In July 1969 when the U.S Astronaut Neil Armstrong (who died last week) landed on the Moon, Italian film director Dario Argento was in his initial foray into movies through his appealing stories and screenplays that derived into movies such as “Every Man is My Enemy”, “Heroes Never Die”, “The Love Circle”, “The Five Man Army”, … – an interim period before he embarked into directing thriller movies such as “The Cat O’Nine Tails”, “Deep Red”, “Suspiria”, etc and went on to establish a career that would leave an indelible impact on modern horror films and popular culture.
Back in 1968, a movie titled “Oggi a me…. Domain a te” (Today It’s Me…. Tomorrow You!) co-written by Argento with Tonino Cervi came out and met with moderate success. Starring Montgomery Ford (born Brett Halsey) and Bud Spencer and shot in Manziana (in the Province of Rome), it had characteristics of Japanese Samurai films – a fount of style from which directors like Sergio Leone onwards drew ideas for their western films shot mainly on locations in Spain.
By late 1960s, Italian producer Italio Zingarelli (who would later show industry wisdom in bringing the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy duo together) had tried his hand in almost all genres (sword & sandal to westerns) and was engaged in the production of two screenplays written by Dario Argento “La rivoluzione sessuale” (1968) (co-written with Riccardo Ghione) and “La Stagione de sensi” (1969) (with Barbara Alberti). Argento had completed his collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci on the story for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, and was preparing for his directorial debut “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), a landmark giallo film that would be nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award for best motion picture. Argento had also prepared a third treatment “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” (The Five Man Army), in collaboration with Marc Richards, an interesting premise of cowboys and samurai that followed the adventurous path of movies such as “The Magnificent Seven” series, “Kill Them All and Come Back Alone”, “The Deserter”, “The Dirty Dozen”, etc.
The direction of “The Five Man Army” produced by Zingarelli and presented through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is credited to American actor/director Don Taylor (actor: “Stalag 17”, “The Men of Sherwood Forrest” – Director: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”) but a small mystery surrounds the identity of the director of this film. Though Taylor is confirmed as the director by Dario Argento and Peter Graves, other sources, including actress Daniela Giordano, remember that Taylor did the direction only on the initial few days and the remaining part was done by producer Zingarelli himself who is also credited in some Italian posters and sleeves of DVDs. Anyhow, this contradictory opinion and why Taylor left is yet to be clarified.
To determine requisite economical locations in Europe, quite similar to the geographical formations of Mexico where the story is set, the natural choice was Spain, then known in the movie circles as “the west of Europe”, which offered sun and proper range of accessible locations – relatively ideal conditions for film making. The locations ranged from Almeria (where Zingarelli’s last main hit, the western “Johnny Yuma” was shot) to Madrid to Barcelona where hordes of film makers were exposed directly to the kind of places they were supposed to be portraying. Further enticement was the railroad and farmhouse sets of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) which was still in good condition. Only the remaining scenes were to be shot at Incir de Paolis Studios near Rome which Zingarelli had used earlier to produce “Ciccio Forgives, I Don’t” (1968). The Spanish crews are no less generous, warm, and enthusiastic like the Italians who worked in team spirit – at times charged with sambuca and coffee. Yes, there is something very special about Spain.
As the story goes ……: It’s 1914. Mexico is caught in the middle of the revolution. The country is reeling under dictator Jose Victoriano Huerta Marquez, the Military General who became the President of Mexico in a coup d’état by executing the Constitutional leader, President Francisco Ignacio Madero Gonzalez and his vice president during La Decena trágica (The Ten Tragic Days). By circumventing the great fighting and other “encounters” of the Mexican Revolution, the story of “The Five Man Army” is set few months prior to Toma de Zacatecas (the Battle of Zacatecas) when on June 23, 1914, the Division del Morte of Pancho Villa defeated the troops of General Luis Medina Barrón at the last stronghold of Victoriano Huerta’s forces which led to the resignation of Huerta on July 15. To set the mood of the historical background, the film’s opening credits are shown intermixed with illustrations in black and white depicting the tragedy of the ferocious Mexican Revolution (including a disclaimer citing the events of the movie as fiction) enriched by the melodious music of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” which will take the hold on you from there and never let go.
