From this idiom coined by Quentin Tarantino (which was originated in Japan) and aided by my teenage passion, I felt compelled to do a study on yet another "sub-genre" created by the Italian cinema in the 60s-70s: Macaroni Combat or rather...the Italian war movie!
This subgenre, which was brought to light thanks to Inglourious Basterds by the American master Tarantino, is a lesser known chapter of the Italian B-movies. These types of B-war films have never enjoyed enormous popularity in Italy because they were made mostly just to make money, especially with foreign distribution in poor countries and little conviction on the part of the producers.
However, given that it's a genre I've always loved, and on the net is very difficult to find out about, I decided to do this simple task to make them more known for the longtime fans, the curious and all film fanatics!
Macaroni Combat were Italian war films inspired by Hollywood films of the 60s/70s produced to try to make money. They often used titles and plots from the various blockbusters made in the US. All had seasoned actors aka "Italian yankees" and often they were older stars whose popularity had faded in their own countries.
As with the spaghetti westerns or the polizio genres, it rode the wave of success the original genre films started in Hollywood. Instead of The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone or Battle of the Bulge, these were films made in De Paolis (Rome) or the Egyptian desert with titles such as: And The Guns Still Thunder, The Battle of El Alamein, Commandos and Eagles Over London. The end result, with minor exceptions, were mostly modest.
After this introduction, we'll look at every detail of these films (casts, locations, soundtracks, etc). We'll try to understand where the genre started and the successes (and/or failures) it had.
As mentioned earlier, everything was born from an idea which was typically Italian at the time, to make some money from the imitations of the American blockbusters, in this case war and adventure films. Movies like The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, The Bridge on the River Kwai etc. had been able to combine the traditional rules of war movies with adventure, romance and violence that raged so much in those years. This of course, had been very fruitful, shown by the colossal budgets, great actors, directors and senior technicians. In Italy, as with the others genres (westerns, detective, peplum, sci-fi, etc..) we wanted to ride this wave as well, but there was a small difference in terms of the budgets, the actors and directors, technicians and artisans. I can only assume that Directors like Mr. Brescia, Castellari, Lenzi, Loy, Siciliano, Ferroni, etc tried to do their best with the arrangement. In spite of themselves, the success the films had was limited because something valuable was lacking.
The Battle of El Alamein by Giorgio Ferroni used a discrete Frederic Stafford (not new to Italian cinema) to tell the heroic resistance of Italian paratroopers of the Folgore sandy hell of El Alamein. In this film there's several scenes of tank battles set in the desert and also relevant historical reconstructions. Next, I would like to mention "The Battle of the Desert" by Mino Loy, who used the usual plot of the military patrol deployed in the desert. As well as being a war film, it is an analysis of human relations between winners and losers. There are beautiful scenes of action in the desert environments and the film's poster is particularly gorgeous.
Another title that I enjoy is Commandos, in which the great Lee Van Cleef tries to "bastardize" war with moments of real tension like he did in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. How can we forget it, the exchange of glances between the spies and the spied upon, between those who deceive and the deceived? They are close-ups that only the master Leone could do. I would also like to stress that this film is written by Menahem Golan, who in the 80s founded the film company Golan-Globus which featured the likes of Stallone, Norris, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme!
In the film Possibility Zero, Henry Silva plays a character in a story similar to The Guns of the Navarone. The difference is that the plot in this case, is set in Norway. The suicide commandos must blow up a heavily fortified German base located in the heart of a Norwegian fjord. Apart from the locations that are typically Mediterranean (Spanish or Italian) and some other obvious historical facts, the plot, the photography and the music are well done. The film also has a decent amount of suspense. The story was written by a young Dario Argento, this helped raise the quality level of the film.
Other titles dealt with themes of war with absolute seriousness, but Enzo G. Castellari's films are humorous and made up of double meanings, stereotypes and caricatures. I think it was this in particular which attracted Tarantino, more than the plots. See similar titles like (Five For Hell, The Seven Marsa Matrou, The Guns Still Thunder). Other titles to look for: Kill Rommel!, From Hell Ardennes, The Battle of Sinai (the only one that is not set in World War II, but during the Arab Israeli war, etc).
