The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Battle of El Alamein

Talk about major conflicts in World War II and any number of battles come to mind from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. Some of WWII's earliest fighting is usually left almost completely by the wayside, the fighting in North Africa as Axis and Allied powers battled for control of the Suez Canal, Egypt and the Nile. The battle of Tobruk has gotten its fair share of attention, but how about the battle of El Alamein? It gets some attention via the appropriately titled 1969 film, The Battle of El Alamein.

It's late in 1942, and German forces under General Erwin Rommel (Robert Hossein) has pushed the Allies almost to a breaking point, the lines stretched thin in hopes of holding back the advance. Leading the Allies is a new commander, General Bernard Montgomery (Michael Rennie), hellbent on turning the tide of battle and stubborn to boot. Among the Italian soldiers fighting with the Germans are an inexperienced officer, Lt. Giorgio Borri (Frederick Stafford), who would like nothing more than a little personal glory in the form of a medal or two. The battle and fighting are up in the air and very much up for grabs, supplies, gasoline and fuel all pushing both sides to make decisions they wouldn't normally have to, much less should have to make that decision. It's early in the war, but this battle could be a huge turning point in the fighting.

As I discovered the depths of the spaghetti western genre, I stumbled across a site called Sgt. Slaughter Goes to War (check it out HERE), a really good, really well-written review site that covers a lot of ground with Euro-war movies, but a fair share of American war movies too. That's how I originally found out about this movie, reading his review, a pretty glowing review that built it up nicely. How many years later, I caught up with it via MGM-HD on TV, watching a ridiculously nice print relative to the crappy ones I've seen. Did I like it as much as Sgt. Slaughter? No, but I did enjoy it. There's some low-budget charm to it with a good cast of recognizable European actors, but it's far from a classic flick. It tries to accomplish a lot in a relatively short running time (I saw a 96-minute version, there's supposedly one that's 105 minutes), covering a lot of ground in portraying the Allied and Axis point of view.

Sgt. Slaughter's review makes a good point in that most Italian war movies were pure fun, pure entertainment, not really meant to be taken seriously. This war movie from director Giorgio Ferroni? It takes a far more serious tone, trying to show the horrors and hell of war rather than the fun of it all. It should be taken seriously. We see the German High Command, Hossein doing a good job as the sympathetic and very capable Rommel, Gerard Herter, Giuseppe Addobbati, and Tom Felleghy playing some of his generals. Rennie seems an odd, very American choice to play the very British General Montgomery, and is also badly dubbed in painfully obvious fashion. It's not that Rennie delivers a bad performance, he gets the Monty personality down, it's that we don't get to see enough of him. In small doses, it's almost stereotypical. Where so many American war movies had a 2-plus hour running time to get a message across (and a budget to boot), 'Alamein' simply tries to do too much in less than two hours.

As is often the case with war movies, the best aspect of 'Alamein' is the focus on the foot soldiers, the infantry, the men fighting on the front lines. Stafford does a very good job as Giorgio, the glory-hunting officer who quickly learns that war isn't as simple and straightforward and heroic as he thought coming in. He goes from inexperienced, cocky officer to tired, capable and looking out for his men. He helps learn some of the horrors through his brother, Sgt. Major Claudio Borri (Enrico Maria Salerno), a far-more experienced soldier who finds himself in command of a platoon when their commanding officer is killed early in the battle. The personal dynamic following the Italian infantry, as well as the Allied perspective from a British major, Graham (George Hilton), resonated more with me than the commanding generals. As for Stafford's Giorgio, his men include Salvatore Borghese, Riccardo Pizzuti, Massimo Righi and Nello Pazzafini as a quick-learning sergeant.

The same way the personal aspect works, so do the battle scenes. This is not a war movie with an immense budget that can be spent on an army of extras. Still, the action scenes are done with the backing of the Italian army so there are tanks, trucks and jeeps on display to add to the sense of realism. The smaller scale works, putting more of a personal spin on the battle as the Borri brothers and their men try to hold back wave after wave of Allied attacks. The finale is the best, the desperate Italians using anything at their disposal to hold back an Allied tank attack. Moving end for a decent Euro-war movie that takes a little while to get going.

The Battle of El Alamein (1969): ** 1/2 /****

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