"They had crushed all that was human in us.
We knew only retaliation with the murderous weapons they had placed into our hands."
Sven Hassel - Wheels of Terror
On the Eastern Front, a group of German soldiers with bad conduct records are assigned together in a penal bridage in the 27th Panzer Division. After the successful destruction of a Russian tank convoy, they are sent on a dangerous mission deep behind the Soviet lines with the aim of disrupting a railway depot and the Russian supply chains.
Sven Hassel's controversial novel makes a particularly tough prospect for adapting to the screen - very episodic, it covers a number of large battles and epic sequences (including the opening air raid) that would be hard to recreate with anything but a Hollywood budget, so for this independent production it was clear that a lot of changes would have to be made, but writer Nelson Gidding who so effectively adapted for screen The Haunting (1963), The Andromeda Strain (1971) and underrated Algerian war film Lost Command (1966) would seem to be a good choice to make this work. Sadly, he is not.
The screenplay retains the characters from the novel but only in a very token format - the narrator Sven is all but ignored, Tiny becomes a complete idiot and most of the rest just meld into the background, only the Little Legionnaire retaining some personality (and what ever happened to Pluto?). Yet unless you know the book it is very hard to tell who is who and the complete lack of characterisation makes it hard to care. While a few moments from the novel are retained - notably Tiny and the Legionnaire's fight, the arrest of Col. Von Weisshagen and the visit to the field brothel - the story becomes a rather cliché 'behind enemy lines' trek and assault that seems far too important to be entrusted to a mere tank crew, particularly one with such notoriety for poor discipline and when few of them speak Russian - indeed the script does not even try and give some motivation or explanation as to why this team is chosen.
Even aside from the connections to the novel, the script still fails to gel when the characters get to their mission, missing out a big chunk of time before we find the gang already behind the lines, raiding a warehouse to get explosives and Russian uniforms (why were they not sent with any?) and later meeting up with a bunch of deserters in a scene that seems to exist only to add some random nudity (although the brothel scene could well have served the same purpose). Fortunately, plot and logical holes aside, the final attack on the train has some good tension, but the film is let down by an unnecessarily long 15 minute epilogue that seems to serve only to add some extra explosions and possibly set-up for a non-existent sequel. To add final insult to injury, Gidding seems to miss the whole tone of the writing that makes Hassel's novels so distinctive, the original novel, as with most of his books, employs a very nihilistic tone on the horrors of war with some infamously vivid descriptions of the brutality on both sides - aside from a couple of brief moments, the screenplay plays up the very few lighter hearted aspects of the book instead and threatens to turn the film into an all-out comedy at times, even boasting a small musical number.
Fortunately, despite the scripting problems, the film remains watchable thanks to director Gordon Hessler. It is clear from the start that the production doesn't have much money to play with but they put on a good show and there is a sterling attempt to create a tank battle sequence with what seems to be no more than two tanks on either side and a few bits of armour - fortunately they avoid the model work and noticeable optical effects that let down a lot of war films and there is only a small amount of stock footage (although as usual it does rather stand-out). The soundtrack is acceptable, but has an annoying guitar theme that is obviously meant to represent the companionship between the gang, but just comes off as annoying.
A smart move by the producers is the casting of British and American stars Oliver Reed and David Carradine who receive top billing on most copies of the film - although fans will be rather disappointed to find that they have very minor roles. Reed in particular is in the film for less than five minutes at the very end but gives a typically decent performance, Carradine gets a bit more to do playing the Colonel and certainly seems to be enjoying himself in the role. The main character parts are played by generally quite experienced American actors, with a few familiar faces such as David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors (1978)) and Bruce Davison (Spies Like Us (1985)) so performances are generally good, although the script never really demands much of the cast.
On its own merits, Wheels of Terror is a passable distraction with a couple of good combat scenes but an uninspired storyline and minimal plot. For fans of the Hassel books (of which this remains the only filmic adaptation) the film is nothing less than a travesty - turning a grim novel about a group of soldiers teaming together to survive the horrors of war, into a half-assed buddy comedy, such that you wonder why they went to the trouble of licensing the book in the first place (indeed for US release even the title was changed to make the connection even more tenuous). Not as bad as some low budget war films and with some decent actors is about the best that can be said of Wheels of Terror - not recommended.
|Anyone famous in it?||Oliver Reed - a brief cameo from the British actor who made his name with Hammer Films.
David Carradine - second generation star who made his name in the 1970s with films like Cannonball! (1976)
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Gordon Hessler - a German director who had a varied career, from helming horror films in Britain, including The Oblong Box (1969) to working for television in Hollywood, including directing episodes of CHiPs (1978).|
|Any gore or violence ?||A couple of brief gory scenes.|
|Any sex or nudity?||Brief shots of full frontal male and female nudity in a non-sexual context.|
|Who is it for?||Certainly not for fans of the books. A curio perhaps for budget war movie fans only.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
Good colour and detail, only a small amount of grain.
|Audio||English stereo - comes through clearly.|
|Subtitles||Swedish, Norweigan, Finnish and Danish (optional)|
|Extras||The disc includes:
|Region||Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL|
|Availability||Swedish DVD release as Döden På Larvfötter.|
|Other regions?||Available on Blu-ray from Denmark with English audio but reportedly forced Danish subtitles. Also on DVD in Germany as Die Galgenvöge lists English and German audio, subs unconfirmed. No US/UK release.|
|Cuts?||Believed to be fully uncut. English language print.|