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This release finds Wild East taking a break from their ongoing Spaghetti Western Collection series in order to present a double bill of Italian-produced World War 2 adventures. Churchill's Leopards is a well-intentioned effort that is unfortunately hampered by a low budget and some slightly preposterous narrative content. By contrast, Salt in the Wound is an unexpected treat: top notch production values, great acting, well-drawn characters and plenty of intense but brilliantly staged action scenes make this unusual war drama a real winner.
Churchill's Leopards opens with a narrative contrivance that seems so far-fetched that our suspension of disbelief cannot be fully secured and maintained for the remainder of the film. When Lieutenant Muller is killed in the opening minutes of the movie, we're left wondering whether the show's star, Richard Harrison, was the lucky securer of the most lucrative guest appearance in film history. That idea is soon dismissed when Harrison as Benson immediately emerges to take a peak at Muller's body. It seems that the two were twins, born of a British father and a German mother, and they subsequently wound up fighting on opposing sides when the Second World War erupted. Stranger things have no doubt happened in real life but Churchill's Leopards's central narrative thread concerning Benson physically replacing Muller cannot help but bring to mind Norman Wisdom's riotous comedy The Square Peg in which Wisdom's conscripted English road repairer winds up impersonating a look-alike Nazi general.
On a more positive note, Churchill's Leopards does largely succeed in its efforts to take key elements from earlier 'Allied troops on a secret mission behind enemy lines' themed war films, like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, and relocate them to France during the occupation years. Inevitably, these transposed elements and ideas are reworked into the kind of stock characters and scenarios that have become forever associated with dramas that focus on occupied France: the beautiful resistance women, the earnest resistance men, the unlikely/unsuspected resistance leader who maintains a public/civic relationship with the Germans, British troops hiding in barns and hay carts, secret meetings in churches, etc, etc. In essence, all of these stock characters and scenarios retain the power to move and involve the viewer if they are imbued with real character and allowed to become more than mere cinematic clichés. Disappointingly, Churchill's Leopards never seems to present us with anything more than simple clichés that every viewer will be more than familiar with. Such clichés are so universally recognizable that the BBC's long-running situation comedy set in occupied France, Allo 'Allo!, was able to easily and affectionately send them up week after week. As was the case with The Square Peg, a familiarity with humorous shows like Allo 'Allo! might well have an impact on some viewers' appreciation of Churchill's Leopards.
One character that does throw up some surprises is Klaus Kinski's (For a Few Dollars More, The Great Silence, There's a Noose Waiting for You Trinity!) SS Captain. Rather than being an ideologically indoctrinated, violently heavy-handed thug, Kinski's SS man is a studiously calm, collected and rational individual. When the resistance fighters' actions eventually prompt Holtz to demand reprisals, he's shouted down by, and gives way to, an officer from the regular army. This isn't Kinski's best or most interesting performance but he's easily the best thing about the film, something that can be said of a number of other low-budget Euro productions that Kinski appeared in around this time. Strangely enough, this show actually presents the same kind of frustrations that are sometimes found in the less successful films of one of Kinski's patrons, Jess Franco. Possessing an essentially straight forward yet strangely listless narrative arc that flips between static set-pieces and meandering diversions for much of the first hour of its run time, this show's technical aspects and general aesthetics often serve to link it directly to the kind of less illustrious Euro genre fare that was being routinely produced by Franco and his associates during the early 1970s.
That said, an attempt to generate some suspense is apparent when the British commandoes realize that a key piece of their dam-busting equipment has been damaged in transit, forcing them to seek a replacement part locally. And the commandoes are forced to work against a deadline when the time comes to attack the dam. It's clear that every effort was made to make the saboteurs' climactic assault on the dam, and the subsequent retaliation by its German guards, as action-packed and as exciting as possible. The result is a reasonably commendable attempt at a finale that goes some way to making up for the abundance of less noteworthy sequences found early on in the show: the film's final twenty five minutes are definitely worth sticking around for. As noted earlier, Kinski steals the show with little effort but Spaghetti Western stalwarts Antonio Casas and Frank Brana turn in decent enough performances as resistance fighters: Casas's character's act of self-sacrifice is one of the film's better moments. Richard Harrison (The Invincible Gladiator, Between God, the Devil and a Winchester) and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (The Last Man on Earth, Ben and Charlie) both seem to be a little uncomfortable with their respective roles here and consequently fail to be fully convincing in their efforts to bring their characters to life. Euro cult favourite Helga Line (The Vampires' Night Orgy, Raise You're Hands, Dead Man, You're Under Arrest) adds some welcome interest to proceedings with her brief role as a former lover of Muller's who the suspicious Holtz mischievously invites to a reunion with Benson.