For some people dated films may seem rather ridiculous. Compared to today's productions there is no blood splattering all over, there are no bad words, a lack of sex scenes, and generally the good guys win and the bad guys lose. No rhetoric, no psychological delusions or other philosophical interpretations. For those like myself, these films will be viewed considering the historical context in which they were shot. Those were the years of the Italian economic boom (after the WWII), where women were emancipated and years of struggling youths at school or universities was over.
The actors in these films are the usual suspects of the B-movies of the 60s-70s Italian period. People who dabbled for years in the spaghetti westerns, horror, gialli and spy films. Most were Italians under false pretenses, some Teutonic transplants in Rome, others were retired actors from overseas.
Some of the frequent names you'd see were: Henry Silva, George Hilton, Guy Madison, Frederick Stafford, Klaus Kinski, Horst Bucholtz, Anton Driffing, Ettore Manni, Ivan Rassimov, Ray Lovelock, Van Johnson. They were acting chameleons that, as required by the director, were able to play all roles, either rebel soldiers, evil Nazi officers, playboy spies or deserters. A beautiful camouflage suit, a uniform of the SS, some brown hair which may become blonde, a monocle and a cigar or a machine gun and you're transformed.
In the Macaronis, the German officer was always firm, resolute, uncompromising and honest (at times!) while The American was always a no-good, light-hearted womanizer. English soldiers have always been haughty and unwilling to laugh, the Italian is the anti-militarist, and so on. A few words, many orders, tight close-ups, phrases and circumstances of the attack and there you go! Often seen as the "martian from another planet", The German Nazis were the epitome of evil.
For the directors, as well as for the actors, the same holds true. In the genre all the artisans of the B-movies made in Italy were used with no exceptions! Just to name names we find: Brescia, Castellari, Lenzi, Massaccesi, Garrone, Ferroni, Siciliano, etc. These are our "masters" of the genre so to speak. All of them are people that can do action on minimal budgets. They even did it without using islands infested with zombies, shoot-outs in domestic banks, kidnappings, rapes, barbarians or stellar battles in the cosmos. Despite low budgets all were able to offer action at will. There were plenty of tank battles, chases, shootings, assaults by partisans, bombings, etc. It's worth noting these films often combined genres. Some duels in the dunes of the desert had the flavor of the spaghetti western, the spies in Normandy were similar to those in a James Bond movie and so on.
With few exceptions, the plots often revolved around the usual "Dirty Dozen" types, the suicide commandos made up of villains, deserters, renegades, sons of bitches. The objectives of these groups of wretches were always the same: to blow up dams, fuel depots, stations, superguns or top secret military installations.
The enemy is also stereotyped as never before. The German Nazi army is always full of impeccable officers of the Wehrmacht or the SS. The soldiers often die like flies, mowed down by machine guns or shots from the cannon of the nefarious Yankees. The good (American or English) always win, the bad guys (Germans) lose, the Italians as usual...tie!
In detail, I should mention Klaus Kinski who often played an SS officer as cynical, insensitive and violent. Kinski also played the usual handsome American officer or the ugly and unsympathetic officer of Her Majesty the Queen.
The Italian soldier is represented as a peaceful man who rejects war and thinks only of his wife and to save his skin. In some episodes (see The Battle of El Alamein) the Italians are shown to be much smarter than the Germans. On a positive note, all of these films are filled with explosions, ambushes and chases in large quantities.
A good war movie must have a decent budget. The uniforms of soldiers, weapons, tanks and planes should try to resemble those of the time period. In these films the uniforms sometimes were invented with the colors all wrong. The ground transportation adaptations almost always are of the era in which the films were made. For example Yugoslav tanks, Egyptian or Spanish, are miraculously transformed (with some tape and a little camouflage botched), into glorious "Tiger" German or "Sherman" American tanks. The famous jeep willys of the U.S. or the Soviets became German, Italian, English, French, etc.
