Spaghetti War Flicks: World War II Brought to Life, Sort of

I love Spaghetti Westerns, even the not-so-great ones. I enjoy the extravagance of it all, the way that the bad guys are impossibly onerous and the heroes usually aren’t much better. I am enthralled by the fact that all of the main characters are aloof and mysterious. They seem to act nearly without motive (or with the slimmest of motives). The money they seek is but a pretense. They act out of some innate need to maintain movement. They wander about the desolate landscape and come across some small town, wreak havoc (even when they wreak havoc in an effort to prevent others from wreaking havoc) and then are gone again.

I even like the bad dubbing. The surrealistic effect of the misalignment between facial motion and enunciated speech deepens the impression that we have entered another world, a world where society and its insistence on fomenting union through speech is annihilated by the intractable individual and his insistence upon (often bloody and always antisocial) deeds. Given this predilection, one would think that I would thrill to the Dogs o’ War Collection insofar as it presents 10 films, most of which might be dubbed “Spaghetti War Flicks”.

These films, mostly directed by Italians and featuring a motley assortment of international third-tier actors, certainly resemble Spaghetti Westerns; they feature the same amateurish dubbing, the same lack of concern with constructing viable plots, and the same bizarre camera devices and tricks that only serve to draw attention to the filmic apparatus, the pure fictive nature of the production. And yet, it just doesn’t seem to work.

The problem, perhaps, is obvious. These films attempt to carve out an improbable space between fantastic spectacle of the Spaghetti Western and some kind of reverential verisimilitude with respect to the Second World War. Insofar as they succeed in delivering the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, they fail as war films; insofar as they succeed as war films, they fail with respect to the aesthetic. The bad guys in these films are mostly the Nazis. They fit the archetypal inscrutability needed for the aesthetic, but the heroes are almost all incorruptible, their motives honorable and all too clear.

The 1969 film Eagles over London, directed by Enzo Castellari, opens with the British retreat at Dunkirk. Amidst the confusion, one small band of British soldiers led by the Hungarian / English Paul Stevens (Frederick Stafford) manages to hold off a formidable Nazi force in spite of the fact that they were ordered to retreat. Thus we are introduced to Stevens and his sidekick, the unflappable and contumacious Irishman Sergeant Donald Mulligan — two resolute, stalwart, and honest soldiers determined to do their duty in the face of impossible odds.

Soon we meet people occupying the opposite end of the spectrum: a small band of Nazis led by Martin (Francisco Rabal) dressed as British soldiers who then kill another group of Englishmen in order to steal their identity tags. Assuming new identities, the Nazi band infiltrates the ranks of the fleeing British soldiers and reassembles in London in hopes of sabotaging the English radar system. Here the film presents the strong dichotomy between the forthright and brave British captain and the sneaky and underhanded German saboteur. The film reinforces the opposition (in a rather unlikely manner) by pairing both the Paul and Martin with beautiful female objects of desire (Martin’s lover is, naturally, a spy working as a barmaid). But whereas Paul’s girl worries about the nature of his real feelings for her, Martin’s lover discourages his increasing affection, claiming that he is showing signs of “becoming English”.

Eagles over London traffics in the stereotypical notion that the British soldier is caring and honorable while the German is ruthlessly sinister. Indeed, this simple opposition serves as the engine that drives the plot of the narrative: Martin finds himself in conflict with his mission as he becomes increasingly “human”, increasingly concerned with honorable action, increasingly “English”.

Martin befriends Paul (under false pretenses, of course) and when Paul begins heading up an investigation into the Nazi infiltration, Martin is ordered to kill his new friend. But he cannot do it. He sees Paul as a fellow soldier and thus as someone who cannot be murdered in a dishonorable fashion. Hence, in the framework established by the film, Martin enters into a position of self-contradiction, an oxymoron — the honorable Nazi — and as such he is doomed to destruction along with the plot of the saboteurs.

The film itself is a strange assemblage of the seemingly authentic and gratuitous displays of kitsch. Some scenes during the opening sequence, detailing the retreat at Dunkirk, nicely portray the banality of death that so often accompanies war. Groups of soldiers and civilians march along a dirt road. A Nazi fighter plane appears, gunning down numerous people. Once the plane passes, the march continues; no time is taken to acknowledge the loss.

