shoots a pumpkin through a spinning wheel, a moving bell and a bullseye through a slit – before it becomes apparent he is being recruited as an assassin. Oliver Reed and Derren Nesbitt put in uncredited appearances and the usual suspects are played by Niall MacGinnis (as Friar Tuck) and Nigel Green (as Little John).

There is sufficient swordfighting to satisfy. Director Terence Fisher, more at home with the Hammer horror portfolio, demonstrates a facility with action. Richard Greene makes a breezy hero and the picture is ideal matinee entertainment.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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