A RAF plane equipped with experimental radar is shot down over occupied Norway. The whole course of the war could be affected if German scientists can figure out how to repair, replicate and use it.
Duke (Henry Silva) of SOE is charged with the job of intercepting the destroying the wreckage of the plane. The mission goes according to plan but it soon emerges that the Germans were one step ahead. Duke and the local Norwegian resistance attacked a well-disguised decoy.
The real radar equipment has been delivered to an impregnable laboratory deep inside a cavern only reachable by sea and a cliff-face climb.
Worse, the pilot and radar operator is still alive and can surely be persuaded to talk, “ve have vays” style…
Though reconnaissance and intelligence evaluates the probability of a successful raid on the laboratory at zero, Duke obtains permission from the top brass to undertake the suicide mission with a hand-picked team of individuals with little or nothing to lose.
Duke’s first recruit is the Brit John McCarding, an expert climber court-martialled for alleged cowardice that resulted in the deaths of three of his colleagues and who is desperate to prove his innocence. (McCarding’s accent sounds Scottish, though he’s described as “the best climber in England” by Duke.)
His second is Carlo “Charlie” Sardi (Luigi Castellato), an Italian POW who was the only one of six men who undertook a daring midget submarine raid to survive. Though happy to languish in the safety of the POW camp where he fleeces the other prisoners at three card monte, the camp commander correctly surmises that Carlo’s services in operating the submarine bomb can be bought if the price is right.
His third is Sam Schultz (Enzo Sancriotti), a sailor and smuggler who speaks Norwegian and knows the region’s coastline like the back of his hand. Sam is a reluctant ‘volunteer’ for the mission having been caught smuggling contraband by his new commanding officer. Indeed, he soon pledges to kill Duke when the chance presents itself.
The final member of Duke’s team is Sam (Pietro Martellanza / Peter Martell) a good all-rounder and expert frogman with a distinct attitude problem.
En route to Norway the group are intercepted by a German patrol boat, whose crew they easily overcome.
On reaching the Norwegian coast, Schultz decides that his mission is over and attempts to sneak away and swim for shore, taking some scuba gear with him. Worried that their mission could be betrayed and taking the opportunity to demonstrate to the others that he means business – not a difficult task when you’re Henry Silva, it has to be said – Duke calmly shoots the deserter in the back.
Though the four men reach their contacts in the resistance without further incident, Schultz’s body is found by the Nazis who note the American calibre of the bullet within it…
This 1968 war movie was directed by Maurizio Lucidi, one of those talented directors who seems to have flitted between filone without ever really excelling in any or producing the quantity of output to establish much of a name for himself. As such, it’s likely that most audiences will approach Probability Zero more for its star, Henry Silva or as a chance to see an example of what scenarist and co-screenwriter Dario Argento was doing in between Once Upon a Time in the West and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Given that Argento has indicated that he felt no particular enthusiasm for the war genre and found many of his writing assignments during this time to be disappointingly routine, his writing here proves better than might have been anticipated. Character and situation are well-defined, with some worthwhile attempts to go beyond cliché such as the juxtaposition of the over-familiar ruthless SS type utterly dedicated to the glory of the Third Reich with his more humane and pragmatic Wermacht colleague who reluctantly plays deadly games with the lives of his men:
“To die for the Fuhrer is an honour”
“No one who dies finds death honourable – that’s a quote from Goethe.”
“Captain, your remarks sound dangerously anti-German.”
One reason for the film’s success here is perhaps that the difference between being a western and a war movie often came down to a matter of historical location and trappings at this time: If The Good, The Bad and the Ugly situates its “two magnificent rogues’” treasure hunt against a Civil War backdrop, they also experience WWI trenches and WWII concentration camps by proxy. If A Bullet for the General sees an American agent go on a mission in revolutionary-era Mexico, it is also a thinly-veiled commentary on 1960s US imperial adventures.
According to Will Wright in Sixguns and Society the narrative structure of westerns as a whole changed between the 1930s and the 1970s in relation to shifts in the nature of American capitalism. In the earlier period, the bond between hero and society was stronger, with the hero acting to save the weak society from the villain. By the 1960s, however, this connection had largely broken down. While the hero might still save the society through his actions – as here, if we read the film as a displaced western – it was less relevant to his relationship with the rest of his group and / or with the villain, with whom he shared a common professional bond. (Richard Brooks’s The Professionals, in which four specialists go to rescue a Texan millionaire’s wife from the Mexican bandito who has kidnapped her is exemplary here.)
Though Wright’s model has been criticised by Christopher Frayling as far as the Italian western is concerned – criticisms that seem especially valid given its accelerated developmental pace and looser generic boundaries compared to the American western, it provide some useful ideas to play with: referring to Probability Zero’s obvious model and predecessor in Argento’s work, are we dealing with a reinterpretation of The Dirty Dozen or of Five Man Army?
In truth, however, for the average viewer none of this matters. Even with a panned and scanned, washed out video that is less than ideal for showcasing the rugged scenery and the action set piece, Probability Zero works, and works whether we read it as a war or western movie. Everyone – writer, director, cast, crew – does the their thing to the best of their professional abilities, with the result a solid, gritty action-adventure that engages the audience.
One curiosity is Carlo Rustichelli’s incidental music, with many cues sounding very similar – perhaps even identical – to those in his gialli and gothic scores for Bava and, as such, a little out of place at times. Then again, this only adds to the difficulty in placing the film versus acknowledging its accomplishments…