May 2021

La Battaglia di El Alamein/The Battle of El Alamein (1969)

DIRECTOR: Giorgio Ferroni


Frederick Stafford, Enrico Maria Salerno, Robert Hossein, Michael Rennie, George Hilton, Gerard Herter, Marco Guglielmi


We don’t usually hear much about the Italians in WWII; the Germans and Japanese were considered the big guns on the Axis side, with the Italians kind of tagging along. The main reason for this is that there simply isn’t much to say. The Italian armed forces performed poorly, hindered by a corrupt and inefficient High Command, a lazy and incompetent officer corps, a serious lack of modern equipment, and common soldiers who often simply didn’t have much enthusiasm for Mussolini, Hitler, or Fascism. While Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were officially equal allies, it was the German side calling the shots and for that matter doing most of the work; Italy was just kind of there. While the triumphant British and Americans were busily churning out WWII flicks through the 1950s and 1960s, being on the losing side and having performed dismally didn’t give the Italian film industry much interest in revisiting the war, and when they did, they usually featured American characters as the heroes. However, there was the odd Italian unit that fought well (the Italian Navy’s elite frogmen pioneered underwater commando tactics), including the Folgore Division, which Giorgio Ferroni obviously deemed worthy of cinematic treatment. 1969’s The Battle of El Alamein was something rare: an Italian effort to portray a major campaign of WWII with a level of seriousness, as the British and Americans did with such epics as The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. Keep in mind though, that this is the Italian B-movie answer to the British or American war epic, complete with some bad dubbing and a low budget. If you go into it expecting something on the same level of production values as The Longest Day, you’re in for disappointment, but those willing to overlook the quotient of unintentional goofiness that’s to be expected from Italian B-movies might find a somewhat crude and unsophisticated but entertaining war flick.

1942: After chasing the British for five hundred miles across North Africa, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Robert Hossein) has finally been halted, his men exhausted and his petrol run out, allowing the British to build their strength at their position at El Alamein in Egypt. The newly-appointed General Montgomery (Michael Rennie) vows that he’ll now be the one doing the chasing. Meanwhile, we meet our central characters, Giorgio Borri (Frederick Stafford), a stern and by-the-book officer of the Folgore Division attached to Rommel’s German Afrika Korps, and his older brother Claudio (Enrico Maria Salerno), a gruff, experienced officer from the Ariete Division who annoys Giorgio by taking every opportunity to drop by and offer unsolicited advice. Through the desert warfare, Giorgio comes to appreciate having Claudio by his side, until Montgomery breaks through the Axis lines and they are forced to hold their position against a massive onslaught of British tanks in a desperate climactic battle.

Considering that this is an Italian B-movie, the viewer must take several things into account. Firstly, the film is dubbed. Frederick Stafford is dubbed quite well for the most part, at times barely noticeably, but the dubbing is pretty dodgy for some of the others, especially Robert Hossein and George Hilton. Secondly, it is not as polished or sophisticated as its American or British counterparts would be, and considering the bottom-of-the-barrel budgets of 1960s Italian war films, it isn’t really a fair comparison. The dialogue can be hokey at times, but not really much worse than what can be found in plenty of American war flicks of the ’50s and ’60s, and there are a few intentionally amusing moments, such as when the unpopular Giorgio is heading back toward base after escaping from a British prisoner-of-war camp, and two of his men watching him approach consider “mistaking” him for an enemy soldier. By the standards of its genre, it makes a reasonable effort toward historical accuracy, although the brisk 96-minute running time, low budget, and focus on the Italian soldiers greatly oversimplifies the actual Battle of El Alamein, giving the impression it all happened over the course of a few days and basically consisted of Montgomery breaking through the German and Italian lines.  Anyone wanting to learn in detail about the broader operation won’t do it here.  The Italian perspective also means we’re seeing WWII portrayed from a slant we’re not used to. Unsurprisingly, the Italians are the courageous heroes (in fairness, the Folgore was one of the few Italian units which actually made a distinguished name for itself in combat), the British are the “villains”, and Rommel is portrayed probably the most objectively as not really a good guy or a bad guy; he’s just a professional military man who’s out to get the job done, concerned with nothing but saving his Afrika Korps. The script also throws in a dubious scene in which the British don’t take prisoners (Africa was actually about the only theater in which WWII was fought where virtually no war crimes occurred on either side), tempered somewhat by throwing in a token gung-ho Nazi, the fictional General Schwarz (Gerard Herter), who annoys Rommel. But if the film is slanted a little against the British, it at least doesn’t demonize them en masse. Giorgio is (briefly) taken prisoner and has an encounter with the chivalrous Lt. Graham (George Hilton), who challenges his prejudices by treating him with consideration and respect, a meeting that later has a poignantly ironic payoff when their paths cross again. In fact, the script’s only really scathing jabs are reserved for Montgomery, who’s portrayed even more unflatteringly than in the next year’s Patton as a cold, preening, arrogant, and egotistical martinet. Unsurprisingly considering how it worked out for them, the Italians don’t portray war as a glorious adventure, instead as a rather bleak affair where common soldiers’ fates are decided by the decisions of the Generals. Montgomery cares about nothing but his own triumph, Rommel cares about nothing but his Afrika Korps, and the Borris care about nothing but survival. Like every German WWII film ever made, the Italians’ depiction of WWII is decidedly, and understandably, anti-war.