The main protagonist of the film, the Dutchman has planned to assemble a group of four acquaintances who are specialists in their individual fields, to assist him to rob a heavily guarded military train carrying a shipment of gold valued at $500,000/- which is being sent as a fee to General Vertbas (meant to be Huerta?) by his friends in Europe to protect their interests in Mexico – literally to finance the Mexican Revolution. Each man of the group will be rewarded with $1000/- on successful completion of the job.
A former circus acrobat, the outlaw Luis “Flying” Dominguez (played by Italian actor Francesco “Nino” Castelnuovo who acted as the white-clad, whip-slinging sadistic Junior in “Tempo di Massacro” (1966)) who attacks his opponents with his lethal sling shots, was send by the Dutchman to Texas to round up the remaining three men which are shown in three interesting episodes. Luis had been locked up many times for robbing banks until he escaped by killing two guards that earned him notoriety with his face plastered on every wall in Mexico.
On the casting side, the 6-foot-2 blond American star Peter “Aurness” Graves was roped in to play the Dutchman, the leader of the group. From 1967 onwards Graves had been portraying the cool spymaster in the American television series “Mission: Impossible” (1967 – 1973) for the remaining six seasons when he was offered the lead role in this film. Besides, Graves knew director Don Taylor from his role in the WWII movie “Stalag 17” (1953) in which Taylor was also a star.
For the role of the hunk Mesito, the Italian actor Carlo Pedersoli (Silver medal winner for Swimming at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics) popularly known as “Bud Spencer” was signed. Spencer who sported similar facial features of producer Zingarelli, had finished his appearance in the second installment of his friend Giuseppe Colizzi’s “Cat Stevens” spaghetti western trilogy “Ace High” (I Quattro dell’Ave Maria) and Giuliano Montaldo’s “Dio è con noi” (The Fifth Day of Peace). Interestingly Spencer’s own voice was allowed in the English version of the movie while his voice for the Italian version was dubbed. Mesito was an employee of the Kansas City Railroad before he was kicked out when he stole a train load of market-ready beef and tried to sell it back to its original owner. He broke loose from the prison he was locked up and was secretly working in a farm “feeding chicken” when Luis recruited him. Mesito is a great lover of food (especially cooked beans or a chunky leg of lamb – the bigger the better) who likes knocking baddies down by crashing his chubby fist on top of their heads.
Popular American TV/stage actor James “Firman” Daly was cast as Capt. Nicolas Augustus who gets his kicks out of blowing up anything with dynamite. Daly had won an Emmy in 1966 for supporting actor in the then popular Drama series in the Hallmark Hall of Fame show “Eagle in a Cage.” Augustus was recruited right from the middle of a card game with coalminers.
And the last of the five, the Samurai was portrayed by Japanese actor Tetsurô Tamba (born Shozaburo Tanba). The selection of Tamba was easier since he was already famous as “Tiger Tanaka” in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” (1967) and for appearances in “Bridge to the Sun” (1961) and “The 7th Dawn” (1964). Unlike Tatsuya Nakadai who starred in “Oggi a me…. Domain a te”, Tamba, in his one and only appearance in a Euro-Western, spoke English and didn’t require an interpreter. However, in the role of samurai, he was hardly expected to display verbal brilliance. The Samurai who had once escaped from his native country and wound up slicing six men in three seconds, was located at a circus sideshow flaunting his expertise with knives aiming at a lovely “lotus flower”. One of the great samurai swordsmen, his mastery in handling the sword will be revealed later as the movie progresses.
As the story unfolds, the four of the group, dirty, sweaty and dusty, ride to the Mexican town of Sierra Morales to keep rendezvous with the Dutchman to constitute the five man army. They found the townsfolk gathered in front of the church to witness the Mexican army prepare for the execution of the rebels’ leader Manuel Esteban (Claudio Gora). For them, it’s either a bullet or hanging. A bullet ended things quickly.