The picture quality of this presentation is near enough excellent and there's very little in the way of print damage present here. The disc's sound quality is generally very good too. There are two split second audio dropouts present near the start of the show but these glitches are not really problematic.
The big news here is that this really quite obscure film features an absolutely superb performance by top-billed Klaus Kinski. He steals the show yet again but he's got plenty of competition here: all of the acting on display here is of an impressively high quality and the result is a film that is chock-full of compelling and rounded characters who aren't always likeable but are always interesting. Aggressive, callous, self-pitying and spiteful, Haskins is a compulsive thief who feels sure that parental neglect marked him for a life of deceit and double-dealing. A late night thieving expedition and an itchy and indiscriminate trigger finger lands this complex character before the military tribunal. Seeing his family subjected to racial abuse and worse has left Grayson with a temper and an inner rage that he cannot control and he too commits violent acts that bring him before the tribunal. George Hilton's (They Call Me Hallelujah) Sheppard is a pious intellectual snob who fared well at West Point but cannot cope with the reality of frontline active service. When the German forces attack his firing squad troops, Sheppard goes to pieces. Petrified and disorientated, he only escapes with his life because he is panicked into following Haskins and Grayson, who are driven by razor sharp survival instincts. Life on the run from the Germans provides a learning curve for all three men and, by the time that they are forced to defend St. Michele alone, all three of them are changed men.
This is a rollicking piece of popular cinema but director Teodoro Ricci's interesting and sure-handed approach harks back to Italian cinema's neo-realist past on a number of occasions. A real location is used for St. Michele and most of the town's citizens are played by non-professionals (presumably the real town's real inhabitants?). The naturalistic nature of their movements and interactions with the three American soldiers plays just like something from a neo-realist film. Ricci also references Roberto Rossellini's sublime neo-realist war film, Paisa. In one of Paisa's iconic vignettes a black American military policeman forms a relationship of sorts with a local street urchin and a similar scenario is played out here via the protective relationship that Grayson forms with one of St. Michele's young street kids (Roberto Pagano). It's this relationship that has something of a redemptive effect on Grayson. Haskins has a similarly redemptive experience too, hooking up with a lonely local girl, Daniela (Betsy Bell). Misogynistic and untrusting, Grayson seems to have finally found a woman whose love can soothe his anger and bitterness. Having watched and learned the survival techniques employed by Haskins and Grayson on the arduous journey to St. Michele, Sheppard shakes himself down, toughens up and begins exerting his authority. When the town comes under attack, he's ready for action at last. Under similar circumstances Haskins and Grayson would probably have fled but the ferocity of the assault on the town and the feeling that they have a personal investment in the town's community results in the pair flying recklessly into action too. It's rousing and really quite emotionally stirring stuff.
Salt in the Wound is a big budget show that looks fantastic: its locations, sets, costumes, cinematography, etc, are all excellent and the film compares well to the best war genre movies produced by Hollywood during the 1960s. Director Teodoro Ricci (AKA Tonino Ricci) and his team consistently pay close attention to lots of small details throughout the film. Riz Ortolani's effective soundtrack score flips between bombastic, military drum-led pieces and more emotive cues. As mentioned earlier, there's some impressive acting and character development on display here and this is nicely balanced with some really spectacular and particularly well-staged and executed actions scenes. The action sequences here are presented in a really quite fast and furious manner and the intense sense of danger and anxiety that they project is a little overwhelming and slightly frightening at times: it's a bit like an early attempt to represent the kind of warfare-induced sensory overload that Steven Spielberg sought to telegraph in Saving Private Ryan. The completely ferocious and destructive nature of the initial ambush makes Sheppard's temporary mental meltdown completely understandable. At the film's finale, the three main players make an indignant stand that is fuelled largely by adrenalin, anger and a fear of what will happen if they fail to act. Their intentions are good and their actions are brave and honourable but, given the size of the onslaught launched against them, we just know that they cannot realistically hope to sustain their resistance for long. Cinematographer Sandro Mancori's excellent camerawork really comes into its own during these final senses-shattering scenes of tank and mortar led destruction.
Picture quality here fluctuates between just less than good and just less than very good. Previous English language versions of Salt in the Wound were trimmed down to 77 minutes, so it's possible that Wild East have drawn upon elements from a number of different prints in order to construct the considerably longer version of the film presented here. The film's front titles look a little rough and there are odd outbreaks of scratches throughout the film but, on the whole, this is a reasonable presentation of a very rare film. Likewise, the disc's sound quality is a little uneven too: some sections of the film feature a touch of background hiss while other sections play quite cleanly.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Salt in the Wound rates:
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