The Battle of El Alamein

aka La battaglia di El Alamein (US), La bataille d’El Alamein (Fr), Königstiger vor El Alamein (WG)
Mino Loy and Luciano Martino for Zenith (Rome), Les Films Corona (Paris)
Director: Calvin Jackson Padget [Giorgio Ferroni]
Story & screenplay: Ernesto Gastaldi, Remigio Del Grosso
Music: Carlo Rustichelli
Cinematography: Sergio D’Offizi {Eastmancolor}
Editor: Eugenio Alabiso
Set design: Emilio D’Andria
Cameraman: Giuseppe Gatti
Filmed: Cinecittà
Release information: Registered 11.12.68. Italy (23.01.69, 100 mins), France (21.05.69, 100 mins), West Germany (16.01.70, 90 mins)
Cast: Frederick Stafford (Lieutenant Giorgio Borri), George Hilton (Lieutenant Graham), Enrico Maria Salerno (Claudio Borri), Robert Hossein (Field Marshall Rommel), Ira Furstenberg (Marta), Micael Rennie (General Montgomery), Marco Guglielmi (Captain Hubert, a German Officer), Ettore Manni, Edoardo Toniolo, Gerard Herter (General Schwarz, a German officer), Renato Romano (General Clifton, a British officer), Max Dean [Massimo Righi] (Vannucci, an Italian soldier), Giulio Donnini, Tom Felleghi (Colonel Bartome, a German officer), Piero Palermini, Giovanni Pazzafini (the Sergeant Major), Massimo Farinelli, Giuseppe Castellano (an Italian soldier), Mario Chiocchio, Luigi Scavran, Luigi Gatti, Adalberto Rossetti, Gaultiero Isnenghi, Antonietta Fiorito, Ugo Adinolfi, Giuseppe Addobbati, Salvatore Borgese (Capo, an Italian soldeir), Manlio Busoni, Andrea Fantasia

The Battle of El Alamein
The Battle of El Alamein

Despite being second billed here, George Hilton really only has a minor role as a British Lieutenant. The main purpose of his character is to act as a humanising force to the hero, Giorgio (Frederick Stafford). In fact, he doesn’t last into the second hour, his death freeing the plot to concentrate on its doomed protagonists. He does, however, manage to pull a fit bird with big hair and eyeliner while watching a belly dancer in a sleazy den. Nice going, George.

It’s pleasantly unusual to come across a Second World War film which looks at events through the eyes of individuals on the losing side. Often dismissed as mere Italianate propaganda, The Battle of El Alemein is in fact a fast moving action picture that comes to the conclusion that virtually every film of it’s type seems to come to; that war is pretty damn silly, and the ones who pay are the ones who don’t have any say in events in the first place. It’s interesting to compare this to the Vietnam movies that came out of the US in the mid 80s: the central platoon is composed of ‘Ordinary Joes’, who don’t really give a jot – or even understand – the political reasons for their precarious situation. They’d much rather be at home – with their wives, children, mates and drinking pals – than stuck in a desert in the middle of God-knows-where being shot at. Understandably enough.

Africa, 1942, and the Axis alliance between Germany and Italy has held the upper hand in the desert war. This is by no small means due to the military skill of Field Marshall Rommel (Robert Hossein), who is unfortunately suffering from kidney problems and general fatigue. Already knowing that their superiority is on the wane, he is ordered home to rest by Hitler. Meanwhile, the English forces are being rallied by the newly arrived Montgomery (Michael Rennie), and they begin to drive back their enemies from the positions they’ve previously managed to gain.

Interspersed with these events is the story of Giorgio (Frederick Stafford), a young officer who has come to lead his squadron after the untimely death of his Captain. He is at first unpopular with his men, who consider him to be a glory-seeker with an absolute disregard for their lives. Slowly, however, he begins to gain their respect as he learns that the reality of war is somewhat different to the version being peddled in officer training school and he frankly begins to become a bit less of a pain in the ass. He is also helped by the prescience of his brother Paolo (Enrico Maria Salerno in a variety of silly hats), an experienced Sergeant Major who seconds himself to Giorgio’s aid.

Aside from the variety of humorous plummy accents on display, The Battle of El Alemein is an enjoyable, pacey production that obviously had a fairly decent budget and uses it’s familiar Almerian locations well. As an example of the short lived war film genre that flourished in the late sixties (other Euro examples being Alberto De Martino’s Dirty Heroes (67) and Mino Loy’s Desert Battle (69)), it seems to be a slightly less gung-ho enterprise than normal. Not to say that you don’t get the normal heroics, but there’s an underlying fatalism and a political awareness that taints the energetic narrative.

Enrico Maria Salerno isn't impressed... The Battle of El Alamein
Enrico Maria Salerno isn’t impressed… The Battle of El Alamein

It does have a couple of problems: the first half is extremely complicated, and it only really calms down once the narrative has finally settled on Giogio’s doomed platoon. Although the sub-plots involving Rommel and Montgomery are integral as background, they detract from what could otherwise have been a simple and moving story line. This reflects an ambiguity in ambition: it seems to be aiming at an epic scale, whilst still maintaining a focus upon the microcosm. Desert Battle (69) fares much better because it dispenses with the large-scale story and concentrates on character and tension. It must also be said that Stafford’s hero is an irritating sod who manages to get on the nerves of even the most tolerant of viewers.

Director Giorgio Ferroni was a more than capable craftsman who’s CV is choc-a-bloc with interesting titles like Mill of the Stone Women (60), one of the few gothic horrors to rightfully compare to the best of Mario Bava, and The Bacchantes (61), a poetic peplum which is one of my personal favorites. The large cast is literally stuffed with recognizable craggy faces, but the standout performance comes from Enrico Maria Salerno, a hugely underrated actor who died of cancer in 1994.


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