Desert Commandos (1967)

a.k.a. - Attentato ai tre grandi (ITA)

Ken Clarke and Horst Frank star in Umberto Lenzi's unusual Macaroni Combat film. UK Pegasus R0 DVD.

The Film

In the midst of the Second World War, five German soldiers are recalled for a secret mission. Parachuted behind enemy lines in Tunisia, they are disguised as British Commandos and are to make their way across the desert to Casablanca where the Big Three (Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt) are going to be meeting and there they are going to kill the leaders of these countries. Captain Fritz Schoeller (Ken Clarke) is leading the operation but as a loyal Nazi he clashes with Lieutenant Roland Wolf (Horst Frank). The mission seems to be going to plan, but the Americans seem all too aware of the group's plans and progress...

Like most of the Macaroni Combat films of the late 1960s, Desert Commandos resembles most closely one of the early 1950s British war fims with their small scale storylines and emphasis on suspense rather than action. The key difference here is that the film's heroes are German, making this film unique among the Italian war films and one of the very few genre films produced outside of Germany to have Teutonic leading characters. Although the script (credited entirely to director Umberto Lenzi) follows a rather typical war movie formula, it does make the German characters distinctly different to what would be expected if they were British or American. The leader of the group is a loyal Nazi and has an often unpleasently racist attitde, the second in command is the most sympathetic of the group, expressing his dislike for the German command and the attitudes of his commander (although no good reason is given as to why this American born, Jewish friendly soldier would have come back to fight for Germany at all) - unfortunately the remaining three in the group are never really developed.

The use of German leading characters does make for an interesting test of the audience's loyalties. Although the genre formula demands that we support the commandos, the outcome of their mission could mean victory in the war for the Germans and so there is an equal hope that they will not succeed. Of course, the choice of mission does mean we know they cannot succeed which adds an ominous undertone to the proceedings but does remove a lot of the tension from the film.

Despite a few decent action scenes, the film does move quite slowly and unfortunately this does allow the many flaws in the plot to become apparent. The German plan does not make much sense at all - they send five soldiers, on foot, across the desert for hundreds of miles when since they are supposed to be British Commandos, they could more believably have driven (even a German vehicle would have been fine, claiming that they had captured it). There seems to be no real plan for what they are going to do at the conference itself either, trying to kill the leaders at the heavily defended conference site is at best a suicide operation.

The traitor subplot is perhaps inevitable and it is far too easy to tell who is responsible, particularly since one of the American characters early on states that it is a woman who is betraying them and since there are only two women, even the noble attempts at red herrings cannot provide any convincing mystery to the storyline. There also seems to be no reason at all for the Americans to let the group travel towards Casablanca - they even deliberately provide them with uniforms and jeeps at one point - rather than just having them captured or shot at the first oasis.

Behind the camera, Lenzi provides solid if unremarkable direction. Filming in North Africa is much more effective than the usual substitute Spanish deserts and the oases and Casablanca locations look convincing. The mix of outfits and weapons look historically accurate, although the airplane and tanks look rather too modern. Hard working Euro-cult composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino provides a solid if uninspired soundtrack.

Ken Clarke is more familiar as the hero of a number of Euro-Spy films and it is rather odd to see him as a party-loyal Nazi - he plays the role well but simply looks too American (and at forty, simply too old) to be believable in the part. In contrast, regular Spaghetti Western villain Horst Frank gets one of his very few heroic roles here as the Lieutenant and performs well.

Despite its unusual permise, Desert Commandos is a rather generic war film with a storyline that never holds up to even casual inspection. Routine direction and a rather miscast lead makes it hard to recommend, although it will probably be of interest to Macaroni Combat collectors.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Ken Clarke - an American actor who played Agent 077, in a series of Bond inspired Eurospy films.
Horst Frank - a German actor who made his name in Spaghetti Westerns like The Moment to Kill (1968)
Directed by anyone interesting? Umberto Lenzi - best remembered for his cannibal films Cannibal ferox (1981) and Mangiati vivi! (1980), he worked on a lot of more conventional genre fare in the early 1960s such as Una pistola per cento bare (1968)
Any gore or violence ? A bare minimum of blood.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? One for Macaroni Combat film collectors only.
Visuals Cropped (pan and scan) 1.33:1 fullscreen. Colour
The print is quite low quality, with a general lack of detail and frequent damage - fortunately there are few night time scenes.
The original aspect ratio would seem to be 1.85:1 or wider and cropping is very noticable - there is no active pan and scanning either, although action is only cut off in a few scenes.
Audio English mono
Subtitles None
Extras None
Region Region 0 (ALL) - PAL
Other regions? Numerous "public domain" releases in the USA, both on single disc and in various multi-film packs, also released in France and Japan on DVD although all listed as fullscreenprints. Some images on the internet suggest that a better, widescreen print is available although source is unknown.
Cuts? Cut status unknown, no apparent cuts. Opening credits are in English, newly created to match the original English language widescreen credits which would have been cut off on either side.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 14th February 2011.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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