As the condemned man was brought to the square, the townsfolk, suppressing their anger and humiliation, but in deep bereavement, broke into a poignant song (Muerte Donde Vas). Soon after the visitors recognized the Dutchman amongst the crowd, they made the move to save the condemned man. Before the firing squad of four could pull the trigger at the “traitor”, they were shot at and killed by the five man army. In the ensuing shootout and commotion, Esteban was injured, but the soldiers present there were either shot or mauled to death collectively by the protagonists and the enraged crowd. The Mexican Revolution is certainly based on popular participation.
Once Esteban’s bullet wound was found not serious and he was left to recuperate in the safety of a room, they indulged in the modest extravagance of the womenfolk of the town who, keeping up with the Mexican custom of eating the main meal at midday, served them a fine feast. One of the generous Mexican women, Maria (Miss Italia 1966 Daniela Giordano), always sporting a joyless expression, was evidently more interested in the Samurai. No less behind, Samurai himself had noted her lazy feline grace and her physical magnetism.
Mesito, always ravenously hungry, was happy at the sight of the food, especially the cooked beans and a jug of red wine. In this room, the four were introduced to each other by the Dutchman and the nature of the mission is revealed. He informs that Estaban, the leader of the revolutionary forces is their paycheck, knows from where they can pluck half million dollars of gold – from a bank on wheels – a big fat juicy train. The gold is to be handed over to the revolutionary forces to support the revolution but he never explains why he is in league with the Revolutionaries.
A dreamer by nature, Mesito was only interested in the prospect of sharing that enormous loot with his comrades in arms. The Gold Fever….. he would buy 200 heads of cattle – honestly this time. Things are surely looking up for Mesito. But the gambler Augustus who believed in the Dutchman, with whom he had spent five years in the army in Cuba and had gone hiding after he blew up the safe of the Cuban army during the Cuban War, nevertheless had doubts and qualms about the viability of the plan.
Sometime later, fearing retribution from the soldiers for killing their comrades, the peasants were leaving Sierra Morales to a safer place. Before their exodus started, Estaban let two of their young women, Perla (earthy Annabella Andreoli) and Maria, accompany the five men in a horse cart. Should they be stopped, it’s better to have a family. They camped for the night in the quite of an abandoned building, but were subsequently captured by the Mexican soldiers and produced before the sadistic and ambitious Capt. Gutiérrez (effectively portrayed by Carlo Alighiero), in whose jurisdiction they have been captured.
In a parody reminiscence of the interrogation scene in director J. Lee Thompson’s “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), they are lined up in the Comandancia Militar of Gutiérrez (named after Eulalio Gutiérrez Ortiz, Mexican President between Nov. 1914 – Jan. 1915?) for questioning. Having found them embracing the cause of the rebels, they will be shot except for American Luis who will be hanged, very slowly, because he is an outlaw on the run from the Mexican army.
In order to go free they must reveal their names, what they are doing in Mexico and who send for them and gave them hospitality. That’s all. Having met with silence, Gutierrez decided to wait until they cracked. While they were led to the prison, another fiasco was unfolding in the courtyard where the Mexican soldiers were preparing for the execution of a batch of rebels. On seeing the Samurai, Maria ran to him and secretly slipped a knife under his right elbow before they were taken away.
This leads to their daring escape from the prison cell through a trap door on the roof. As Maria and Perla were being interrogated by Gutierrez, the Samurai bursts in and makes some expert carvings with his sword that would thrill the audience and quicken the yen in Maria’s heart for him. In the ensuing shoot out the soldiers were killed and the ARMERIA is cheerfully blown up by Augustus well after securing sufficient dinamita sticks from the arsenal for later use. They escape from there with Maria and Perla in the horse cart and before the five man army headed for the mission, they send off the two women to rejoin with their people. This unwished for separation was a quick and sad parting for the Samurai and Maria (in a role devoid of dialogue like the Samurai). Love happens when you least expect it. They had been granted only few moments of paradise and then cast into the darkness of frustration. But, Maria would be waiting for him.
