Friday, July 9, 2010
The Five Man Army: A Spaghetti Western Variation of "Mission: Impossible" Courtesy of Dario Argento
Among the latter was The Five Man Army (1969), a low-budget Spaghetti Western made by American journeyman director Don Taylor. Its biggest stars were veteran TV performers Peter Graves (on vacation from Mission: Impossible) and James Daly (Chad Everett’s boss on the TV series Medical Center). In short, there was no reason to harbor any expectations for The Five Man Army…and yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I’ve seen it twice since—including an uncut, letterboxed version on TCM—and it holds up remarkably well.
Parts of its appeal for me is the old “rounding up the gang” theme. As in The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Magnificent Seven, we meet our protagonists one by one as a young thief informs them that “The Dutchman” (Graves) has a job requiring their services. Frankly, anything seems better than their current occupations: The Colonel (Daly) is a low-rent gambler; the Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) throws knives in a traveling roadshow; and the massive Mesito (Bud Spencer) performs menial chores like feeding chickens.
The Dutchman’s “job” is a daunting one: These five men will rob a Mexican train carrying $500,000 in gold—which is guarded by a troop of soldiers, a machine gun, and a cannon. Except for an unlikely capture and escape sequence, The Five Man Army is basically a heist film masquerading as a Western. It’s this unlikely mixture of genres that makes the film so surprisingly diverting.
The caper, which comprises about a third of the running time, smartly blends tension and humor. A little boy almost gets The Dutchman captured before the heist even begins. An unexpected accident results in one of the five falling off the top of a speeding rail car. The arrival of unexpected visitors threatens to throw off the split-second timing required to pull off the elaborate heist.
The always likable Graves, though probably not the best choice for the main role, is believable as the never-flustered leader. The other four performers acquit themselves nicely, especially Bud Spencer in a role similar to his Bambino in the Trinity films. The memorable music score by the famed Ennio Morricone ranks among his three best (topped by Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The screenplay, co-written by future horror maestro Dario Argento, wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum.
The Five Man Army will never be mistaken for a genre classic. But it’s smartly-made escapist fare and, like the Western mystery Five Card Stud, deserves kudos for stretching the six-shooter formula. Stripped of its Western trappings, the intricate heist sequence could have been lifted from an episode of Mission: Impossible…which I suppose justifies why Peter Graves was cast as the unlikely action hero.