Other moments assault the viewer with an endless string of clichés: the rather limp use of split-screen, the camera circling wildly around the Nazi lovers just as Martin is about to shoot the girl, thus preventing her from talking to the British if apprehended. This scene quickly becomes a head-scratcher. The Nazis are careful enough to kill an experienced spy out of fear of female weakness, but Martin fails to make sure that his old identification card burns in its entirety, thus leaving behind his full head shot for Paul to find!

Other follies include the fact that seemingly everyone in this war has a submachine gun as their standard issue weapon. On the other hand, more believable scenes capture the total uncertainty in war, even during times of momentary success. A young soldier is wounded and Sgt. Mulligan assures him he will recover. The soldier responds: “Yeah, but whose going to pay my pension: Churchill or Hitler?”

War Devils, directed by Bitto Albertini in 1969, employs a similar theme but to somewhat better effect. A small group of American soldiers gets captured by an equally small group of German soldiers holed up in a cave in the desert during a fierce engagement. Both sides have wounded men and by morning they find the battlefield empty and themselves abandoned. Facing the unappetizing probability that they will die of thirst, the motley crew of Germans and their prisoners trek out onto the sand, hoping to find their way back to the Nazi encampment. They are eventually forced to throw aside their weapons in order to maintain the necessary strength to keep trudging through the desert.

Suddenly, they are no longer enemies or prisoner and captors. As the American commander puts it, “we are all the same now”. They must cross a minefield and some of the soldiers die bravely in an attempt to disarm some of the mines. By the end of the journey, only the American commander and one of his subordinates along with the Nazi commander survive. Having reached the Nazi camp, the officer lets the Americans go but swears revenge: “One day I will kill you for what you killed in me”. By forcing him into a situation where he had to behave in a humane manner, the Americans have apparently destroyed his Nazi essence. The commanders, of course, meet again and a soldier shoots down the Nazi as he stands above his nemesis. The soldier asks if he had killed the Nazi but the American answers, “No, I did, a long time ago”.

Heroes without Glory, poorly directed by Alfredo Rizzo (who Americanizes his name in the credits as Fred Ritz), opens with a ridiculous brawl between a British officer and some Americans in a bar full of belly dancers while the owner (an Arab who seems to be wearing a few neckties as a headdress) insists that the dancers continue since he has already paid them. It should come as no surprise to learn that the British officer chooses the American unit when he is assigned the job of blowing something up.

And it turns out that they get to blow up lots of things and shoot lots of Nazis and there is a lot of bickering between the Americans and the stiff English commander and it is all rather insipid and boring. The British commander is supposed to be wonderfully endowed with intellect: after demolishing a group of Nazis (more explosions, more shootings), he has the entire unit march behind the man with the biggest feet (feet then must have been smaller insofar as the bigfooted man only wore a size 10) so that there will only be one set of footprints to mislead any Nazis investigating the scene.

Anyone who believes such a ridiculous ploy would actually work, you might really like this movie. They also might need some help passing the fourth grade. Eventually the unit is diverted by the prospect of finding gold (a plot device that leads toward firmer Spaghetti Western ground), but it is too late and the narrative too feeble to sustain much interest. Of course, one need not succumb to the imbecilic narrative to enjoy the film. It certainly has a healthy amount of camp value, I suppose; this is a film that cries out to be featured on Mystery Science Theater.

War Boy, directed by Allan Eastman in 1985 for Canadian television, features a “News on the March” opening sequence to establish the position of the story within the chronology of the war. This ploy, used to such great effect in Citizen Kane, undermines itself here by having the credits roll over the newsreel. By and large, though, War Boy is the finest film within the collection and, not coincidently, the furthest removed from any resemblance to a Spaghetti Western aesthetic.

Jason Hopely plays Jan, a 12-year-old boy on the “home front” of Yugoslavia. Jan is confused by the developments of the war and takes everything in without the tinted lenses of ideology. His father is willing to house a Nazi officer passing through the village (with whom Jan’s stepmother flirts) but also hides the Moscowitz family in his backyard. Jan defies Nazi soldiers in helping the Jews escape but looks sympathetically on as wounded German soldiers pass by his home.

Other scenes show him insouciantly playing with his dog or happily greeting his father; a normal boy at any time in any place. But then a Nazi soldier shoots his dog in the street and later he is thrown to the ground by an exploding mortar shell. The film beautifully captures the contradictions of wartime and the devastating nature of simply living and growing up in such times.

