Release Date: September 28, 1962
Starring: Jack Palance, Giovanna Ralli, Serge Reggiani, Folco Lulli, Venantino Vanantini, Franco Balducci, Miha Baloh
Directed by Leopoldo Savona; Screenplay by Gino De Santis, Ugo Pirro, Leopoldo Savona
One of my favorite genres of cinema has always been the combat film, primarily the films set in World War II such as The Big Red One, Sahara, and Saving Private Ryan.
It started for me back in the late 70’s, when Saturday afternoons would include at least one or two black and white combat films from the 40s and 50s on the local channels here in New York. Most of them were set in the Pacific, with plots that usually involved a group of grizzly soldiers on a mission or defending their ground against impossible odds. I must have watched hundreds of those now forgotten films back then, and while I don’t remember most of the titles, I still have a soft spot for the B combat films.
So when I was browsing the selection of films on Amazon Prime this past week, one that stood out was the 1962 World War II film Warrior’s Five starring Jack Palance. American paratrooper Jack (played by Palance), on a mission to blow up a bridge, has been captured behind enemy lines in German occupied Italy and is held by the Italians in a military prison north of Naples. He doesn’t crack under their interrogation and is about to be transferred to the Germans (and a more intense methods of interrogation) when they receive word that Italy has signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies. As the Italian prisoners storm out of the prison, the commandant simply opens the gate and lets Jack walk free.
A group of five Italian prisoners, led by the sticky fingered Sergeant Marzi (Folco Lulli) plan to make their way to Naples and the protection of the Americans. They ditch their uniforms and hawk a stolen cannon to for a few lire and second hand suits to start their journey.
But despite the armistice, the German army still controls the area. And as Jack heads to his radio and weapons stash to relay his position to the American army, Marzi and his four Italian cohorts (Alberto, Libero, Conti and Sansone) fight the crowd at the local railroad station and hop a train to Naples and the protection of the Allied soldiers. Shortly after the the train pulls out of the station, a group of women led by the strong willed and not shy about it Italia (played by Giovanna Ralli) use their charm stop the train in the middle of the countryside and hitch a ride. It seems like it will be an uneventful journey, until one of the women convinces the conductor to stop the train along a vineyard so the starving passengers can eat the grapes. As they tear apart a poor family’s vineyard, three armed German soldiers appear. Despite being armed with machine guns, the scared young German soldiers are overpowered by the mob and killed.
When a squad of German soldiers discovers the dead bodies, they set a trap for the train at the upcoming railway station and arrest all of the passengers. Marzi anticipates the trap, and the five Italian prisoners and Italia sneak away through a tunnel. While resting at a stream, they spot one of Jack’s empty ration cans and track him down. Along their way to the American line they reach a minefield with two dead paratroopers. Marzi and Alberto brave the minefield to scavenge their supplies, but the fragile Conti has had enough and runs off to his hometown.
Jack, Italia and the remaining four warriors hole up at a nearby farm. Jack recruits Alberto (and pays Marzi) to help him blow up the Galliano bridge to slow down the German drive toward the allies at Anzio. But when they learn that Conti’s hometown of Altano is being held hostage by German soldiers hell bent on finding the American behind their lines, even if it means killing innocent local men, Jack, Alberto, Marzi, Libero and Sansone take their guns in an attempt to liberate Altano.
Some versions of the movie poster have a grindhouse quality with actress Giovanna Ralli taking up more space than lead actor Jack Palance, which takes away from the fact that Warriors Five is less an action film than a drama about the effect of World War II on the Italian population. With a steely eyed leading man (Palance), strong willed leading lady and a small band of vagabonds in a war torn country, this is exactly the type of movie Quentin Tarantino would have remade. Thankfully he didn’t, because it’s the simplicity of Warrior’s Five that makes this an enjoyable film (as was the original Inglorious Bastards), and a remake wouldn’t have had the grit, only caricature.
Warriors Five isn’t a classic, but the story still packs a punch with the human drama of life in German occupied Italy and the gravity of the warriors’ impromptu mission. The film’s score is a bit uneven, and at times unable to successfully transition between the dramatic and the lighthearted. Despite the low budget, director Leopoldo Savona utilizes a strong cast and the Italian countryside to create a hard hitting war drama that balances action with empathy for the disillusioned Italian prisoners of war randomly brought together for a noble cause in their war ravaged homeland.