Let me put it out there. I’m not the biggest fan of Spaghetti Westerns. I know, I know. I respect their importance, their place in the pantheon of film history. I enjoy the motifs and the elements that show up in the films they inspire. And I love Westerns. I love John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Clint Eastwood. I love the genres that have been fortified and improved by Spaghetti Westerns; the Samurai films, the Noirs, yadda yadda.
It could be the slow pace of the Leone Italian Oaters; the extreme camera moves, the overwrought performances, the endless looks and raised eyebrows and terrible dubbing that test my patience. I don’t hate them. I just don’t love them.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD release of the 1969 Spaghetti Western, The Five Man Army. The DVD cover hypes, even “celebrates” the very cheesiness of this lost “gem” starring, of all people, Mission Impossible’s Peter Graves. But as always, you shouldn’t judge a DVD by its packaging.
The Five Man Army actually is a lost gem, and it deserves attention even if you’re not a fan of the genre. Interestingly, as much as it tries to emulate the Spaghetti Western tropes, it’s really not one. It’s shot in English, as a good portion of the dialogue is production audio by the original actors; quite a departure from the Italian westerns that have all been re-dubbed. It’s directed by Hollywood workhorse Don Taylor, whose massive resume runs the gamut; from TV’s The Rifleman and Cannon, to Escape from the Planet of the Apes and The Omen II. It’s produced by Italo Zingarelli and written by, of all people, Dario Argento, before he put Italian psychedelic thrillers on the map. The score by Ennio Morricone is probably what makes it feel the most like a Spaghetti Western, and for me, is the weakest part of the movie. Other critics have written about how great the score is, but to me, feels like a complete retread of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, complete with pipe whistles, a grunting male chorus, surf guitar, and even a variation on that iconic melody.
The plot is direct and familiar. In Mexico, wanted man Luis Dominguez approaches three men; Mesito the strong man, Nicholas Augustus; explosives expert and Samurai, a Japanese, um…Samurai. Dominguez tells them that the “Dutchman” (Peter Graves) wants them for a job. They drop whatever they’re doing to meet up. Once the five are assembled, it’s revealed they’ve all worked with the Dutchman on different occasions, so they never knew each other. Dutch needs them to help him rob a train filled with gold. Their job is financed by a revolutionary, and the gold is meant to fund the war machine. With the team assembled, we learn more about them and their past as they prepare for the job. We also learn Dominguez was once part of a family acrobat team. Like a Western Superfriends, they all bring unique gifts to the operation.
The second half of the film is taken up with the robbery; and it is by no means cliché. This is an exciting, inventive and unique heist both in plotting and execution. Most of it’s shot aboard the moving train; with some harrowing stunts performed by the actors themselves. The final act has some unexpected twists that still deliver a surprising payoff. The end may feel a little too pat, but the story has worked so hard to get you there, you can almost forgive the heavy-handedness.
The mashup of Samurai action, gunplay, suspense and comedy all work hand in hand to deliver a quick and satisfying 105 minutes. Whether you appreciate Italian Westerns, or enjoy leaner Hollywood storytelling, The Five Man Army is worth the enlistment of your time.