As I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, the tragedy of Umberto Lenzi’s career is that he’s probably doomed to be known for Cannibal Ferox rather than any of the dozens of far better non-cannibal films he made over the course of his long career.
Desert Commandos is yet another illustration of this point, being an effective entry into the Eurowar filone that works on every count to showcase Lenzi’s hyphenate abilities as writer and director.
While taking the standard commando mission scenario, the film is unusual in that it presents such a mission from the German / Nazi perspective; I use both terms because the central personal drama within the five man strong, hand-picked group is the clash of values between ‘evil’ Nazi Captain Fritz Scholler, played by Ken Clark, and ‘good’ German Lieutenant Roland Wolf, played somewhat against type by Horst Frank.
The mission, which Scholler is charged with keeping secret from his men until he can be sure of their loyalty, is one that, if successful, will surely change the course of the war: to infiltrate an Allied conference in Casablanca and assassinate three of those present there, namely Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt.
In other words, it’s like Lenzi’s version of Eagles over London – admittedly one produced before Castellari’s film – by way of extrapolating from the known history of the Second World War to present a possible story from the secret archives. The key difference, of course, is that we here see things from the perspective of the ‘bad’ guys.
Where Lenzi succeeds here is in making us identify with the men, by making them something more than stereotypes.
Thus, in addition to being a dedicated Nazi soldier, Scholler is a dedicated family man, giving an added dimension to his reasons for fighting – who wouldn’t want a better future for their children, whilst also reminding us that Nazism couldn’t have succeeded if its value system was utterly alien.
The half-American, (purportedly Jewish) Faulkner-reading Wolf’s more humanitarian approach is meanwhile sometimes exposed as a cause of greater suffering, as when he questions Scholler’s apparently unnecessary killing of all of a group of tribesmen bar one in order that they can take the men’s camels.
For, as Scholler explains, the tribesmen would surely otherwise have suffered a slow death from dehydration without their camels and supplies.
Another element worth noting here are the various Arab-type agents upon whose success the mission also depends, as figures who go beyond the conventional opportunism to also be thinking in terms of the enemy of my enemy being my friend, and thus reminding us that the British and French were hardly innocent when it came to dubious attitudes towards the other. (“What do you think of western civilisation?” “I think it would be a good idea!” to quote Ghandi.)
Lenzi makes good use of locations, emphasising the contrast between the desolate, uninhabited uniformity of the desert and the crowded, multi-layered city of Casablanca with its winding alleys and flat rooftop terraces; generates considerable tension, suspense and intrigue; and handles the action scenes comfortably.
While suffering from an awkward pan and scan treatment in the version under review, some compensation is provided by the familiar Eurocult faces present, including Howard Ross as another of the commando team and Tom Felleghy as an allied officer.
Everyone's favourite military looking type: Tom Felleghy
Students of acousmatic sound and the figure of the acousmetre, the one who is heard but not seen, may want to also note the finale to the men’s mission for the way in which Churchill is presented.