5 November 2002 | SgtSlaughter
Great Italian War Epic
"The Battle of El Alamein" is to the Italian film industry what "The Longest Day" was to Hollywood a historically accurate portrayal of a real military action. This Italian-French co-production was filmed with the full cooperation of the Italian Army, and features a star-studded international cast.
Director Giorgio Ferroni spends some time focusing on the officers running the battle to outline the big picture and lend historical credence to his focus, a fictional story of a front-line Italian infantry company which becomes entangled in the campaign. When his Captain (Ettore Manni, "Heroes in Hell") is killed, Lt. Giorgio Borri (Frederick Stafford, "Eagles over London") is forced to take over command of his company. Borri is an inexperienced young officer with a lust for adventure, even if it means putting his men in harm's way. Stafford is never less than totally convincing, the contempt his men feel for him can be shared by the audience. He's a true jerk who learns the hard way what war is all about. Enrico Maria Salerno is his brother, a veteran Sergeant-Major, who shows up unexpectedly and question's the Lieutenant's decisions every step of the way. Rounding out the platoon are several familiar Italian actors, including Sal Borgese, Ricardo Pizzuti, Massimo Righi and Nello Pazzafini.
To add credibility to his story, Ferroni also spends a great deal of time focusing on the situations within both the British and German High Commands. Michael Rennie ("The Devil's Brigade") plays Field Marshal Montgomery with gusto and arrogance, just as well and as memorably as Michael Bates would in "Patton" less than two years later. Also on the British side is the humanitarian Lt. Graham Lt. Graham (George Hilton, "The Liberators"), who protests the massacre of innocent German prisoners in one moving, dramatic scene and winds up volunteering for a suicide mission. He also has a face-to-face encounter with Lt. Borri, which breaks down the barrier between opposing sides in wartime. The men on the front lines are just grunts, there to do their job the officers, even those on your own side, don't care about you and your welfare; you're just another rifleman.
Finally, Ferroni focuses on the German situation and these may be the finest scenes in the film. Most of the scenes take place in an underground command bunker, a set which has never been so well-captured and looked more realistic. Field Marshal Rommel is played brilliantly by Robert Hossein ("Desert Assault"), who makes Rommel a true skeptic of Hitler with his stern and loud opinions. Rommel was a true soldier, fighting to get the job done, and Hossein's performance is on-target. The supporting German characters are all excellent, too: Gerard Herter ("Battle of the Commandos") is especially good as a dedicated Nazi General; Tom Felleghy ("Kill Rommel!") plays Gen. von Thoma, a skeptic of just about everything, loyal only to Rommel; and Giuseppe Addobbati ("Hell's Brigade") is an incompetent General, who makes a poor tactical error, resulting the destruction of half of the Afrika Korps.
The action sequences are all the more believable and gripping because of the characters embroiled in them. The film's opening is a sequence depicting the ambush of an Italian artillery company, in which Ferroni makes the most of his camera. This sequence is filled with pans, zooms and quick cutting. Machine-gun fire kicks up puffs of dirt everywhere and several soldiers die. The later battle scenes are shot with the same dedication to detail, and for the third act Ferroni brings in dozens of tanks and lots of big explosions. There is one really bad-looking night scene involving some miniature tanks, but that can be virtually ignored because everything else outweighs it. Despite the epic proportions of the action, the well-established characters give them a deeply personal significance.
From the start of the film, Ferroni establishes a mood and feel of intensity and hopelessness. None of the characters are clean-shaven; they are all sweltering in the intense desert sun. One scene in which Lt. Borri must trek through the desert alone without water was especially well-acted. This film takes the story of the heroic grunts in the field and makes us feel for them feel their thirst, feel their joy when supplies arrive, feel their longing for home when one soldier fondles a picture of his newborn son at home. Carlo Rustichelli's mournful score only adds to the proceedings.
Tie a great cast, epic battle sequences and fine editing and flavor and one has a strong, entertaining war film. This ranks with the classics. Not be missed!