Riding at an angle away from the chasing soldiers scouting for them, they soon gave the slip to the soldiers on their trail with the help of revolutionaries. Soon, the Dutchman provides his men with their first view of the target train. They were by now convinced of the importance of meeting with success in the mission, but getting their hands on the gold appeared to be impossible considering that the train was guarded by a good number of heavily armed soldiers, a cannon and a work train that would travel ahead of the gold train by twenty minutes to ensure the tracks are clear and safe from assault. Besides, there was military corps stationed at six mile intervals along the railway track to ensure the safe passage of the real train.
Once an army truck is hijacked for their later use, the Dutchman took them to an isolated railroad station house ideal to settle down and fine tune the finer details and prepare to pull off the job within three days. What follows are the thrilling action sequences featuring their ride under the train from Puebla Railway Station, their raw skills aboard the train, the Samurai running for the departing train, the daring robbery, and………….
Being an Italian- American co-production, “The Five Man Army” has high production values.
The excellent Cinematography by Enzo Barboni (“Django”) in Metrocolor/Deltavision reproduces a real atmosphere of Mexico and U.S in the Spanish locations by capturing the beautiful solitude of vast desert regions; panoramic views of lush country side; the enchanting mood of the isolated, dusty village; the well-crafted interiors by art director Enzo Bulgarelli and set decorator Ennio Michettoni – all of which are masterfully framed, blended with appealing trolley and crane shots.
Notwithstanding the ablest performers chosen for the film, the thrilling action scenes (about twenty two minutes) aboard the train makes our attention glued onscreen, tracking the skillful maneuvers of the protagonists in a series of sequences as they take on whatever hair-raising perils were necessary to defuse the guards and complete the mission, proclaim great film making without the help of back projection or computer graphics.Then the music really takes its thumping rhythm (Una Corsa Disperata) when the Samurai speeds after the train (sequence of about four minutes). The rousing and melodious score by Morricone is a perfect accompaniment for the film. Morricone had skillfully left certain scenes devoid of music (especially the train sequences), leaving the action to carry the story forward at its gripping pace and suspense, which unmistakably relate to Dario Argento’s contribution.
Backed by the brisk and cutting-edge editing by Sergio Montanari, the script by Argento and Richards never allows for a boring moment by keeping the action fast-paced and dotted with humour (especially the boy peeping at the Dutchman hanging under the train; the waving of the hands of the dead soldiers), shifting the characters quickly from one sequence to another, and most of the time, never letting a scene run longer than necessary.
The film portrays the protagonists as believable human beings and the chemistry between them as they plan and successfully complete their mission weathering all the great obstacles is fantastic. The interesting romantic angle between the Asian Samurai and western Maria has credibility and “sparkle” – offering ample scope for improvisation. But this is hardly a movie about love. Besides, the story is devoid of brutality by many prowling tigers, but limited to the villainy and absolute power of the Mexican Capt. Gutierrez, the baddy who is sliced up by the Samurai even before the five men embark on their mission.
By underlining Mesito’s colourful and immature character with his dreamy sequences, greed for food, gimmicks in fighting the baddies, makes him appealing to the general audience while at the same time paved the way for advancement of a style that will be fully utilized in Spencer’s later films, starting with the slapstick western comedy “They Call Me Trinity”, the directorial debut of Cinematographer Enzo Barboni under the pseudonym E(nzo).B(arboni) Clucher, and the sequel “Trinity is Still My Name!”, which Spencer co-starred with Terence Hill (born Mario Girotti).
The Dutchman depicted by Graves has come across effectively as a solitary man, a loner without a home though, curiously, the leadership of the Dutchman is asserted by the avertable scene in which his old friend Mesito is slapped on the face as he spread his arms to greet him. Likewise, the scenes depicting execution of the rebels, the townsfolk who mournfully sang during the execution of Esteban while the soldiers abuse and brutalize them in their attempt to end the song, are emphasized as catalysts to generate easy displeasure in the audience towards the Mexican army and thereby to elevate the five men to the status of heroes. It’s a wonder that the film, which was a hit, didn’t spawn a sequel or a series like “The Magnificent Seven”.
A harmless entertainment, The Five Man Army is a western film full of “sunny” adventure, of getting people together and remembering. It’s about heroes – and heroes need to be remembered. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)
(PS: This review is my special tribute to all those brilliant talents who made this wonderful movie possible. JS)