2 May 2007 | lost-in-limbo
Loyalty means nothing when you got to look after yourself.
After a string of failures, Col. Masters is given one last chance by General Blore with his information taken from behind enemy lines, which involves blowing up a Nazi fuel depot in North Africa. Masters gets a seven-man unit of criminals ready, led by mercenary Captain Leech, but Blore wants a British officer in charge and Captain Douglas with his oil experience gets picked. After they head off, we learn that they're a decoy for another patrol to fulfil the assignment, but this is unknown to them. Leech and Douglas clash over who's in command, but Leech sees Douglas' honoured methods aren't well suited for their situation and lets Douglas string them along, as there's a money reward for him if he returns back with Douglas alive.
What hits me straight away is the comparisons to Robert Aldrich's 1967 film "The Dirty Dozen", which gets unfairly lumped onto this feature. Honestly this low-key WW2 British production has some similarities, but it has its own story to tell and it's a real good one too. Andre De Toth's direction is resourcefully efficient and randomly unpredictable in detailing the plight.
What George Marton's originally cunning story does, is leave behind all of those slapdash clichés. Looking for something more compact, taut and venomously scathing. It's so open minded, it's hard to tell what's going to occur next and while there might not be much background to these characters. This shows how expendable these men are when at war, but the lack development can be put down to the character themselves. Their here for the present, and they got a job to be done and there's not time for personal insight, because they just don't care. The custom pattern that occurs in a jaggedly slow tempo feels deliberate by trying to get the viewer to experience the rugged path that could lead to their impending doom, before even encountering the enemy. These are the moments when the tension really holds up. Glory and principal is discarded in very cynical fashion, in favour of primal instinct for one self. These are a unlikeable bunch. Exciting entertainment this is not, because it stays pretty level with the film's natural grit, devious intentions and lack of reasoning for the mission. Thrown in are one or two daring and unusual aspects, like the two candidly gay Arabs. The bone-dry script (penned by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin) simply grits its teeth with bitter, ironic and stern dialogues that snaps with tersely realism. You can just see why this wasn't a commercial success (say like Aldrich's war film), and the sourly unrewarding and sudden conclusion is the icing on the cake. I liked this final curve-ball.
The harshly barren and dusty terrain depicts the unsparing tone of the film superbly with Edward Scaife's illustratively expressive camera-work skilfully mixing its scenic and upfront shots within the aim of the story's actions. Michael Legrand's understated music score is goes by virtually unnoticed, but this only heightens the tension because there's no real cues. Most of the music comes from a radio playing on the journey. De Toth gustily demonstrates convincing action scenes. They might be quick and few, but when they happen it's chaotic, rough and relentlessly staged with conviction. Just look at the eruption of explosions towards the dying end. His pacing can be off and get rather padded, but he never loses what his trying to say within these scenes and actually they probably add more to wearily sparse tone. Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport do a serviceable job in their parts and the pair's edgily unsure relationship is quite a compelling one. Caine's professionally stout and well-judged performance as Captain Douglas works fine and a slyly hard-boiled performance by Nigel Davenport as the rogue Captain Leech is that of high quality and the pick of the lot. Living it up in minor roles are Nigel Green and arrogantly gusto turn by Harry Andrews. The rest of the support roles pale in the light of the two leads. However they are solid and gritty performances that fit the mould.
This one undeservedly gets left in the dark, but this hardy effort is a well made and acted war piece due for rediscovery. Recommended.