Umberto Lenzi gives us a men-on-a-mission movie from the other side.
WWII films told from the Nazi point of view are few-and-far between, especially in the Italian macaroni combat subset. Despite (or perhaps because of) being on the wrong side of history in that particular conflict, the Italian audiences of the sixties and seventies had absolutely no time for fascism, and thus the heroes of the macaroni combat films were generally on the side of the Allies. Which makes Umberto Lenzi’s Desert Commandos all the more fascinating. The film pretty much adheres to the basic plot of all the macaroni combat films, with a group of hardened soldiers tasked with carrying out an impossible mission. The only difference is that this group of soldiers happen to be Germans on their way to the Casablanca Conference, to assassinate Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Franklin Roosevelt.
Lenzi is careful to craft his main characters as just that: we’re introduced to all the principals before they’re sent on their doomed mission, and each of our major players feel distinctly human in ways you might not expect. They have families, personal tragedies… one is a fan of William Faulkner. This empathetic portrayal is definitely at odds for your average macaroni picture, filling out the men on the proverbial mission with complexity not usually given, but it’s a complexity that most of the actors can’t quite jibe with. Ken Clark plays the unwavering, devoted-to-the-cause leader of the pack, and his blonde hair and barrel-chested build make him a perfect realization of the Aryan ideal, but he lacks a Klaus Kinski-esque level of madness and obsession that that the role requires. The others are operating at about the same wavelength, although Horst Frank is a standout as the only soldier in the ranks to question Clark’s Nazi sympathies.
The film is also interesting for other reasons: two-thirds of the way through the run-time, it becomes clear that our hapless protagonists haven’t the slightest chance in hell of carrying out their mission, as the Allies have set the whole thing up as a ruse to trap the German saboteurs, and thus the tension that plays out does so not through whether or not they’ll carry out their mission, but just how badly they’re going to fuck it all up. The film barrels on through a series of daring escapes and close-calls, and yet still the strike team continues down their doomed path; tragic heroes that Wagner himself would have been proud of. The very end is even more a bitter pill to swallow, as we learn that the Allies were on to the team from the very start, and basically led them literally right into the line of fire.
Had the acting been a touch better, we might have had an instant classic on our hands. As it stands, we’re stuck with a better-than-average effort in a genre the great Italian hacks milked dry.