KLAUS KINSKI EURO-WAR
DOUBLE FEATURE
Italy - Spain | 1970, 1969
Directors:
Maurizio Pradeaux, Tonino Ricci
Starring
Klaus Kinski, Richard Harrison
Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Pilar Velázquez
George Hilton, Ray Saunders

CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS: 84 Min.
SALT IN THE WOUND: 92 Min.
Color | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)

Wild East Productions
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
Churchill's
Leopards
 
  4
Salt In The
Wound
 
  5  
  5    
That notorious "madman" of Euro-Cult cinema, Klaus Kinski (Venus in Furs, The Great Silence), fights for both the Axis and the Allies in this World War II action double feature from Wild East. 1969's Salt in the Wound (AKA The Liberators) is interesting because Kinski is cast against type, as an American soldier. The other film on the double bill, Churchill's Leopards (1970), is a thoroughly humdrum potboiler about a commando mission behind German lines, just one of a gazillion such movies made in Europe during the late 1960s and on through the '70s. In it, Kinski plays the character you'd expect him to — the villain, a Heil Hitlering SS officer.
    The titular "leopards" are a small team of British Special Forces troops commanded by Maj. Powell (The Last Man on Earth's Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). In the spring of 1944, with the D-Day invasion imminent, they're assigned a daunting task — the destruction of a massive concrete dam located somewhere in southern France. During Powell's mission briefing it's explained that blowing up the dam will cause major flooding, washing away key bridges and disrupting the movements of a German panzer corps that could reinforce the Normandy beaches. An air strike on the dam isn't a viable option; the adjacent mountains are too close to allow low-flying bombers safe exit from the target area. A commando assault is the only way, as illustrated by a general using a scale model of the dam and surrounding terrain.
   
Making the mission feasible is the Allies' ace in the hole, a 'ringer' planted among the enemy. A British officer, the half-English/half-German Lt. Benson (Richard Harrison of Challenge of the Tiger and Ninja Terminator), assumes the identity of his Nazi twin brother, commander of the Wehrmacht engineer detachment stationed at the dam. French guerillas secretly assassinate the brother and dispose of the body, allowing Benson to take his place with a simple change of uniform. Benson is shaken by the murder of his twin sibling — he didn't know he was to be killed — but gets over it fairly quickly... Bro was a Führer-lovin' fascist, after all, and foxy Resistance fighter Elise (Pilar Velázquez) gets his mind on other things. He can't afford any distractions, though, what with SS security chief Capt. Holtz (Kinski) always sniffing around. Holtz and his brother were friends, so Benson must be doubly cautious whenever the captain drops by to socialize or talk shop. Meanwhile, Maj. Powell and the commandos, having parachuted in undetected, hide out with the Resistance and await the moment to strike. Will Benson be discovered before they can make their move?
    An Italo-Spanish co-production, Churchill's Leopards serves up a familiar menu of WWII commando movie clichés without the kind of rousing action required to make 'em tasty. There's only one major battle scene, coming at the end, and it's pretty routine stuff. Amusingly, the model used for the destruction of the dam in this sequence looks nothing like the one shown to Rossi-Stuart at the beginning of the movie! (Where did the mountains go?) Fidgeting with props and smoking a lot, Kinksi twitches through his role with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm; while he may be just going through the motions for a quick paycheck he's still the most interesting performer onscreen. (It's unfortunate that Kinski didn't record his own voice for this English-dubbed version. He had an excellent command of the language and his natural accent fits the character.) SS-Hauptsturmführer Holtz is an efficient, businesslike officer not given to the red-faced tirades and sadistic cruelty of the stereotypical movie Nazi, so in consequence Kinski is fairly laid-back throughout. Top-billed Richard Harrison doesn't really do much of anything except bed the women in the cast (Velázquez and Helga Liné, who pops up as the Nazi girlfriend of Benton's dead twin) and stand around with a vacant look on his face. (Some hero.) Military buffs will notice that the B&W newsreel footage used for the opening/closing credits is mainly from the Eastern front (Russia), despite the story's setting in Occupied France.
    While Kinksi is only a supporting player in Churchill's Leopards, in Salt in the Wound (made a year earlier and with a bigger budget) he takes the leading role. He's also much less restrained, as his character is a vehicle for the coiled brooding, intense glares and emotional outbursts the actor is best known for. It's strange to see him playing an American G.I., a low-ranking "dogface". As with Leopards Kinski is dubbed by someone else, which in this case makes more sense it'd be even stranger to have him playing an American soldier with a pronounced German accent. Yet Kinski's role is demonstrative enough so that his performance surmounts being voiced by another actor.
    The film opens with a bizarre, puzzling prologue that really has nothing to do with the story, in which a stentorian male voice reads passages from the Book of Genesis over stock footage of deserts, oceans, and mountains. For a moment there I was wondering if something hadn't gone wrong during the pressing and a different movie altogether put on the DVD... It's like something out of one of those cheesy Sun Classics pics from the '70s! After about two minutes of this we're suddenly pitched into a close-quarters battle between U.S. and German troops in 1943 Italy. An African-American soldier named Grayson (Ray Saunders) goes berserk in the heat of combat and mows down a gaggle of surrendering Germans. When a white officer tries to stop him, Grayson freaks out and machineguns him, too.
    Cut to Corporal Haskins (Kinski), an American soldier looting the house of an Italian family. He's startled when an old woman comes into the room, accidentally shooting and killing her. For their crimes both Haskins and Grayson find themselves before a military tribunal and are sentenced to death. Put in charge of the firing squad is Lt. Sheppard (George Hilton - The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), a new arrival to the Italian front. Sheppard is a pompous, by-the-book officer, fresh out of West Point, who has never seen combat. Driving out to the execution site with the prisoners and a rifle squad, he stupidly gets their truck lost, apparently much too close to the front lines. German infantry launch a surprise attack on the Americans just before the two men are to be shot. Panicking, Sheppard cringes in skivvy-soiling terror while Haskins and Grayson escape amid the chaos of the firefight, bolting into the woods. Sheppard, the only other surviving Yank, takes off after them.
    To evade the Germans the three men have to forge an uneasy truce, one that proves very difficult to maintain. Sheppard naively thinks he can return the condemned men to Allied lines and have their sentences carried out. Haskins, a bitter career criminal, isn't going to let that happen regardless of what he has to do to prevent it. Grayson's mental stability — normally calm, his sudden outbursts of violence are savage and unpredictable — is a big question mark. When the trio stumbles upon a village in No Man's Land and are welcomed as liberators by the grateful, happy civilians, this tension is temporarily relieved. For a brief time the war is forgotten. The misanthropic Haskins finds his own humanity in the arms of a beautiful peasant girl (Betsy Bell); Grayson develops a fatherly relationship with a young orphan boy while Sheppard basks in the glow of being a "hero", however undeserved. None of this can last, however, as both the German and American armies mount major offensives in the area, turning the idyllic backwater village into a charnel house.
    As mentioned, Kinski is very good despite being dubbed. Hilton and Saunders shine through the dubbing as well. Battle scenes are well-mounted if somewhat oblivious to real-world infantry tactics and historically accurate equipment. (How did the Wehrmacht conquer most of Europe with troops that constantly charge willy-nilly into enemy fire? And those are obviously European SMGs modified to look — sort of — like American Thompsons.) The grim, taut first act easily stands out as the best part of the film; it's only after the men reach the village that things start to get sappy. Kinski's romance with Bell is unbelievable (what would she see in this surly jerk?) and Saunders' supposedly tender interaction with the boy is eyerollingly saccharine. Ol' Klaus does get a great over-the-top final scene, though, taking on a tank.

