The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Buying DVDs, I usually have a limit I'll spend on a movie.  Those $40 8-disc special editions with 139 hours of special features seems pointless unless I really love the movie.  The same goes for cheaper movies.  Sure, it costs $7.99, but do I really like the movie enough to want to buy it?  Typically, that's a no.  On the other hand, what if it was so super-cheap that I didn't care if I would love or hate the movie?  That was the case with 1968's Commandos which I purchased for the low sum of 50 cents with about 10 more added for tax.

It was lying there in a bargain bin and even knowing that the condition of the movie would probably be horrible, I bought it.  Being a Lee Van Cleef fan, I've been aware of the movie for years, but it was never on TV, and I could never find a decent DVD copy.  For the low price of 50 cents though, I'll put up with the low quality.  And don't be confused, it's that cheap for a reason.  It's one of many public domain movies, meaning anyone and everyone can sell it.  The problem is that these versions are usually edited/cropped/pan-n-scan versions and overall, just pretty crappy.  I rolled the dice here, and though the quality was well below average, I still enjoyed the movie.

It's late in 1942, and Sgt. Sullivan (Van Cleef) is training a group of Italian-American soldiers as commandos for behind-the-lines type missions.  After a month-plus of training though, a new commander, Captain Valli (Jack Kelly), arrives with orders for a dangerous mission behind the lines in North Africa. Valli has put together every aspect of a mission where Sullivan's commandos will parachute into the desert, hike several miles, and take over an oasis guarded by German forces until Allied forces can reach the all-important wells.  The plan seems well thought out, but Sullivan buckles at the thought of being commanded by a desk jockey with no combat experience like Valli.  The mission is dangerous enough, but can the two men work together well enough to get it done?

Compared to some of the cheapie DVDs I've bought, this one wasn't that bad.  I could hear just about everything, and the colors were only slightly washed out.  There did seem to be some odd cuts in the middle of a scene, but the runtime -- 97 minutes -- came in longer than the one posted at the IMDB.  As with any widescreen movie, something is obviously lost in the transfer from widescreen to fullscreen.  I found a clip at Youtube with the widescreen presentation, and the difference is light years away.  I liked the movie in its crappy form so seeing it as it was originally intended sounds like a no-brainer to me.

While spaghetti westerns were more well known in the late 1960s and early 1970s, 'spaghetti' war movies had quite a run too.  They had similar styles and tones of spaghetti westerns, and other than the WWII setting, they're basically the same.  Great anti-heroes, supremely evil villains, and lots and lots of action.  Certain portions drag in the middle, but two well-put together action scenes bookend the movie.  The first takes place at night as the commandos take over the oasis, and the second is the finale as a German panzer unit tries to retake the wells.  For a low-budget film, no costs were spared in the action sequences.  It's a chaotic, bloody, and surprising ending that works surprisingly well to point out the lunacy of war.  It could have been sappy or overdone but ends up working pretty well.  Of course, it's not exactly a real happy conclusion, but what war movie has an uplifting ending?

Starring at the height of his popularity in Europe, Van Cleef is not at his strongest here, resorting too much to either yelling like a nut or freaking out like a nut.  His Sullivan is a combat veteran trying to put some demons behind him -- and failing across the board -- but instead of getting to know the character, he just snaps and screams at different people.  Still, it's Lee Van Cleef, and he's a there, I don't need another reason to recommend the movie.  Kelly's Valli could have been the more likable of the two, but he keeps you at arm's length.  What drives him, or is it just an intense desire to prove he can handle combat?  Other solid supporting parts include Joachim Fuchsberger as a German officer who was a professor back home, Marino Mase as Lt. Tommasini, an Italian officer looking out for his men, and Romano Puppo as Dino, a close friend of Sullivan's who survived Bataan with the sergeant.

There have been worse and there have been better, but for the price I paid, I felt like I got a square deal.  Of course, .50 DVDs probably aren't a safe bet most of the time, and the more I think about it, the luckier I was.  There's just enough here to recommend if you can find a cheapie DVD.  For me, I liked it enough to look for a better copy in the future.  There isn't much available online, but I did find an Italian trailer.  I couldn't understand it, but it will give you a good idea of video-quality.

Commandos <---trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****

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