Friday, July 9, 2010

The Five Man Army: A Spaghetti Western Variation of "Mission: Impossible" Courtesy of Dario Argento

The CBS Late Movie was a viewing staple during my high school years; I watched it every Friday night during the school year and every week night during summer vacation. Its diverse menu of films ranged from Hammer horrors (always shown on Friday) to action programmers (like Darby’s Rangers) to obscure Westerns.

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.


  1. Rick, I wasn't around for the CBS Late Movie, so this is a film I haven't seen. I like the rounding up the gang plot device, though. I'll look for it on TCM.

  2. Rick, I am also a fan of the "round up the gang" premise. Dorothy does just that as travels along a yellow brick road en route to the Emerald City.

    It is interesting to think of a Dario Argento picture being featured on the CBS Late Movie schedule! I also enjoy movies where the unexpected happens.

    I don't think I have seen this but I really appreciated your entertaining review. I also am enjoying the Forgotten Favorites this month at the Cafe. Rick, you rock!

  3. Rick, I have not seen the Spaghetti Western , The Five Man Army(1969), with Peter Graves and James Daly. Because of your awesome review I'm going to add it to my list..

  4. You're right that THE FIVE MAN ARMY will likely never be considered a "genre classic," but it's undoubtedly memorable, a solid film with a good pace and dynamic characters. Like you (and toto), I'm a fan of movies in which characters are brought together for a "mission" of some sort because it's enjoyable to watch people with distinct differences form a union for a singular cause. It's oddly comforting.

    I've always found it strange that this is such a seemingly obscure film. It stars Peter Graves from a popular TV show, Bud Spencer of cult films, has a score by a famous composer, and was co-written by a well known director of Italian horror films. What a crew! Just like the men rounded up in THE FIVE MAN ARMY.

    And that rail car scene is most excellent. It includes an extended bit with no dialogue. My favorite sequence of the movie!

  5. Rick, I loved your remark that Argento "wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum" !! LOL I remember and loved the CBS Late Movie, although I don't remember this one. Must have missed it. One of my favorite movies is The Magnificent Seven, as well as its Japanese predecessor The Seven Samurai. I agree that this story type of several odd men out coming together is a lot of fun, and Sark put it well when he said "It's oddly comforting." I feel that way too, I'm not sure why, unless it's because many of us feel like the odd man out and would love to have that experience of gathering with others. Really enjoyed this one, Rick.

  6. Rick, this is one of those films I might have seen and might not have seen and don't remember which. Your review makes it sound like I movie that I would like. I like anything that Dario Argento does and since he did the screeen play that is an added bonus for me. A movie without too much dialogue sounds good too. Peter Graves is always a pleaure to watch. I will keep this film in mind to see in the future.