At the end of the 1960s, the editorial collective of Cahiers du cinema proposed that films could be positioned as politically radical or reactionary depending on where they sat on the axes of form and content.
For a film to be genuinely radical it had to have radical content and radical form. This was a combination which meant that 99% or more of films could be condemned as reactionary, including that five or ten per cent which aspired to be politically progressive.
A key influence here was Berthold Brecht’s theories of epic theatre, with their emphasis upon constantly distancing the audience from the action on stage by making them aware that they were watching a constructed fiction.
Crucially, however, the Cahiers writers also provided a get out clause for their own favourites by suggesting the existence of the famous category E film, the one that seemed to initially be formally and ideologically complicit with the status quo, but which could conveniently be recuperated for radicals like themselves to watch without feeling bad, through various strategies of deconstruction and detournement. The classic case was John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln.
So, what does this have to do with Battle of the Commandos, a 1969 Euro-war entry directed by Umberto Lenzi from a script co-authored by Dario Argento?
Well, on the surface not a lot, given that the film sees yet another post-Dirty Dozen special squad of the condemned sent on a suicide mission, is replete with anachronisms and sees the reduction of complex material forces to simple battles between individual characters – including, of course, the obligatory evil Nazis.
Yet what I would argue is that if we look a bit further and consider the film in the light of its director’s avowed anarchism and similar tendencies in its co-author, we might begin to see it as a commentary – now more intentional, now more unconscious – on the awkward interface between popular film and politics, as a kind of Category E film for the Euro-trash enthusiast.
Palance was also in Godard's Contempt, where Brecht is quoted. Coincidence? Maybe...
We begin with Jack Palance’s Colonel Charlie MacPherson marching into his CO’s office to the strains of Marcello Giombini’s appropriately stirring, martial music.
MacPherson has just returned from his latest mission, unlike the 20-odd men serving under him. For MacPherson their deaths are what matters. For his CO it is that the goal of the mission was accomplished: Yes, 20 men died, but their sacrifice achieved the destruction of 75 enemy panzers.
It’s a basic difference in accounting strategies, nicely summarised by Brecht’s poem “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle”:
“General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.”
The general knows this, however, and plays upon it to entice MacPherson into a new mission, one that gives him the opportunity to go up against his old enemy Colonel Ackerman.
MacPherson swallows the bait and hastily assembles a team of military prisoners for the mission. While the usual mismatched group, they’re better characterised than some of their counterparts elsewhere and are used by the filmmakers to make further points.
Claudio Undari’s Private Stone is the profiteering individualist, a Mother Courage type who doesn’t care whether the Axis or the Allies win the war.
He’s contrasted with Helmuth Schneider’s Sam Schrier, a German-Jewish anarchist who fought in the Spanish Civil War and bears a concentration camp tattoo. (One here wonders if the film has exerted any influence on Tarantino's forthcoming Inglorious Basterds, with its all-Jewish hit squad.)
In the middle are the likes of Bruno Corrazzini’s Frank Madigan, who invariably compares anything he eats or drinks to the menu of a luxury hotel, which he apparently visited every day in civilian life; the deliciously revealed punch-line is that this was in the capacity of working as a waiter rather than as a customer.
Rounding out the team are Thomas Hunter’s demolitions expert Captain Burke, a happy-go-lucky type from the USA whose womanising marks him out as less professional than the disapproving – but possibly envious – MacPherson, and the Colonel’s sidekick Sgt. Habinda.
Habinda is one of the film’s most awkward characters, his loyalty to MacPherson and, through him, the British Empire implicitly marking him out as a traitor to his own people in India.
This issue is one that Brecht addressed in his own discussions of the Hollywood film of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Gunga Din: Despite his politics, Brecht found himself being drawn into agreeing with the film’s racist, imperialist sentiments and needing to constantly re-assert his critical distance. If it might be argued that this was a testament to the power of classical Hollywood mise en scene, the point I would make is that neither Gunga Din’s form nor its content proved able to successfully interpellate the viewer.
If Brecht was an exceptional viewer in some regards, his freedom to read the text against the grain is not in itself exceptional.
As it so happens, Habinda is played by Aldo Sambrell. This in turn sets up some questions around performance styles and political correctness: As someone who really gets into his characters Sambrell is akin to a method actor, the antithesis of Brecht’s gestural approach. Although there’s a hint of boot-polish to his make up and an awkward incongruity to the removal of his turban revealing short, thinning hair rather than flowing Sikh locks, he’s a reasonably convincing Indian. Yet these same elements also make for a degree of distancing, that he’s a Spaniard playing at being an Indian.
In one way Sambrell is showing the artificiality of identity but in another he’s being politically incorrect, precisely because these selfsame theoretical identity politics often assume only those who are ‘really’ X should play or depict, X without questioning the reality of X when it pertains to the non-dominant other. (Let’s see who can be more anti-essentialist; you go first.)
Similar productive, thought-provoking contradictions emerge as the mission gets underway. MacPherson and his men successfully establish a beach-head, but the boats following them are spotted and destroyed, leaving them stuck behind enemy lines.
While the SS man, played by the inevitable and inimitable Gerard Herter, is confident that the attack has been repulsed, Ackerman, played by Wolfgang Preiss, is less sure. What’s in play here is not just the conventional contrast between the good German and the bad Nazi – as also seen in another Argento-scripted Dirty Dozen copy, Probability Zero – but also the contrast between the SS ideologue and the Wehrmacht professional.
Viewing the war as all but lost, Ackerman’s goal is the best possible, honourable peace. Having no faith in the Fuhrer nor the master race like his SS counterpart, he’s the kind of soldier who would have supported the July 1944 plot and, had it succeeded, possibly have given the Allies a harder time of things militarily by, for example, not devoting much needed resources to wasteful campaigns of genocide. (Co-incidentally or otherwise, Dirty Dozen II sees the commandos presented with an opportunity to kill Hitler, which they don’t take.)
A game of move and counter-move, bluff and double-bluff between MacPherson and Ackermann thus ensues.
If this gives scope for plenty of battle scenes and set pieces, we can again emphasise their latent contradictions. Clearly dealing with relatively limited resources – albeit still more considerable than he and other filone directors would have to deal with ten or fifteen years later, as evinced by the train-mounted gun that becomes the McGuffin around which MacPherson and Ackerman converge – Lenzi makes extensive use of the zoom lens as an alternative to cutting and, when doing so, frequently presents rapid montages of shots that show little regard for continuity.
While this approach makes it harder to notice the ill-fitting uniforms worn by the extras or the fact that they are wielding Italian manufactured submachine guns not used by the Germans in WWII, it also makes the action sequences that bit harder to engage with for the average viewer. Insofar as this viewer was more likely troubled by difficulties in following the action than with the props – see, for example, some of the comments on the film on the IMDB, this again comes across as something of a distanciating element.
Finally, the theme of food resurfaces again through the ambiguous character of Diana Lorys’s Janine, the erstwhile lover of a collaborationist mayor, who is then taken by MacPherson to be a guide, and is then captured and interrogated by the Wehrmacht and SS in turn. Throughout all this, her motivations are about survival and pain avoidance rather than ideology.
Or, as Ludwig Feuerbach famously put it, “Der Mensch ist was er isst”: “man is what he eats”.
"Food first, then morality."...