11 October 2007 | Squonkamatic
Tightly Woven Euro War Thriller
I'll say this much about Jose Luis Merino's WHEN HEROES DIE: It diverted my attention and absorbed me for about an hour or so. It's also one of those films that brings up the question that even if the first seventy minutes or so are dynamite, if your whole film unravels in the last three or four minutes, did you blow it? Most of these Euro War movies made by the Italians & Spaniards between 1967 and 1970 or so are merely Spaghetti Westerns with guys driving tanks instead of stage coaches. There aren't that many of them, and most are pretty much the same. This one is different, if only because it tries to push some different buttons while relying on the tried & true formula of a commando squad made up of lovable misfits trapped behind enemy lines glommed onto from THE DIRTY DOZEN. Instead of trying to get behind German lines to impregnate some impregnable fortress, this movie works backwards through a series of deliciously evil twists & turns that are spellbinding ... until the last few minutes.
The plot works like this: A group of allied commandos from an unseen mission have been captured, and their objective was to kidnap General Rommel (played with gusto by Spaghetti Western demigod Piero Lulli). Simply put, the commando team is tortured (mostly off-camera) and after revealing the nature of their assignment, the Nazi high command under the orders of Himmler himself decides to turn the table on the allies using a double of Rommel (Lulli again) and doubles of the commando squad (led by fellow Spaghetti Western demigods Craig Hill, Aldo Sanbrell, Charly Bravo and Euro Horror favorite Charles Quiney). The doubles are psychologically conditioned to become the people they are impersonating, with the objective being to fight their way back to allied lines and "escape" with the fake Rommel, who has been pre-programmed to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower, causing the Normandy invasion to fail. Or, something like that.
Quite honestly I very happily got lost in the labyrinth of details that lead up to the turning point in the film where the squad is to be extracted by spy plane; There are so many twist and turns, hidden loyalties & secret agendas, that it's somewhat difficult to keep up with just who's who. But meanwhile these ambiguous duality riddled characters are actually fighting both the Germans and the French resistance while disguised as American GI's and dragging poor Piero Lulli across the countryside as their prisoner ... even though he's one of them. Along the way the movie takes the time to write in two utterly gorgeous Euro Genre film babes, María Silva and the breathtaking Annabella Incontrera, and not only gives them a chance to engage in mild erotics but lets them shoot people with machine guns while showing some thigh. What a war!
Then there are the surrealist touches, starting with a totally bizarre series of dream sequences that depict in fish eye lensed psychedelia the medical horrors that the team members had to undergo during their transformation from loyal SS Waffentroops into misfit Yankee commandos. This blending of horror elements with action is actually quite common in the Spaghetti Western idiom but this is the first example of it I've seen in a Euro War film: some of it is actually quite harrowing to the brain. The other totally surreal touch will probably be read as a gaffe by most viewers when a brigade of tanks from a different movie attack the partisan stronghold where the film meets up with the girls. The tanks are rolling across a desert landscape (probably Morocco and looking like borrowed footage from BATTLE OF AL ALAMEIN or BATTLE IN THE DESERT) who's cannon blasts blows up stuff on the Spanish farm set standing in for France. It's both silly and downright surreal at the same time, especially considering how well the cause/effect relationships are edited together.
In any event the story continues to convolute and twist and turn and remain just on the near side of unfathomable, up until a groaner of a surprise ending that is surprising all right, but somewhat of a cop out. The copy of the film I found on Greek video runs only 78 minutes, of which I'd say about 73 minutes or so are really, really good. That last five minutes though ... You can let all the air out of a balloon with the smallest pin prick, and the question remains does letting it all unravel in the final moments snuff the whole film? I'm willing to extend this one the benefit of the doubt, because while it does play into most of the usual Euro War clichés it nonetheless defies formula for most of the runtime, mostly because of how the usual plot has been subverted; Like with Umberto Lenzi's superior DESERT COMMANDOS from 1967 -- one of the best examples of the classic era Euro War thrillers -- the audience finds themselves rooting for the commando team to succeed, and the implied success of their mission would be a dead Eisenhower and a failed Normandy invasion. They are Germans fighting Germans, under orders from other Germans, and if they succeed the war is lost. Hello?? That's so weird it works!
The film also gives director Jose Luis Merino a chance to wallow in some of the cloistered, dank, atmospheric catacombs & dilapidated locations that would become a staple of his Euro Horror classics, and this may indeed have worked with his Spaghetti Western REQUIEM FOR A GRINGO as a dry-run for the visual iconography he wanted to see. Combined with a moody, languid music score by Nico Fidenco, this is one of the more unique examples of the Euro War potboiler, certainly more carefully written than many, and more visually compelling than most. Too bad about the final few minutes, though.
7/10; Whoever was playing Himmler deserved an Oscar.