Surprise Attack

Here’s another review from the archives, which first appeared in The Cheeseplant #5 (back in 1999)

Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano
Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano

Aka Golpe de Mano
Director: Jose Antonio De La Loma
Script: Jose Antonio De La Loma
Producer: Jose Maria Carcasona, Juan Cristobal Jimenez-Quesada
Music: Gianni Marchetti
Cinematography: Hans Burman, Antonio Millan, Mario Pacheco
Editor: Bruno Mattei
Sets: Juan Alberto Soler
Cast: Simon Andreu (Andres Novales), Danny [Daniel] Martin (Captain Andujar), Patty Shepard (Teresa Pernas), Rafael Hernandez, Frank Brana (Paco), Oscar Pellicer, Charley Vasall [Carlos Vassallo], Valentino [Carlos Alberto Valentino], Nacho Pidal, Anthony Amor [Jose Antonio Amor], Stefano Charelli, Pepe [Jose] Calvo (Father of Andres), Antonio casas (The Colonel), Fernando Sancho (Pernas)

Suprise Attack is unusual in that it is a film set during the Spanish Civil War, a period which – despite it’s obvious melodramatic potential – has never really been examined in any depth in the cinema. There are a small number of Spanish films (Vicente Aranda’s Libertarias (98), Pedro Lazaga’s La fiel infanteria (59) and Posicion avazada (65), Antonio Isasi’s Tierra de todos (61)) that deal with it in some depth. The only example which has had that much in the way of international distribution that springs to mind is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, which that can be ignored without any further consideration because, well, it’s a Ken Loach film.

1938, on the Battle front at the River Ebro. Fascist troops led by Captain Andujar (Daniel Martin) are attempting to liberate a village that has been caught up in the anarchist revolution. It is of immense strategic importance because of its vicinity to a bridge that could be an integral part of either an offensive or a retreat. However, this is proving a difficult task, firstly because it is guarded by a hill that is riddled with machine gun nests and secondly because none of the villagers appear to want to be ‘liberated’.

Lt Novales (Simon Andreu) arrives at the front after requesting a transfer from the fighting near Madrid. He not only has inside knowledge of the village (he grew up there) but also the motivation to defeat its ‘oppressors’: as a young man he had watched his father, a wealthy landowner, murdered by the peasant leader Pernas (Fernando Sancho). Still haunted by guilt at his inaction, he is determined to have revenge and kill his father’s murderer.

Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano
Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano

He has soon dreamt up a cunning plan whereby – with only a small squadron of twenty men – he plans to take out the seemingly impregnable nests on the hillside as well as to capture the bridge. Unfortunately, just after they set of on their mission, Andujar receives orders that his men, who had been planning to back up the patrols, must stick to their positions in case of an imminent Fascist offensive. It would seem as though Novales and his men have been sent to their certain death.

However, unbeknownst to all, the Anarchists are also planning to fall back from the village, as it is becoming increasingly clear that they are losing the war. Their leader, Paco (Frank Brana), is left with one last task before he can retreat – to blow up the fateful bridge and thus destroy it’s potential as a floodgate for the Fascist army.

This is a rather unusual, and rather intriguing, film. Although obviously falling into the ‘war’ genre that was popular in Europe during the late 60’s (see also Spaniard Leon Klimovsky’s epics Operation Rommel (68) and Hell in Normandy (67)) it feels in many ways much more like a Spaghetti Western. This is partly due to Gianni Marchetti’s soundtrack, which is literally choc-a-block with flamenco guitars and choral voices. It is also because the demarcation between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ is a lot less solidly drawn. Although many 2nd World War films feature ‘good’ Germans on an individual basis (thereby showing that there’s humanity everywhere), the Germans en-masse are unquestionably seen as the ‘enemy’. With Surprise Attack, in which both the Fascists and the Anarchists are viewed as morally equal, the personal motivations – rather than the political – are pushed to the fore.

Ostensibly the hero, Novales is a vengeance-driven individual whose single-mindedness borders on mania. By the end of the film our sympathies lie more with other characters such as the catholic Sergeant and the noble Andujar. Even the apparent villains, Paco and Pernas, are more ‘heroic’ in that they are less willing to sacrifice other people to their own personal demons. I also liked the way in which the villagers have no desire to be freed – why would they want to return to feudal system that had been dominant prior to their revolution?

Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano
Surprise Attack, aka Golpe de Mano

All this ambiguity is nicely helped along by some low-key acting from the protagonists. Particularly notable are Frank Brana (this is another great role for him – OK, so he dies three quarters of the way through, but he actually gets to snog the pretty girl for once) and Simon Andreu, an underrated Spanish actor who appeared in many Euro-productions. Daniel Martin and Patty Shepard, who is particularly babesome here, also do well with their rather less interesting roles.

Director Jose Antonio De La Loma is one of the most infuriating filmmakers around. Often described as a Spanish Antonio Margheriti – with some justification – his work can veer from the appalling to the extraordinarily good (sometimes in the same film, see Boldest Job in the West (67)). This is one of his best films, apart from some lackluster pacing in parts, and is well worth looking out for if you’re in the mood for something different.

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