Known for their spaghetti western releases, Wild East Productions taps into the "Euro-War" genre for the first time with this DVD. Although clearly the inferior movie, Churchill's Leopards gets pride of place on the disc since it was sourced from much better elements, by a wide margin, than its companion. In this regard the DVD reminds me of Retromedia's pepla product (such as the War Gods of Babylon/War Goddess double feature), wherein one film looks good and the other is beat all to holy hell. In a sense, the flick in the crappiest shape should be looked upon as a "bonus" supplement.
   
I was surprised at how nicely Leopards is presented here. To date I've only screened a limited number of Wild East's offerings (among them the recently released Kill Them All and Come Back Alone), but this is by far the best-looking of the bunch. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer displays only minimal print damage and colors are strong — it's not too dark or faded, nor is there the slight brownish tinge I've noticed with other WEP discs. Audio (English-language mono) is solid if unremarkable, pretty much the norm for Euro-Cult films issued by most U.S. companies large or small. A pair of one-second dropouts near the beginning of the movie (during Powell's mission briefing) are the only deficits.
    Salt in the Wound, on the other hand, is a disappointment if not downright hideous in certain spots. Damage, dirt, blanched colors, emulsion lines and heavy grain permeate throughout. (Apparently it's a composite print culled from different sources.) It's watchable, chiefly because the correct widescreen AR (2.35:1) is preserved, but only barely so. Fortunately Salt's mono audio track fares better than the visuals, sounding flat and tinny but otherwise okay.
    Extras are limited to image galleries for each film (stills, lobby cards, posters), the Italian trailer for Churchill's Leopards (no subtitles), the English-language opening and closing credits for Leopards (no differences other than the text), and the U.S. trailer for Salt in the Wound (in dire shape)
. 4/20/08
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