The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Five Man Army

Some movies just do their best to avoid you.  For me, one of them was 1969's The Five Man Army.  I don't know how many years back, but TCM devoted four Saturdays one month to showing spaghetti westerns, and I took my chance, watching just about all of them.  Besides the Clint Eastwood spaghettis and about 15 or 20 more, it is definitively harder to track down the rest (there were about 600 made overall) which I soon figured out.  One Saturday, I caught 'Army' and loved it, but could never track down a copy because it wasn't available anywhere.  Thankfully, someone was able to send me a VHS copy of the TCM print, and tada, I had my copy.

This isn't your typical spaghetti western with gunfighters shooting it out for women and riches in the desert.  As well, it was made with financial backing from MGM where most spaghetti westerns were made with backing from Italian studios.  Considering all the different elements of the story, it's a heist zapata spaghetti western with a men on a mission/mercenary setting for all the characters.  So all those things rolled together to form basically the coolest idea for a western ever.  Is it a classic?  No, but it isn't trying to be.  Good cast, great musical score, and action around every corner.

During the Mexican Revolution, a group of revolutionists catches wind of a gold shipment bound for Mexico City and hires an American to get the job done.  His name is simply, Dutchman (Peter Graves), and he goes about putting a team together to accomplish the mission.  His crew includes Augustus (James Daly), an explosives expert, Mesito (Bud Spencer), a mammoth strongman, Luis (Nino Castelnuovo), an acrobatic bandit and dead eye with a slingshot, and Samurai (Tetsuro Tanba), a master swordsman and knife thrower. The mission/robbery seems suicidal though as the five men must get aboard a heavily guarded armored train outfitted with 100 guards, machine guns and a cannon that can pick them off if they try and board.  All along the route, patrols of soldiers will be waiting for the signal to move in if trouble arises.  It seems impossible, but the Dutchman's got a plan.

A sucker for men on a mission movies, I fell for this one from the first time I saw it. 'Army' follows a familiar formula, but director Don Taylor (who reportedly only filmed part of the movie) handles everything so smoothly it is fun just to go along for the ride.  The movie follows the formula; recruit a team, introduce their specialties, reveal the mission, let the team loose on the mission, and the fallout with the survivors.  Taylor does just enough different to keep you on your toes, and does throw the audience a curveball here and there when he thinks they're too comfortable.  But at its most basic is an action-packed story that never waits too long in between gunfights and showdowns with Dutchman's crew, revolutionaries, bandits, and Mexican soldiers.

The calling card for 'Army' is easily the actual heist sequence when the Five Man Army hits the armored train.  To this point, we've only been given hints as to how they'll pull off this impossible job, but it all comes together in an almost wordless 26-minute sequence that is a masterful presentation of how to shoot a tense, exciting heist action sequence.  You can watch it starting HERE and continuing into Part 8, 9 and 10.  The movie was shot on location in Spain (you'll see some familiar locations from other spaghettis, including Once Upon a Time in the West), and nowhere does that benefit more than the heist sequence which features some crazy, absolutely ridiculous, and I imagine rather dangerous stunts.  But credit to the cast who seems to be doing a majority of their stunts, and on a moving train at that.  I love the movie on the whole, but the heist is the strongest and best part.

Filling out the Five Man Army is a great group of actors who were never huge stars.  Graves filmed this while on hiatus from his hit TV show Mission Impossible, and it's only fitting that the story is basically M:I in the wild west.  I like Graves a lot, and he's a good choice to play the tough, no-nonsense leader of this group of mercenaries.  His four men are all given a chance to shine, and none disappoint.  Daly is a scene-stealer as dynamite expert Capt. Augustus, delivering a monologue about the changing times in the west and how he doesn't expect any of them to survive.  Watch it HERE starting at the 4:30 mark. For a dumb old action movie, this speech says more than whole movies that cover the same time period. Spencer is awesome as ever as the immense, somewhat dim-witted Mesito, Castelnuovo is great as a shifty bandit you're never quite sure of, and Tanba doesn't say a word, letting his sword do his talking.  A great group, and a perfect team to pull off an impossible heist!

Watch enough spaghetti westerns, and it gets to be an easy thing to overlook composer Ennio Morricone and his great musical scores. His 'Army' score is an underrated one (listen to the main theme HERE) mixing the big and epic with the quieter and emotional.  Augustus' speech is aided by Morricone's soothing score being played under his words, but then the action sequence is boosted by this perfect action score that keeps the story flowing at all times.  Just another element of one of my favorite movies.  It is available to watch from start to finish starting with Part 1 of 11 in a great print on Youtube.  Enjoy it! 

The Five Man Army <---TCM trailer (1969): ****/****

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