One of the most famous details in these films are the use of airplanes. There often are static wooden models, radio controlled or wire-driven models used. In some cases, one even sees the wires that support them! (see the launch of paratroopers in Commandos). The dogfights are always represented with images from documentary footage or by using cockpits constructed with tight shots to recreate battles between swarms of German fighters and Americans.
With regards to the trenches, prison camps or various military installations, all the Italian artisans had fun making dioramas on a small scale for the prison camps (as in western movies), where, thanks to tightly framed cameras, they could become the Stalag 17 or the general command of the Wehrmacht. Another flaw was represented by the partisans who, on paper, should be members of the French resistance, whereas in the reality of the film all appear as men from Calabria and Sardinia or, even worse: criminals from Marseilles! Sometimes it bordered on the grotesque.
The few women who appear in the films seem straight out of the salon with sophisticated hairstyles and makeup! Someone should explain to me how the make up wouldn't run down their faces during the battle of Tobruk or the landing in Normandy!!
The last commentary I have is on the Italian war films set in the jungle during the Philippine-American War which came out in the 1980s. Japanese guys: Italians use a veil, it is much better. I'm just saying that mediterranean men are used to play the Japanese soldiers. I'll leave you to draw the consideration of the value of these films!
The environments that the filmmakers used in all these films were usually set in occupied France in 1944 and North Africa. In reality, however they are actually in Central Italy, a rural background, some abandoned quarry, the studios of De Paolis in Rome, Almeria in Spain and the Egyptian desert. To tell the truth for these last two options the scenery and photography are well integrated with the historical context of the films, while for the former, the village of the Italian Apennines, or the farms are not. I wonder if some of the designers really had seen a beach in Normandy, a French farmhouse or the Ardennes forests of Belgium. There are also the "handyman" abandoned quarries outside Rome, which were used for the Libyan deserts of Cyrenaica or Tobruk!
The posters for these films were usually well done. In addition to the names of the actors, who are presented as Hollywood superstars, there's artwork depicting great tank battles, bomber attacks and flocks of thousands of troops ready to land to conquer Europe. Unfortunately, with this trick which is typical of these productions, an illusion is given. The viewer is then faced with poor environments, the usual tanks and armored vehicles recycled from different titles and reused uniforms. I'm not an expert in graphic design and painting, but congratulations to the artists who made them.
Fortunately, Italy is full of great composers and performers. The music of these films are generally well done and epic and whose melodies mingle with those of the spaghetti western or detective films. They highlight moments of tension, attacks, fights and chases. Then there are the moments that are more introspective and romantic, and the classic bombastic theme before the final credits. I should mention some of the names of the period that the fans certainly recognize from other productions: Stelvio Cipriani, Carlo Rustichelli, Riz Ortolani and Bruno Nicolai. The procurement of these works in my experience is not easy, but if some enthusiast has the time and inclination to search for them, I think something can be found.
The period of this genre was brief, but quite prolific. For those who are interested, I recommend the following titles. Read what I wrote, and if you have a clinical eye like myself, you will notice there are many shortcomings:
Thanks to the advent of e-commerce, the films I mentioned are not hard to find today. They're certainly more easy to find in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian editions with the best prices. Do not expect great extras on the DVDs, at most there are a few photo galleries and biographies of actors and directors. Although the overall quality of images is generally poor, you could not expect more and if you have a good nose for searching you’ll find them without problems.
The praise made for all kinds of other Italian B-movies from the 60s and 70s also should apply to this cult sub-genre. The Italian filmmakers simply tried to emulate the American classics with only shoestring budgets and lack of actors, technicians and equipment. Unfortunately, the war film is a bit similar to that of science fiction in that it requires big budgets to create weapons, locations, vehicles and uniforms. Without that, you run the risk of falling into the mediocre and ridiculous. However it is our duty to congratulate the Italian directors, the many artisans of cinema that made films under poor conditions but whose work was decent, honest and tried to give the audience what they wanted. In some cases, they succeeded, in most...unfortunately, they did not.
Written by Stefano Rossi - 11/24/12