The Five Man Army (1969)

The Five Man ArmyThe 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): ***/****

 

Advertisements

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****