Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Italo Zingarelli started producing spaghetti westerns all the way back in 1964, the year of Fistful of Dollars. His first try at the genre was Gunmen of Rio Grande; that its hero was Wyatt Earp suggests that Zingarelli was still trying to ape American films. He followed the Italian practice of recruiting American stars: Guy Madison for Gunmen; Mark Damon for Johnny Yuma; John Ireland for Hate for Hate. In between westerns he made Franco and Ciccio comedies. In 1968 Zingarelli got ambitious; he would cast two Americans in his next western, and hire an American director, Don Taylor. The lead would be Peter Graves, whose stock had risen considerably since joining the Mission:Impossible show in its second season. His co-star would be Dennis Weaver, late of Gunsmoke, later of McCloud. Production was to start early in 1969, but Mission:Impossible fell behind schedule and by the time Graves was available, Weaver was off the project. Taking his place was veteran TV character actor and recent Emmy winner James Daly. To fill out the cast, Zingarelli seems to have taken inspiration from the film Today It's Me, Tomorrow You, hiring Bud Spencer from that film's cast as the requisite lummox and hiring Japanese star Testuro "Tiger Tanaka" Tanba. While Today It's Me had cast Tatsuya Nakadai as a Mexican bandit, Zingarelli and Taylor were less daring. Tanba would play a Japanese man called "Samurai," and despite the actor's reputed skill with the English language his role would be mute. Nino Castelnuovo made it a five-man army.

Zingarelli and Taylor (and co-writer Dario Argento) made a caper picture, and the only thing missing in that respect is a scene of Graves, as "The Dutchman," in his lair studying daguerreotypes of his prospective partners before settling on the explosives expert (Daly), the blades master (Tanba) and the lummox. Castelnuovo's character is in on the plan from the start and brings the skills of a circus acrobat. While his resume was dispiriting to hear -- I'd rather do without acrobatics in my spaghettis, please -- I was relieved to learn that tumbling and flipping never really came into play. Instead, the character developed into a master of the slingshot.  Apart from that, however, The Five Man Army is almost completely disappointing. Taylor's direction is uninspired and Graves epitomizes uninspired acting. He hasn't a whiff of ruthlessness or roguishness about him, and the late twist that has him betray his four partners plays out unconvincingly even before it proves a tease. The Dutchman couldn't turn on his buddies because he's greedy or selfish, after all. Instead, he betrays them for the noblest of causes: the Revolution. He's brought them together to pull off an "impossible" train robbery and nab a Mexican government gold shipment, promising his partners even shares of the loot. Afterward, he thinks he can get away with leaving them a grand apiece while delivering the rest to the revolutionaries. But when government troops find their hideout and attack before he can get away, all five join in the fight, and when the revolutionaries arrive to mop things up, all five happily join the revolution. Joy!

Of our five stars, Daly makes the best impression as a grizzled, fatalistic cynic who gives the requisite talk about the old days being gone for good. Tanba is wasted by the failure to give him dialogue, even though Argento and co-writer Mark Richards give him the film's only romantic subplot, making him the object of a Mexican beauty's affections. Tanba also gets the spotlight in a brief moment of swordplay -- most of the time he throws knives -- and what was presumably intended as the film's action highlight. Having fallen off the train, Samurai must dash across the landscape, finding shortcuts so he can try to catch up and get back on board. The scene takes several crucial minutes that paralyze the picture. While Ennio Morricone labors frantically to make the moment dramatic, Taylor hasn't the pictorial instinct or even the sense of direction (in any sense of the word) necessary to make it all work. Meanwhile, Spencer stands out for his predictable feats of strength and gags about his appetite. In the American edition, his character talks with an unexpected accent -- that couldn't be Carlo Pedersoli's own voice, could it? Finally, I find that I have nothing to say about Castelnuovo, and perhaps it's best to be forgettable in as forgettable a film as this.

Before the film was released, Zingarelli tried to build confidence in it by announcing that he would use Peter Graves in his next picture, tentatively titled Deadly Legion. That film was never made. Instead, Zingarelli retained Bud Spencer for his next western, assigning him to director Enzo Barboni and teaming him with Terence Hill. The rest is history, specifically They Call Me Trinity and the triumph of the comic spaghetti western. ¿Quién sabe? Maybe if Five Man Army had been more successful we may have been spared that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's Pedersoli's own voice.