I got this DVD 'cause I'm developing a fascination for the campaign in Italy. Indeed, I might well be building my 20mm German forces for gaming that particular theatre. The 'march on Rome', that sort of thing. So, I was hoping to really enjoy this. But I have to be honest, on first viewing it was pretty disappointing.
It is worth seeing, and it does have its moments, but somehow, taken as a whole, it just doesn't really work. For one thing it's very slow getting going. The first real combat action occurs about an hour in to what is a two hour movie. The other key issue for me is that it doesn't quite cohere, instead feeling like a bunch of separate scenarios, simply strung together, almost at random.
Despite telling what could be a really good story, focussed on Mitchum's war-correspondent character (loosely based on the real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle), who refuses to arm himself but insists on going where the action is hottest, it somehow lacks a strong narrative arc. This isn't helped by Mitchum's rather leaden performance. This is not the same man who shocked audiences in Cape Fear!
In fact, right from the get go it's odd, opening with a schmaltzy bossa nova sung by crooner Jack Jones (hardly the first port of call for a martial movie!), followed by the strange macho revelling of off-duty American troops, carousing and then having a big drunken punch up.
Film critic Roger Ebert really rates this movie, and I agree with him that it is, in some respects, much more intelligent than many of your run of the mill war movies. But, for all that it asks some interesting questions (and even offers some uncomfortable answers), something doesn't quite feel right.
Mind you, this a Dino de Laurentis production, and I wasn't massively keen on Waterloo at first, another of his productions. But I've grown to love that film more with each viewing. Will I grow to love this? I must confess that I did like it better on second viewing. Perhaps my buddy and I just chatted too much whilst it was on? But then again, we don't usually do that. And particularly not if the movie is sufficiently compelling.
Initially the film follows the American troops as they head for an unknown landing, in an attempt to turn the stalemated Cassino line. It turns out to be Anzio. Once safety landed, and despite the reconnaissance of Mitchum, Falk and co., which shows Rome to be an open city, more or less, the Allies dig in.
Wolfgang Preiss has barely more than a cameo, as the German general Kesselring. But in the few moments he has on screen he displays more energy and charisma than either Falk or Mitchum. But the film can't make its mind up about what story its trying to tell. And whilst we see US Gen. Lesley (based on Gen. Lucas) sitting on his ass, and the Germans rubbing their hands with glee, despite all the exposition, there's previous little action.
Falk initially wanted to turn his role down, as he thought the dialogue was awful, and the movie likely to be a turkey. His character, like Mitchum's, is based on a real person. In Falk's case, a certain shady Jake Wallenstein, who - rather less romantically than is portrayed here, perhaps? - ran a brothel from a stolen ambulance! In the end Falk was allowed to write his own dialogue, and so opted to stay on board. Well, he was better as Columbo than as his own script-writer here!
And that's another of the oddities of this film: the first half is much more general, whilst the second half zooms in on the misadventures of these few survivors. Having escaped Cisterna (not named as such), they evade a flame-throwing tank, a minefield, and deal with a German patrol that interrupts their pleasant stay in a house full of Italian women, before finding a construction site, and nearly going a bit 'commando'. But when that goes pear-shaped they decide to make a bee-line for home.