The Five Man Army

Director: Don Taylor                                  
Peter Graves, Bud Spencer, James Daly

The Five Man Army is an interesting movie to watch, not just in its entertainment value, but how it manages to overcome some great obstacles to be entertaining. That's because the movie has some serious flaws that might possibly sink another movie. But the positive aspects of the movie are so well done, instantly grabbing the viewer and entertaining him or her so immensely, that the movie manages to stay afloat. If there ever was a need to define "pure entertainment", this movie would be a good choice. Viewers won't need to use their brain cells for this mindless fun, except in thinking how much fun they are having.

It certainly has a plot that doesn't call for anything extra to hang onto it: During the Mexican Revolution, a mysterious fellow nicknamed "The Dutchman" (Graves) calls in three of his old buddies, with the promise of $1000 each if they help him pull off a job. His old friends consist of Mesito (Spencer), a strong though somewhat immature brute of a fellow who loves food and a good fight; Augustus (Daly), a former dynamite man in The Dutchman's platoon back in Cuba; and a silent and mysterious Japanese man nicknamed "Samurai" (Tetsuro Tamba), who is skilled with swords and knives. They are joined by The Dutchman's young new friend Luis (Nino Castelnuovo), who used to be an acrobat. Gathered together, The Dutchman reveals his scheme, which seems like suicide: To rob $500,000 of gold from a train that is not only covered with soldiers equipped with rifles, machine guns, and a cannon, but traveling along a route that passes squadrons of armed soldiers on horseback every six minutes.

And that is about it as far as plot goes. Surely, you're saying, there has to be more to it than just the men meeting, planning, and pulling off the robbery. After all, the screenplay was co-written by the great Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria). No, there isn't too much more. There is a little interlude in the village they go to just before the scheme is revealed, and there is another momentary diversion when they are captured by soldiers during their journey to the train. But these and a few other small details are dealt with quickly, and have absolutely no consequence to the plot immediately or anytime in the future.

Okay then, how about with the characters, any interesting looks at them, or growth in any manner during the movie. No, not really. Most of the effort in this area seems to have been in rounding up a cast consisting of two Americans, two Italians, and a Japanese for the movie to be more marketable worldwide. Although The Dutchman is the leader, the mastermind behind this plan, he doesn't reveal himself in any manner except for a contrived speech near the end of the movie. Throughout the movie, Graves usually seems very uncomfortable when he has any dialogue, like he is deeply distracted by a personal issue. As the immature Mesito, Spencer gives a more colorful performance. Despite his equally weak character, he manages to amuse us with his greediness and somewhat dumb thinking. Some viewers will be interested in the fact this movie gives them the opportunity to hear Spencer's real voice for once. He has a noticeable amount of "mamma mia" in his accent, but his command of English is good enough that it's obvious he's not speaking phonetically.

The rest of the characters? Augustus and Luis, they are pretty much the same in our minds at the end as they were when we first met them. Samurai? Well, there is a Mexican woman who falls in love with him, but it's pretty hard for the screenplay to develop this romance with them only having a few short scenes together, Samurai never speaking in these scenes (or anywhere else in the movie), and the woman remaining silent as well.

With these flaws, how come the movie still manages to work? It's pretty simple; the movie barely has a boring moment. There is almost always some element at work that keeps us watching, and keeps us entertained. To start with, the movie almost never stays in one place for more than a few minutes, getting the five men constantly traveling from place to place. And seldom does a scene run too long; though a couple of scenes (such as the mass evacuation of the village) go on much longer than they need to, every other scene seems to run at just the perfect length. The editing here is particularly skillful, not only getting almost every scene to run to the right length, but also making the tempo of each scene brisker than the typical scene in a spaghetti western. It isn't Russ Meyer editing, but this movie is must faster paced than usual for the genre. With things running more quickly, the viewer is less likely to get bored.

Of course, plenty of well made action sequences can also severely lessen the boredom factor. We're given not just several action sequences in The Five Man Army, but action sequences of different kinds - chases, rescues, fending off attacks, and a breakout sequence. Each of these action sequences is constructed competently enough to keep us interested, and about the only negative thing to say about them is that Samurai is only given one instance where he demonstrates his skill with a sword. But none of these action sequences, as good as they are, can hold a candle to the big sequence, when the five men start pulling off their robbery of the train. It's one of the best action scenes I've ever seen, for so many more reasons than I have room to write here. Running over twenty minutes, it's incredible how the tension both starts so quickly and never lets up, seeing the men pulling off some very dangerous maneuvers (there's some very impressive stuntwork here) and encountering several unexpected factors that threaten to ruin their plans.

Another thing that makes the robbery so engrossing is that we are not quite sure how they are going to pull it off; we've seen some clues, but not enough to fully figure out how they'll do it. You'll want to not only see if they pull it off, but just how they pull it off. As great as the scene is, it would have been even better if the few lines of dialogue spoken during the sequence were removed (to make it like the classic silent robbery in Rififi), and if I could have seen the robbery not interrupted by commercial breaks (The Five Man Army is not yet available on video in North America.)

It's obvious a lot more money than usual was spent on this spaghetti western, and the professional output doesn't just show in the editing and the action. More time was obviously spent to set up each take, giving each shot a stronger and more balanced look, though its impact is less obvious when seen in the pan and scan format, which makes a few scenes awkward because of the sides being cut off from our view. However, we are still able to see a number of other things the extra money bought, such as more people for the crowd scenes, more realistic sets and props, and even a few uses of a camera crane. We are even taken to more varied locations. Although this spaghetti western, like others, was filmed in Spain, there is a better feeling we are in Mexico here. We get to see the expected sagebrush and dry riverbeds, but we also see fields and green plants.

I can't finish the review without saying a word about the music. What music! Ennio Morricone composed one of his best spaghetti western scores for this movie, instantly hooking the viewer from the opening credits sequences with a thunderous piece of music. The director must have really liked this and the other pieces in the movie, because he sometimes plays them in the background during dialogue sequences, sometimes not quite soft enough, and sometimes not matching the tone and subject matter of the dialogue. And maybe we do hear the same particular piece over and over too many times, but when it comes to Morricone, too much Morricone is always better than a more balanced score by another composer. He music really gives the movie an extra kick during the big scenes (listen to how effective the score is during Samurai's big moment in the robbery sequence), and also prevents a few scenes from possibly being boring if they didn't have his music. You'll be humming the score for days afterwards, so much so that you may even forget how entertaining the rest of the movie was.

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