The spaghetti western genre was built around the weird of the wild west, typically greedy gunfighters, murdering bandits and psychotic villains. How can you go wrong?!? Well, not all of the westerns. Made with backing from Italian and U.S. studios, here’s 1969’s The Five Man Army, a heist western. Not too many of those out there.
It’s the middle of the Mexican Revolution with President Juerta, the government and the army fighting an army of peasants and revolutionaries. Siding with the revolutionaries is an American on the run, known simply as ‘the Dutchman’ (Peter Graves) who has taken on a job of taking down a heavily guarded train carrying $500,000 in gold. Not able to do it alone, Dutchman recruits four specialists to aid the mission, including Mesito (Bud Spencer), Augustus (James Daly), Samurai (Tetsuro Tanba) and Luis (Nino Castelnuovo). How can 5 men take down a train with 100 guards, 4 machine guns, a cannon and patrols riding along the train line every few miles? Well, the Dutchman has a plan in mind.
I’m a sucker for men on a mission movies — The Professionals to Where Eagles Dare and a whole bunch in between — so it’s fair to say I fell for this one from the first time I saw it. From director Don Taylor (who reportedly filmed anywhere from some to none of the movie), ‘Army’ follows a familiar formula; recruit a team, introduce their specialties, reveal the impossible mission, let the team loose, and see who makes it out. ‘Army’ keeps you on your toes with a familiar story, throwing the audience a twist here and there. At its most basic, Taylor’s sorta-flick is an action-packed story that never waits too long in between gunfights and showdowns with Dutchman’s crew, revolutionaries, bandits and Mexican soldiers.
Westerns = awesome. Heist movies = awesome. Heist westerns? AWESOME. The calling card here (as is so often the case with quality heist flicks) is easily the actual heist sequence when the Dutchman and his crew hit the armored train. To this point, we’ve only been given hints as to how they’ll put off this impossible job. It all comes together in an almost wordless 26-minute extended sequence that is a masterful representation of how to shoot a tense, exciting heist action sequence. ‘Army’ was shot on-location in Spain (you’ll see some familiar locations from other spaghettis, including Once Upon a Time in the West), the heist sequence benefitting from those awesome locations. The heist does feature some crazy, absolutely ridiculous — and rather dangerous — stunts. Credit to the cast who look to be doing a majority of their stunts, and on a moving train at that. I love the movie on the whole, but the heist is the movie at its strongest.
So heist sequence? Check. Cool specialists for an impossible mission? Double check. Who better to lead an impossible mission than Peter Graves? Playing the Dutchman, Graves is the tough, no-nonsense leader of the team. His personal background and reason for leading the mission provides the movie’s most effective, emotional scenes. The team includes Augustus, the explosives expert, Mesito, the thieving strongman, Samurai, the sword-wielding Japanese fighter, and Luis, the bank-robbing acrobat. Each character gets his chance to shine, the ensemble working together in their scenes together. Daly is a scene-stealer as the doubting Augustus, convinced the mission will fail in bloody fashion. Spencer too has a ball as Mesito, providing some comic relief along the way.
The Five-Man Army is in just about every scene, but also keep an eye out for Claudio Gora as a revolutionary leader and Daniela Giordano as a Mexican girl who falls for Samurai.
Watch enough spaghetti westerns, and it gets to be an easy thing to overlook composer Ennio Morricone and his great musical scores. His ‘Army’ score is an underrated one (listen to the main theme HERE) mixing the big and epic with the quieter and emotional. Augustus’ speech is aided by Morricone’s soothing score being played under his words, but then the action sequence is boosted by this perfect action score that keeps the story flowing at all times. If interested, the movie is available to watch on Youtube, which you can check out HERE. Well worth a watch. Just a damn entertaining heist western with a cool, underrated cast.
The Five Man Army (1969): ***/****