THE DIRTY HEROES (1967)
Alberto de Martino
Frederick Stafford, Daniela Bianchi, Curd Jurgens, John Ireland, Adolfo Celi, Michel Constantin, Anthony Dawson, Tom Felleghy, Max Tarilli.
Throughout the late-1960s, Italian directors cranked a number of low-budget action flicks, attempting to cash in on the success of “The Dirty Dozen” and other blockbuster Hollywood war films. While “The Dirty Heroes” sounds like a cheap imitation, it’s actually one the most engaging war action films to come out of Europe in the late 1960s. This is credited to professionalism all-around, from the ensemble cast to the expert crew behind-the-scenes.
The plot is a bit complicated and has several twists throughout. Sesame (Frederick Stafford) and Randall (Howard Ross) are two Allied bomber crewman who are shot down in Holland. It’s purely coincidence that their old friend Petrowski (Michel Constantine), a German guard who’s actually loyal to the Allies, is a camp guard, and helps them escape. The three team up with Rollman (Adolfo Celi) and plot to heist Dutch diamonds from a safe in the bowels of Wehrmacht Headquarters. But they need help getting inside, so they enlist Kristina von Keist (Daniela Bianchi), wife of General von Keist (Curd Jurgens), who turns about to be a Jew and has to choose whether to help the partisans or withdraw from the plan to save herself. To complicate matters, Von Keist has no idea of his wife’s true identity, and is already being hounded by a vicious SS General (Helmuth Schneider).
With a script by six writers, it’s no surprise that the plot is so complicated. What’s amazing is that all of these details, and more, work together perfectly to create a brilliantly crafted story an incredibly fast pace. You never know whose side each character is on. Are the good guys really do-gooders, or are they the “dirty heroes” the title alludes to? There are several conflicts going on here, and it’s amazing that they never become confusing and contradictory.
The movie relies on performances and fleshed-out characters to drive the action, which is part of the reason it works so well. Frederick Stafford is excellent, as usual. He makes Sesame a flesh-and-blood character, whose only ambition is greed – until he meets Kristina and becomes wrapped up in a cause he doesn’t necessarily want to be part of. Stafford is one of my favorite actors in this genre, because he always has unconventional leading roles and makes his character into a sympathetic, dimensional human being. Daniela Bianchi is equally great as Kristina, the woman who has to make a difficult moral decision. Unfortunately, the character falls to pieces in the final act, where her substantial part is reduced to sappy love interest and she’s given little to do. As General von Keist, Curd Jurgens (“The Enemy Below”) is easily the most developed character in the film. He is trying to do a tough job and save as many lives as he can, because he knows defeat of the Third Reich is imminent. Von Keist is uncharacteristically sympathetic – he is shown to make truces with partisans to prevent massacres of his own troops and civilian casualties.
The supporting characters give the leads plenty of extra juice. John Ireland seems to be enjoying himself as Captain O’Connor, an American pilot who gets conned into helping the “heroes” heist the diamonds. Adolfo Celi is great fun as Rollman, the Dutch partisan whose loyalties and motives are questionable until the final act. He gets to be physically active in his role, dispatching Germans with a machine-gun, swimming through canals to escape PT Boats, and more. Helmuth Schneider (“Is Paris Burning?”) has a very effective, if typical, role as General Hassler, a vicious SS officer. Hassler and Von Keist provide a moral conflict against the backdrop of the greater plot, and the two opponents face off in the final act, kicking off a complicated plot resolution.
Director Alberto de Martino knows his craft. By 1967, he’d already directed several gladiator films and some excellent spy movies along the lines of James Bond adventures. Therefore, “The Dirty Heroes” has an appropriate epic look and always feels a little bit like a spy movie. The location photography is superb. The sets are expansive – the Wehrmacht headquarters, Partisan encampment and American airfield all look and feel real in every shot. De Martino captures the scope of some truly massive battle scenes in the final act, complete with hundreds of extras and several tanks. But he isn’t afraid to take the camera into front lines, either, giving the audience a personal connection to the action right along with the main characters. The music score, written cooperatively by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, is quite possibly one the best scores ever written for a war film, by the two greatest Italian composers who ever lived.
Don’t let all my praise fool you, though. For everything the writers did right, the roots of the story manage to be muddled and confusing, and there are plenty of poorly explained scenes. For example, in one key sequence, for convenience’s sake, O’Connor’s plane transforms from a transport to a bomber. And, as usual, the German SS forces don't seem to have brains -- they stand up and charge entrenched infantry who effortlessly mow them down. And, just how do all these American con-men manage to get reunited right in the middle of the war? It’s ridiculous to assume that Sesame and Randall wound up imprisoned together, and that Petrowski just happened to be stationed at their POW camp. The nearby presence of their old pal O’Connor simply adds insult to injury. Well, this is all forgivable in the end, because one is expected overlook these little details and just get into the plot.
“The Dirty Heroes” is one of the most entertaining and most original war films to come out of the 1960s. The action sequences are stunningly staged, and the story is both engaging and suspenseful. The flaws can be ignored; the story is pure escape at its best.
SGT. SLAUGHTER'S RATING: