Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Roger Corman probably didn't become really rich until he went into the distribution business, but in the early 1960's he was one of the busiest producer-directors around. He made cheap but profitable pictures for his own production company, for American-International and anybody who could put a good deal together. Roger had teamed with his brother Gene several times before, but an offer from David Picker of United Artists doubled their usual production budget to $600,000 and sent them to Europe to film The Dubious Patriots. UA dictated a title change to The Secret Invasion. Having already filmed in the UK and Greece, Corman tried out Yugoslavia for this escapist war fantasy.
The Secret Invasion has been difficult to see for quite a while. Its interesting reputation is due to several similarities to Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, made three years later. R. Wright Campbell's script involves five convicts enlisted to go behind enemy lines for a secret mission, led by a British officer trying to regain his sense of personal honor. Corman enlisted a quintet of name actors who, as the saying goes, were either on their way up or their way down.
Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger) assembles five talented criminals in his Cairo headquarters. Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone) is a gangster looking to recover his personal dignity. Terence Scanlon (Mickey Rooney) is an IRA bomber serving a long prison term. Simon Fell (Edd Byrnes) is a forger and Jean Saval (William Campbell) a master of disguises. The odd man out is John Durrell (Henry Silva), an emotionless assassin. Mace trains them and sneaks them into the Balkans by boat, where they plot to infiltrate a Nazi prison fortress in Dubrovnik. They escape with General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte), an Italian capable of rallying Fascist Italian troops to the Allied side. If they can start a ruckus in the Balkans, the commandos can fool the Germans into thinking that the invasion will come there instead of at Anzio.
The Secret Invasion may resemble The Dirty Dozen, but 4 out of 5 critics with nothing better to do than pick through issues like this agree that it's really a re-write of R. Wright Campbell's Five Guns West, Corman's first full directing job. The formula works quite well here, and would continue to be used again for any number of farfetched action movies about charismatic commandos going up against impossible odds, yadda yadda. When Roger Corman dove headfirst into Direct To Video production in the 1980s he made scores of these, often re-using the same battle footage to save money.
Corman has more resources in this film than at any time previous in his career. He has boats to pull off a replay of the patrol boat encounter in The Guns of Navarone and hundreds of extras for spirited battles between Balkan partisans and German troops. In his autobiography, Corman said that his Yugoslav hosts insisted that the partisans wear Communist red stars. Corman put the stars on some of the extras, but then kept them in the background or eliminated them in the cutting room. As it is, the uniforms on the Fascist Italian troops look a little Yugoslavian as well, particularly the modern helmets.
Gene Corman got good value for his money. The action scenes use many pyrotechnics and the settings take full advantage of rugged hills, a beautiful town and a picturesque ancient fortress. Cameraman Arthur Arling (Captain from Castile) gives the movie a good look. Roger's direction is more efficient than it is artful. The movie is a couple of cuts below Hollywood polish, but it probably cost 1/10th of what a studio production would. Corman and his brother saw handsome profits.
Stewart Granger had been in a career slide ever since leaving MGM and The Secret Invasion was a step up from some of the Italian co-productions he had been doing. He's all right, if uninspired; he apparently wasn't happy that Corman wouldn't reshape the movie into a star vehicle for him. Raf Vallone has the most interesting part as a highly educated ex-gangster. He also gets the most pretentious dialogue: "Dubrovnik. We've come to free it. Who will free us from ourselves?"
Edd Byrnes is better than his "Kookie" TV reputation would suggest, while William Campbell (brother of the screenwriter) gets a little help with his role as a master of disguises. Every time Jean Saval impersonates somebody, his voice is dubbed. When Saval pretends to be a British officer to sneak out of training (another situation mirrored in The Dirty Dozen) Campbell appears to be dubbed by Stewart Granger. The one female character of note is the partisan Mila, played by Spela Rozin. She made 41 movies and was billed as "Mia Massini" for this one only.
Mickey Rooney mugs happily throughout, which would be great if the movie assigned real characters to these guys instead of making them types. Rooney's Irish accent isn't bad, I guess, but he's very good with the commando action stuff, climbing rocks and dodging squib hits & fuller's earth explosions better than the younger actors around him. Given special consideration is Henry Silva's 'outsider', a character that probably appealed to Corman. Rat Pack member Silva was a wooden actor but his face is perfect for hit man roles like Johnny Cool. This script gives him the most dramatic scenes including one that involves the death of a baby, an unnecessarily heartless development.
Corman dives right into this unsavory material in the same way he splashes stage blood over the dead and wounded. After proclaiming their cynical natures, most of the commandos end up dying through selfless sacrifice gestures, an inconsistency that tells us that combat turns creeps into heroes.
The Secret Invasion ends with a fairly sophisticated twist. The surviving team members use the captured general against his will as a catalyst for rebellion, making the German-allied Italian troops change sides. The details are a bit forced, but it's a much more accurate reflection of covert ops than can be seen in the Robert Aldrich film. Setting up, and then eliminating a puppet leader resonates with actual documented CIA-type secret missions. The Secret Invasion is an unpretentious action thriller, but Roger Corman once again ensures that it contains many intelligent ideas.
MGM / Fox's DVD of The Secret Invasion is presented in a clean enhanced transfer with a bright picture and very clear audio. We can examine Corman's odd-looking boat explosion scene -- a strange optical -- and the added sharpness allows us to see the trainer's tethers attached to the supposedly wild owls that fly in one scene. There are no extras. MGM's clumsy Photoshop cover art pastes the film's characters into a concentration camp-like setting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Secret Invasion rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2008
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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