The Battle of El Alamein
Italy - France / 1969
Directed by Giorgio Ferroni

Frederick Stafford
Robert Hossein
Michael Rennie
Color / 96 Minutes
/ Not Rated
Format: DVD
Double Feature Disc / R0 - NTSC
Marengo Films
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Read about the real Desert War

Review by
Brian Lindsey
    4   10 = Highest Rating  
The Italian armed forces performed poorly in the Second World War. A corrupt, inefficient high command and a serious lack of modern equipment contributed significantly to the defeat of Mussolini's armies. But the main reason for Axis Italy's military woes was the reluctance of the average soldier to fight. Thankfully for the Allies, many of the "Macaronis" (as the British called them) or "Eye-ties" (in the American slang vernacular) simply didn't believe in the fascist cause. Dying for Il Duce's dream of a new Roman empire wasn't exactly a popular notion. In 1940 the Italian invasion of Egypt, launched from Libya, was badly bungled and later routed by numerically inferior British and Commonwealth forces. 1941 saw a humiliating defeat in Greece (requiring the intervention of Germany to save the situation) and Mussolini's decision to commit an army to Hitler's Russian campaign. Morale went into the toilet and never recovered. Some Italian units continued to fight well, however (such as the air force), and even pull off the occasional spectacular success (as did the navy's elite frogmen, who pioneered underwater commando tactics). It was never enough to inspire the common soldier, though, who just wanted the war to end so he could go home. If that meant the downfall of the government, so be it. Let the Germans fight the Allies... Fritz seemed to have a taste and talent for it. (Passi il vino, per favore!)
    A dismal record of incompetence and defeat didn't lend itself to cinematic portrayals of battlefield heroism and adventure, as seen in the war films made in droves by the nations of the victorious Allies both during and for a long time after the conflict. The Italian film industry really didn't turn to making war movies until the 1960s; the majority of them were typically simple (and cheap) Dirty Dozen-like action potboilers, usually featuring cynical American characters as the heroes. Therefore it was with keen interest that I sat down to watch Giorgio Ferroni's The Battle of El Alamein (1969). A lifelong WWII buff (cult cinema isn't my only hobby), I was eager to see a film about one of my favorite campaigns told from the Italian side, a rare viewpoint in movies about the war. In the end I was pleased that it makes attempts at historical verisimilitude... though deficiencies in other respects result in a mediocre motion picture.
    Summer, 1942: Rommel's drive into Egypt is halted and both sides go over to the defensive to rebuild their strength. One of the Italian Army's best units, the Folgore Parachute Division, arrives at the front and takes up positions at the southern end of the Axis line. Lt. Giorgio Borri (Frederick Stafford), a patriotic, by-the-book officer, isn't really liked by the soldiers he commands despite the fact he's basically a decent, conscientious guy. Green to the ways of the desert, Borri at first resents the unsolicited advice of older brother Claudio (Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Enrico Maria Salerno), a senior sergeant in the Ariete Division who takes every opportunity to visit Giorgio's platoon and offer his wisdom. But the brothers' bond is a strong one. Giorgio gains confidence and comes to appreciate having Claudio at his side; a platoon of Ariete infantry under the grizzled vet is seconded to Giorgio's company and the two men form a solid team. Meanwhile, at the very top of the command chain, events are in motion that will ultimately decide the Borri brothers' fates. The Axis C-in-C in North Africa, Field Marshal Rommel (French actor Robert Hossein), knows that the German and Italian forces under his command are not strong enough to defeat the British 8th Army shielding Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Panzerarmee Afrika lacks the necessary tanks and, most critically, fuel. His newly appointed nemesis, the eccentric General Montgomery (Michael Rennie), will merely bide his time, probing the Axis line as his British forces inexorably build up enough strength and supplies to launch a major offensive. When the big attack finally does come, Rommel is away in Germany
having been recalled for health reasons by Hitler while the Borri boys stand directly in the path of a large enemy tank assault.
