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How many films did Roger Corman have going simultaneously in 1963? Corman probably didn't become really rich until he quit directing to go into the distribution business, but in the early 1960s 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 else 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, Ireland and Greece, Corman tried out Yugoslavia for this escapist war fantasy.
Until the arrival of MGM's 2008 DVD, The Secret Invasion had been difficult to see for quite a while. Its elevated reputation is due to its similarities with Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, made three years later. Writer R. Wright Campbell's script enlists five convicts to go behind enemy lines for a secret mission, led by a British officer trying to regain his sense of personal honor. Corman signed up a quintet of name actors that, as the saying goes, were either on the way up or on the way down.
The show wastes no time and no photogenic location to get its story into gear. 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 whose motivation is a complete mystery. Mace trains his Flaky Five and sneaks them into the Balkans by boat, where they infiltrate a Nazi prison fortress in Dubrovnik. They escape with General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte), an Italian capable of rallying his Fascist troops to the Allied side. If the commandos can start a ruckus in the Balkans, they 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 four out of five critics with nothing better to do than pick through issues like this one agree that it's really a re-write of R. Wright Campbell's 1955 Five Guns West, Corman's first full directing job. That western works quite well transferred to a battlefront, and the basic formula would continue to be used 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; it's almost funny to think that only a few seasons earlier he made Atlas with a handful of extras, some togas and a tiny Greek ruin next to a freeway. Corman also has a couple of boats to pull off a quickie 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 claimed 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.
Producer Gene Corman got good value for his money. The action scenes do not skimp on pyrotechnics and the settings take full advantage of rugged hills, a beautiful town and a picturesque ancient fortress. Cameraman Arthur Arling gives the movie a good look in CinemaScope. Roger's direction is more efficient than it is artful, and his 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 surely enjoyed a handsome profit.
Stewart Granger had been in a career slide ever since leaving MGM and was reportedly incensed that The Secret Invasion couldn't give him the star treatment he'd become accustomed to. But the movie is a definite step up from some of the Italian co-productions he had been doing. He's all right, if uninspired; he apparently wasn't happy when Corman wouldn't reshape the movie into a Stewart Granger star vehicle. Raf Vallone has the most interesting part as a highly educated ex-gangster. He also reads the film's most painfully 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 the talented, underappreciated William Campbell (and the screenwriter's brother) gets a little technical help with his role as a master of disguises. Every time his Jean Saval impersonates somebody, his voice is dubbed. When Saval sneaks out of training by pretending to be a British officer (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 is pure Andy Hardy, but he compensates with some spirited commando action stuff, climbing rocks and dodging squib hits & 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: as David Cairns so memorably wrote, Silva is so mean that he can kill people with his cheekbones. The script gives his John Durrell some of the most dramatic scenes, including an unnecessarily heartless development that involves the death of a baby.
Corman dives right into this unsavory material, happily splashing stage blood over the dead and wounded. After establishing their existential detachment and asserting their cynical natures, most of the commandos end up sacrificing themselves in noble, selfless gestures. The inconsistency tells us that combat turns creeps into heroes.
The Secret Invasion ends in a fairly sophisticated twist. The surviving team members use the captured general against his will as a catalyst for rebellion, tricking the German-allied Italian troops into changing sides. The details are a bit forced, but it's a more accurate reflection of covert ops than depicted in the Robert Aldrich blockbuster, then still three years in the future. 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 introduces an intelligent idea or two.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Secret Invasion is a quantum improvement over the transfer on the old DVD. Colors are better and the granularity less, even in rushed scenes like the office interior that begins the film. 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. Cinematographer Arthur Arling was 57 or 58 while making this picture, running up and down Yugoslavian hills. He started around 1930 and made an impressive jump to features and Technicolor on 1946's The Yearling. That show and Captain from Castile seem to be his only distant location rough shoots.
The old DVD had no extras, Kino has come up with a brief but informative interview with director Corman, who praises his brother Gene and says that Stewart Granger was a good guy, even if he tried to puil a Big Star act on him. Roger has been much less generous with the actor in print. The original poster art on the box is especially impressive. Stewart Granger's gung-ho commandos must be extremely well trained -- four out of five can climb a thin rope while holding a weapon in one hand.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.