Life is cheap during the Mexican Revolution, according to two highly watchable action films of the early 1970s freshly available on demand from Warner Archive. These corpse-strewn adventures, which would never get a PG rating today, explore the paradoxical relationship of Yankee gringos to the turmoil of Mexico’s bloody strife, with its class and race elements. Basically disposable genre pieces that nod towards a passing ambition, these films mirror the manner in which their anti-heroes grope for some shaky transcendance of their limitations. This gratuitous thoughtfulness wasn’t unusual at the time, although it was taken for granted often enough. We’re more likely to be struck by it now.
The Five Man Army is a spaghetti western whose action is more or less summarized by its title. The opening credits belong to Emiliano Zapata and Ennio Morricone, as we hear the latter’s high style of quirky instrumentation and lovely melancholia over photos of the revolutionary leader and many executed corpses.
The film’s first act depicts diverse men being recruited for a job in Mexico orchestrated by the Dutchman. Since he’s played by Peter Graves, the viewer will unavoidably think of Mission Impossible, which was surely the intention. The talky bits where the plot is explained aren’t too fascinating, and much of the initial action isn’t as interesting as the set-ups and transitional scenes shot fluidly by Enzo Barboni, which serve mostly as vehicles for the score. An early sequence of a village’s collective rebellion against oppression sounds a theme that will run throughout the film, and this scene is, in a strange way, a kind of musical number.
Eventually comes the long, well-detailed sequence of the job itself, which turns this into a heist movie about a gold shipment on a train. These greedy international individuals (James Daly, Bud Spencer, Nino Castelnuovo, and Tetsura Tamba as Samurai) must work as a team, and this leads with clever irony to a meditation on collective effort and revolution, a political consciousness that sometimes manifested in this genre amid its harsh vision of the world. Horror maestro Dario Argento is a co-writer.
More mercenary ruffians get roped into a violent charade in the name of the better angels of their nature in The Wrath of God. Most definitely not to be confused with the same year’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, this is based on a pseudonymous Jack Higgins novel. An effete Mexican general (John Colicos) blackmails three murderous criminals into infiltrating a village controlled by a pesky counter-revolutionary patron (Frank Langella) and his long-suffering mother (Rita Hayworth, her final film). The good bad guys are an Irish assassin (Ken Hutchison), a slippery arms dealer (Victor Buono), and the mysterious Oliver Van Horne (Robert Mitchum, grizzled as all get-out), who dresses like a Catholic priest and wields a mean tommy-gun. To put it mildly, the scenario displays ambiguous attitudes to guilt and redemption.
Much of the film is a dark and violent lark scripted and directed by Ralph Nelson, a former TV auteur whose erratic feature career was eclipsed by such peers as Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. Here he takes a very different approach to piety from his most famous film, Lillies of the Field, yet Van Horne, who might be the bastard son of Sergio Leone and Graham Greene, takes his sacred obligations as seriously as the sins on his foul soul. In a sacramental setpiece, he performs a number of holy offices behind a gauzy scrim on the lens while the soundtrack, otherwise the jaunty work of Lalo Schifrin, indulges in a passage from the great Misa Criolla by Schifrin’s fellow Argentinean Ariel Ramirez. For a moment, the mix of beauty, schmaltz and irony is oddly moving.