    Populated by faces familiar to Euro-Cult/spaghetti western fans, The Battle of El Alamein will likely appeal only to military history buffs and war film aficionados, primarily due to its Italian perspective. Understandably the film's view of WWII is not a positive one; war isn't glamorized as an adventure. The Italian soldiers aren't fighting for Mussolini (or even Italy) but rather for themselves and their fellow soldiers. They have no love for their German allies but respect them for their martial abilities. Their British enemies are not hated, but also looked upon with respect as honorable foes; this is personified in giallo veteran George Hilton (Case of the Bloody Iris, The Killer Must Kill Again), here playing a chivalrous British lieutenant who briefly captures Giorgio, treating him with dignity. Rommel, too, is painted as a sympathetic figure, clashing with a diehard Nazi on his staff (the fictional "Gen. Schwarz", played by Gerard Herter) and frustrated by the ludicrous orders emanating from Berlin. The script's only real ire is leveled at Montgomery, who, as portrayed by Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), is depicted as a callous, arrogant, thin-skinned martinet. Curiously enough, the film does a far better job presenting the strategic overview of the North African campaign than it does the titular, operational-level battle. Montgomery's offensive, which ultimately sent Rommel's forces on an epic 1,500-mile retreat, is given only the most cursory of explanations. We're never shown a map of the objectives, or even what the plan was other than to break through the Axis lines. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Desert War will be left clueless as to exactly where and how this critical battle was fought. Also, time seems remarkably compressed. The movie begins in the summer of '42, yet by all appearances the big British attack that climaxes the film comes only days, or at most weeks, later... In reality the battle began in late October.
    El Alamein runs a lean 96 minutes; this is no 3-hour epic like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far. Some of the dubbing is dodgy but Stafford and Salerno give solid performances in the key roles of the two brothers. The score by composer Carlo Rustichelli (The Whip and the Body) sounds more appropriate for a Maciste/Hercules flick than a war film. While there's plenty of action, the biggest set-pieces are clumsily staged it's as if director Ferroni was mainly concerned with getting sprawling shots of tanks and troops stretching across the horizon instead of making these battle sequences look realistic. (Some rather brave stuntmen engage in particularly dangerous 'gags' involving tanks, however, as they leap on and off the fast-moving vehicles, rolling out of the way of the onrushing treads at the last moment.) The use of modern armored personnel carriers to represent British Bren carriers is an especially glaring anachronism, though I was quite surprised to see actual WWII Italian tanks (the infamous "Mobile Coffins") make an appearance during the Ariete's doomed counterattack. I had to laugh at the little radio-controlled toy panzers seen trundling across the sand in one scene; they look ridiculously fake.

Released on DVD by Marengo Films, a company specializing in older (i.e., 'classic') public domain fare, The Battle of El Alamein is paired on a double feature disc with 1951's Go for Broke!, a U.S.-made B&W World War II drama starring Van Johnson. The disc isn't a 'flipper', so you don't have to turn it over to play one of the titles. No extras are included for either film; each is given 6 chapter stops. The good news here is that El Alamein is presented widescreen, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. To my knowledge this marks the first time since its theatrical release that the flick hasn't been seen in pan & scan mode in the States. Like most movies shot in 'Scope, visuals are horribly compromised when shown fullframe... So at least we don't hear characters talking but only see the tip of their noses on one side of the screen, and the large-scale battle scenes are given the proper elbow room. Sound quality is adequate, too, without any major hiss or distortion to report. And the bad news? El Alamein's transfer appears to have been lifted from videotape. Colors are mostly weak or just plain off; contrast is jacked too high. (Shadowed faces are often just black blobs.) It's not absolutely terrible, mind you it's watchable, but certainly less than satisfactory. (Though not reviewed here, the fullframe print used for Go for Broke! looks worse, taken from an even shoddier dupe. NOTE: The DVD Rating of '4' factors in the disc's value as a double feature.) 1/21/05