Derivative but highly competent―and highly enjoyable―Zapata spaghetti Western. Warner Bros.' terrific Archive Collection, their M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service that provides hard-to-find library and cult titles for movie lovers, has released The Five Man Army (Un esercito di 5 uomini), the 1969 Italian oater/caper film starring Peter Graves, James Daly, Bud Spencer, Nino Castelnuovo, and Tetsuro Tamba. Directed by Don Taylor (and maybe others) and co-scripted by Dario Argento, The Five Man Army may play like a lot of bigger, more famous actioners...but that fact doesn't take away from the fun. An original trailer is included in this nice widescreen transfer.
1914, just over the border of Mexico. A team is gathered for a heist. Wanted outlaw Luis Dominguez (Nino Castelnuovo) scams his way into the States to bring a message from "the Dutchman" (Peter Graves): $1000 for a job. Captain Nicolas Augustus (James Daly), a demolition expert who served with the Dutchman in the Army, has been operating as a penny-ante gambler. He agrees. Man-mountain Mesito (Bud Spence) has fallen even lower: he's farm hand on a chicken farm. He agrees...after beating his employer half to death. And Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba), a fugitive from both Japanese and American law enforcement agencies, has been posing as a knife thrower in a traveling novelty act. He agrees. Soon, all four are headed back over the border into Mexico to meet up with the Dutchman, who lays out the real deal on the job: a half-million dollars in gold dust bound on an armored, heavily guarded train, for brutal General Victoriano Huerta. The five man army is to first rescue revolutionary leader Manuel Esteban (Claudio Gora) from a firing squad, and then steal the gold and hand it over to the rebels...only they're not going to hand over the gold. See?
Because really, the only thing that counts is how well this material, derivative or not, is delivered. And in The Five Man Army's case, it's smoothly and entertainingly done. Right from the start, with an arresting credit sequence that "animates" real photos of the 1913 Mexican Revolution, The Five Man Army has a thematic and visual assurance that's notable in the low-budget spaghetti Western genre. Unlike quite a few imports that made it here (granted: you could blame the cuts made for U.S. release), The Five Man Army's transitions are clean and sensible, with scenes moving logically from one set-up to the next, building nicely, until we get the excellently plotted and paced train heist. Revolutionary politics are the backbone of any Zapata spaghetti Western, and certainly here, with Graves' triple-cross revelation at the end of the story, those sentiments fall in line with genre conventions. However, and to The Five Man Army's credit, the politics are a distant third to the action and the comedy―as they should be in any good spaghetti Western. The screenplay does indulge once or twice in far-too-long shots of noble peasants suffering in silence (the exodus from the village takes too long), but those are isolated moments (if The Five Man Army had really wanted to get serious, it's too bad there weren't more scenes like Daly's obligatory but welcome lament for the passing of the guard in his vanishing Old West―he plays it simply and beautifully and without sentiment).
No, The Five Man Army's main concern is the action, flavored with light-hearted laughs, and it delivers these up quite nicely. Funny little throwaways pop up all the time (Dominguez eating garlic to distract the border guard; too-big Mesito repeatedly sitting on his pocket watches), along with more elaborate touches (Spencer's dust-up with his chicken farmer employer, done out of our sight in the farmhouse as the very walls shake with dust, before the farmer explodes out the door with cartoon hilarity), while the violence never lets up (Spencer throws a bayoneted rifle like a spear, sword-wielding Tamba splits Alighiero's head open like a coconut). To spice up the familiar train-robbing sequence, the clever gimmick of having Castelnuovo and Tamba silently kill off the soldiers, train car by train car, via slingshot and throwing knives, is a nice touch. This final set piece, regardless of who directed it, is a gem, with solid suspense crafted from the razor-sharp editing and the carefully-choreographed action (whoever thought up that wrinkle of having Tamba fall off the train, only to run miles and miles to catch up, is a genius―a truly memorable sequence from the movie). There may be questions about who actually directed The Five Man Army, but if you've seen any of Taylor's other clean, well-crafted actioners, you might be inclined to believe that solo on-screen director's credit for him is spot-on.
The cast here is equally competent. Tamba, best known to audiences here in the States as James Bond's Japanese contact, Tiger Tanaka, in the epic You Only Live Twice, has no dialogue (he may have said a few words), but he whips that samurai sword around nicely. Daly, soon to be a big, big TV star with that same year's Medical Center, is excellent as the past-it dynamiter who's fully accepted his mortality. Castelnuovo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) doesn't have much more to do here than Tamba, but he looks right spitting in the Captain's face. I'm sure there's a big fan base here in the States that will want The Five Man Army just to see Bud Spencer soon at the very peak of his international fame (They Call Me Trinity would debut in 1970, the same year The Five Man Army made it here to the States). A performer with that instantaneous "star" attraction the minute he comes on screen, Spencer gets to execute his trademark "clonk" on the head of a soldier here, while getting a nice solo action scene as he single-handedly reroutes some train tracks (again, beautifully paced here for maximum suspense). If there's a drawback in the casting, I guess you'd have to say it's Graves, who's just too clean-cut and...nice for his role. Now don't get me wrong; I thought Graves was cooler than Bond when I was a kid watching Mission: Impossible, but seriously, who would believe he could split any of the team's heads to keep order, let alone tame bearish Spencer with one punch...and live? He doesn't sport a beard here, or even sweat, for crissakes―two absolute prerequisites for starring in a spaghetti Western (even Eastern swells like Fonda and Robards dirtied up for their stints in the genre). But Graves, with his perfectly coiffed "California Wind-Blown #7" hair-do and his pressed jeans, looks not like he stepped out of the Mexican desert, but rather a Madison Avenue "Hathaway Man" ad. Still, if that minor carp is all I can find wanting in The Five Man Army...that's not bad at all.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.