23 April 2004 | JamesHitchcock
A Watchable Epic, despite its Flaws
The Peninsular War has not been a frequent subject for Hollywood, but this is one of the few exceptions. At its heart is a huge cannon which has been abandoned by the defeated Spanish army but which has fallen into the hands of a group of guerrillas who are fighting to keep alive Spanish resistance to Napoleon. Their plan is to use the cannon in an assault on the French-occupied city of Avila. They are assisted by Anthony, a British naval officer and the only man among them who is able to operate the cannon. Much of the drama concerns the rivalry that develops between Anthony and Miguel, the guerrilla leader, for the affections of a young woman, Juana.
The basic premise of this film seems an odd one. Guerrilla warriors, after all, specialise in lightning hit-and-run raids with the aim of taking the enemy by surprise. In order to do this they need to travel light. Huge cannons like the one featured in this film are designed to be pulled by teams of horses into a conventional battle or to be used as siege weapons. For a band of guerrillas to take such a weapon with them would seem to negate the whole purpose of guerrilla war. The large number of people needed to drag the cannon would effectively make them into a conventional army which could be tracked down, attacked and destroyed by the enemy in a pitched battle.
Besides the film's basic implausibility, the acting is not very distinguished. A word that that I have frequently seen used about this film, both on this board and elsewhere, is `miscast'. In my view, in fact, only one of the three main roles is an obvious example of miscasting: that of the passionate Spanish patriot Miguel. Frank Sinatra, more at home playing cynical, worldly-wise Americans, is quite unable to convey his character's courage, idealism and intensity. It was also a mistake to have Miguel speaking in a bizarre foreign accent. Quite apart from the fact that this at times makes his lines difficult to understand, we are presumably to understand that the characters actually speak Spanish to one another rather than English. Anthony states that he has been chosen for the mission because of his fluent Spanish, and Miguel, an illiterate peasant, would have had little or no opportunity to acquire a knowledge of foreign languages. To have Miguel speak English like a native speaker would have been quite acceptable as a way of representing his use of his native tongue.
Although the other two main roles are not so obviously miscast, neither is entirely satisfactory. Although Cary Grant is not normally associated with period dramas, one would have thought that a gentlemanly British officer would be well within his compass. Unfortunately, this is not one of his better performances, and I would agree the reviewer who said that he looked bored. Sophia Loren was by no means out of her depth as a Spanish peasant girl, but the part was not well enough written to enable her to do much with it. Juana is not so much a character as a cliché, the embodiment of the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the proud, fiery, temperamental Spanish woman. (Or, for that matter, of the, proud, fiery, temperamental `Latin' woman in general. As it is a widely-held belief in both America and Britain that all speakers of Romance languages share the same temperament, the casting of an Italian actress in the part must have made perfect sense to the filmmakers). At least Miss Loren looked less uncomfortable than did Ingrid Bergman in a similar role in `For Whom the Bell Tolls'.
Seen as an action drama rather than a character study, however, the film has its good points. The photography of the wild Spanish landscapes is magnificent, and many of the individual scenes generate a sense of excitement. Particularly notable are the scene where the guerrillas have to manoeuvre the cannon up, and then down, a mountainside, nearly ending in disaster, and that where they manage to hide it in Avila cathedral under the noses of the French. Despite the length of the film, the action does not drag, and tension is maintained to the end. For all its weaknesses, this is a watchable epic war film. 6/10