The acting ranges from fair to good. Frederick Stafford is a solid lead as the uptight Giorgio, who grows more comradely with both Claudio and his men as they endure British attacks together and Enrico Maria Salerno is also good as the more experienced, grizzled veteran Claudio. While the Borri brothers are the core of the film, Rommel and Montgomery also get plenty of attention. Despite being way too tall, Michael Rennie is fine as the insufferable Montgomery, and despite a rather dark complexion that makes him somewhat physically ill-suited to a German General, and bad dubbing, Robert Hossein is excellent as Rommel, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense military man interested only in plain simple facts with no patience for Schwarz’s political rhetoric, and frustrated with his own High Command. In fact, while James Mason in The Desert Fox is much better-known, Hossein’s attitude fits much more with my image of Rommel: rough-tongued, decisive, and ruthlessly pragmatic. The movie puts a bit of emphasis on Rommel’s disdain for the Italians, which is a historically accurate detail; in fairness to Rommel, the Germans had some justification for being sick of pulling their ally’s weight for them, but the Italians got a raw deal at El Alamein, with the Folgore Division sacrificed to hold back the British while the bulk of the Afrika Korps made good its retreat, and the Germans hoarding the transportation, leaving the Italians to fend for themselves on foot, where many of them ended up being captured by the British. Gerard Herter is fine as the stock character of the gung-ho Nazi who says things like “the Führer would not be happy to hear Field Marshal Rommel proposing to lead a retreat!”, the kind of character that in a higher-profile movie would be played by Anton Diffring or Günter Meisner.

The Battle of El Alamein was made with the full cooperation of the Italian army and filmed on location in Egypt, and despite its budget limitations, it makes an effort that’s a little more ambitious than most B-movies. There is one laughable scene featuring remote-controlled toy tanks that look ridiculous, but the rest of the time it features lots of real tanks, and while it uses modern armored personnel carriers as stand-ins for British Bren carriers, it also uses rare authentic WWII Italian tanks in the climactic battle. There is also some risky stunt work as Italian soldiers jump onto the moving tanks to plant explosives, leaping on and off and rolling out of the way of the treads at the last minute. The desolate desert environment is well-depicted. The landscape looks barren and scorching, and everyone looks miserably hot; there is a notable sequence in which Giorgio forces a soldier to run in a circle in full uniform for being caught stealing more than his share of the precious water supply. Also memorable, if perhaps a little too mustache-twirly, is a scene in which Montgomery is sitting at headquarters being shaved and reciting a pretentiously dramatic speech while his men are going into battle. The central storyline of the Borri brothers is well-developed and makes for an affecting climax. If you give it a chance and take into account a limited budget, a dubbed cast, and a different tone from what you’re probably used to, The Battle of El Alamein is an entertaining war film with plenty of effective scenes from a rarely shown viewpoint. Appreciate it for what it is, not for what it’s not.