The film that seems to hold the most promise within what I am calling the “Spaghetti War Flick” aesthetic is The Dirty Heroes, directed by Alberto de Martino in 1967. The main antagonist, SS General Hassler (Helmuth Schneider) who delivers his lines with the bark of a pit bull, is the nihilistic personification of motiveless evil so typical of Spaghetti Westerns, an evil that drives relentlessly forward, embraces a futureless vision of total destruction, and seems to anticipate the actions of everyone around him. Although he claims to be following orders, his deeds always stem from the blind desire of the sadist.

The primary American hero (played by Frederick Stafford) is a safecracker who claims to work for the Dutch partisans but is intent upon stealing diamonds that the Nazis confiscated from Holland to satisfy his own greed. The film continues the general trend in these Spaghetti War Flicks of featuring at least one Nazi officer who finds it impossible to reconcile his basic humanity with his duty to the Third Reich.

Here it is General von Keist (Curd Jurgens), a man who foresees the immanent collapse of the Nazi regime. His only goals are to get his men safely out of Holland and to maintain the affections of his wife, whom he secretly knows is a Jew. Of course, a love triangle emerges in which the girl is torn between her loyalty to her husband and her physical longing for the American. All of this (aside perhaps from the conflicted German) fits the Spaghetti Western mold rather well and it is owing to the clear resemblance to the mold that we are able to see how the Spaghetti War Flick aesthetic ultimately fails to cohere: the American cannot remain the ambivalent anti-hero that the aesthetic would seem to require; he must eventually prove himself a noble, upright protagonist, free of all of the internal contradictions that make the anti-hero of the Spaghetti Western so compelling. All of the allure and mystery vanishes and we are left with an ending that drips with saccharine and crocodile tears.

For my personal taste (or at least for my warped taste for camp), Hell Commandos by far and away delivers the most depraved enjoyment of any of the films in the set if for no other reason than that it mounts improbability upon improbability and indulges in moments so cliché-ridden that the actors always seem on the brink of breaking out into irrepressible laughter.

A Major in the Marines assembles a crack team designed to infiltrate a Nazi stronghold in order to rescue or murder a scientist working there against his will. The scientist is being forced to discover an antidote to a chemical weapon designed by the Nazis so it can be safely employed against Allied forces. This carefully trained team is annihilated immediately upon their arrival by another group of Marines who find themselves hopelessly lost behind enemy lines. The Major then adopts this crew for his mission. The soldiers happen upon one sexual exploit after another, give an entire unit of Nazis the runs by putting cod liver oil in their soup, argue about what racial prejudices are justified, attempt to kill members of their own team, and fail at nearly everything they put their hands to.

Somehow they manage to smuggle the scientist’s daughter into the stronghold with them by dressing her as a soldier. When the Nazi commander of the stronghold begins to suspect the Major is a spy, he busts in on the Major in bed with the young lady (whom the commander still believes is a boy soldier) and his suspicions are immediately allayed. Apparently, in this film, homosexuality is the sign of a good Nazi.

The ultimate stroke of ludicrous genius occurs near the end of the film when the attack dogs stop their pursuit of the escaping Major and the daughter in order to pick up a lit stick of dynamite and run back to the Nazis. Obviously, playing fetch is more hard-wired into the dogs’ instincts than pursuing escapees. Moreover, the film features a ridiculous monologue (hilariously overblown in its solemnity) as the opening, middle, and end of the narrative: each time recited in its entirety.

The Mediterranean in Flames, directed in 1969 by Dimis Dadiras and featuring a Greek cast, involves a young woman, Marina, and her attempts to serve as a spy against the Nazis for the Greek Resistance. Erich, a German naval officer, is deeply in love with Marina and the Resistance uses this to their advantage to gain access to Nazi war secrets. Erich is so in love, apparently, that he fails to recognize Marina’s laughably transparent efforts at faking romance.

The acting is wooden and the writing beyond predictable. At one point, Marina’s father, unaware of the plot, comes to Erich’s house to confront and disown Marina. Upon his departure, Marina cries out, “God, give me strength” but I could have sworn she had said, “God, give me a script”, a sentiment that seemed to me to be far more appropriate.

Operation Cross Eagles of 1968, directed by and starring Richard Conte, has absolutely no use for a script as it makes clear from the outset. It could, however, use a more serviceable score; the music here sounds like it was produced by a group of deaf elementary schoolchildren: a lot of senseless banging and the occasional dissonant chord. Conte looks old here, very old. I constantly hoped to glimpse his wheelchair awaiting him in the corner of the screen, but to no avail. Considering that the film was clearly designed as an action flick, it is amazing how little action and excitement there is; this is a pure exercise in tedium and if you can get through it without working on Sudoku or a crossword puzzle, then you are a more dedicated film viewer than I.

Two films by director Umberto Lenzi round out the collection. Desert Commando (1967), Lenzi’s first film, follows a small band of German spies as they make their way across the desert to Casablanca in order to fulfill an assassination plot against Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, and Stalin — thus effectively ending the war in Germany’s favor. Captain Scholler (Ken Clark) leads the group and ruthlessly allows his injured subordinates to perish rather than slow the group’s progress (he idly watches as one man, shot in the leg but otherwise fine, gets fatally bitten by a scorpion).

Meanwhile, we meet another conflicted German (a veritable stock character in these films) in Lt. Wolf (Horst Frank). Wolf’s mother was American, his best friend a Jew, and he is so thoroughly Americanized that he keeps up with the baseball scores (a habit that has the rather unlikely advantage of getting the spies out of a fix at a checkpoint). Of course, girls get involved in the plot, an Arab and a Frenchwoman, and it soon becomes clear that one of them is a counteragent. Although designed to be a “twist” to the story, it is eminently clear who the counteragent is — that is, to everyone but the Germans — and the red herring Lenzi attempts to set in our path never truly takes hold.

The film culminates in another obvious bit of trickery when the two remaining uninjured Germans attempt to carry out the assassination; we are so thoroughly prepared for the “surprise” that I am somewhat shocked that they didn’t have someone emerging from a cake. Perhaps the only surprising thing about this film is that it is not nearly as bad as Lenzi’s other contribution to the set.

Bridge to Hell from 1986 derives from the last part of Lenzi’s output, just as his film career (already of dubious value) began to totally self-destruct. Lenzi seems out to prove that the war wasn’t against the Axis or the Allied forces, but rather against the simple rules of basic logic. The scenario almost sounds like the set up to a bad joke: three POWs — an American, an Italian, and a German deserter — run across some Yugoslavian partisans and in exchange for a guide to the Italian border and some supplies they agree to pilot their two rickety planes. The partisans (I’d say roughly 10 of them) then stage an attack against at least 100 Nazis that they hoped to time with an air attack but the planes are late. We are informed of all this while the partisans stand idly in a field right in front of the Nazi troops who are kind enough to wait for a break in the dialogue to open fire.

When the planes arrive, they drop their bombs by hand at the Germans who, for no apparent reason, forget that they, too, are armed and simply drop dead en masse. One of the partisans is an ex-nun (I am not making this up) and tells one of the POWs about a treasure worth $5 million in the convent where she was a novice. One plane’s engine fails (“kaput” says the German) so now they have one plane to take on 30 or so German fighter planes. Now everyone suddenly thinks they are in a circus show and they begin to perform synchronized loopty loops. The POWs manage to evade all 30 German planes and blow up a train but then have to crash land their plane, which promptly blows up after they get out. So what is a POW pilot to do? Run into another group of partisans, of course (wash, rinse, repeat). And a good thing, too, because the German deserter got shot and these partisans have a diagnostic center!!

This film may win the prize for the worst integration of stock footage outside of an Ed Wood movie. Lenzi must have enjoyed the shot where he has a model plane crash into a rock insofar as he employs it ad nauseam. The Germans here are all deaf when convenient (they never hear their comrades dying, even when they are standing quite nearby), and seem to suffer from some bone condition, which makes it possible for them to die after a single blow to the head. Poor Nazis.

As if most of the films are not disappointing enough, the collection as a product is appalling. The films probably didn’t look that great upon their initial release but they are almost certainly in worse shape here. The images are blurry and jump as though experiencing an epileptic fit. Colors leak out of the borders of the images so that the pinkness of a girl’s face seems to stain the wall behind her. Some scenes are so dark that you might as well be listening to a radio drama. War Devils, at least in the copy I received, completely fuzzed out at several points during the film. War Boy had me fighting with the brightness setting on my television throughout the viewing. Certain scenes were so dark that I couldn’t tell which figure was the woman and which was the man while the very next scene featured a landscape so brightly exposed that my screen was awash in a milky luminosity. And I believe one requires infrared glasses to discern what is going on during the opening of The Dirty Heroes. Each film looks like a third-generation video recording; no attempt at restoration is in evidence.

There are no extras to be found in this collection but that might be a blessing rather than a deficit. But hey, what do you want? If you are willing to buy the collection, you probably know what you are getting into. When you get 10 films for just under $20, what can you expect? Not much, apparently.

RATING 3 / 10