It was on this day in 1915 that the Kingdom of Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, officially entering the First World War.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
|Michael Rennie as Field Marshal Montgomery|
That scene over, we jump to El Alamein where General Bernard Law Montgomery (played by Michael Rennie) arrives to take command of the British Eighth Army, full of confidence and a determination to never retreat. He emphasizes to his officers that there will be no more retreated, that all such plans are to be burned and that they will stand fast until victory. A great deal of credit has to go Michael Rennie who plays the part to perfection. It is not an extremely large part, serving mostly to give the audience an overview of the battle from the Allied perspective, but Rennie plays it well and bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Marshal Montgomery. In fact, at first glance, I thought the picture on the DVD cover was an historical photo of the actual Montgomery when, on closer inspection, it is actually a still of Michael Rennie from the movie. A little less convincing is French actor Robert Hossein as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel but only because he seems a bit too young and a bit overly-romanticized, Hossein still does a good job with the part. Rommel is complaining of his supply difficulties to Italian Marshal Bastico who, in turn, points out the Allied attacks on their convoys in spite of promised German protection. Rommel is portrayed in the best possible way but, as is usual with these types of movies, there is always one, troublesome officer who is a dedicated Nazi and here that is General Schwartz who plots to have Rommel invalided out of Egypt when he refuses to launch an attack on the British.
|Marshal Bastico and Marshal Rommel confer|
It is made known to the audience that the southern end of the Axis line will be a key point and it will be held (in part) by the unit we meet next, the Italian Folgore Division. Sgt. Borri shows up at the Folgore camp to meet his brother Lt. Giorgio Borri (played by Frederick Stafford) who is portrayed as being rather arrogant and who is anxious to be a war hero. However, his stubborn nature gets a man killed when he refuses to listen to his veteran brother and have his men dig in. Because of this, the men start to dislike the lieutenant, viewing him as caring more for glory and his career than their lives. Moving on, the British discover a German ruse; dummies and fake guns giving the impression of a fortified line. Despite taking brutal measures against a German party that shows up, the Axis forces learn that the British are on to their trick. So, when the British advance on the area they run right into the Folgore Division rather than a collection of dummies. The Italians decimate them and Lt. Borri captures a British general, earning an Iron Cross from the Germans but the bitterness of his men as one of their comrades was killed saving the lieutenant while he had his moment of glory.
|Claudio and Giorgio Borri, two brothers at the front|
Later on Sgt. Borri and a few of his Bersaglieri join the Folgore Division and the two brothers take part in a joint patrol with the Germans. One German is wounded and left by his comrades, however, the Italian brothers go back for him. Giorgio (the lieutenant) is wounded and captured making a stand so that Claudio and the injured German can escape. While in captivity he meets the humane British lieutenant Graham who impresses him, but he does finally escape and it seems the ordeal was rather good for him. He brings some captured food back to his men and from that time on becomes a much more selfless and sympathetic character. Meanwhile the British launch a suicidal attack to get a false map of the minefields into enemy hands. Lt. Graham (played by George Hilton) volunteers to lead the mission and is killed in the process which distressed Lt. Borri. The ruse, however, works. Despite the skepticism of some, General Georg Stumme (played by Giuseppe Addobbati) commanding in the absence of Rommel, orders an attack based on this false information and the tanks of the Afrika Korps roll right into a trap and are decimated by British artillery fire. While this is going on we get an odd interlude of Rommel, on sick leave, talking with the anti-Nazi head of military intelligence Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Both agree that Hitler needs to go before Rommel learns of the disaster in Egypt and is recalled to Africa.
|Folgore troopers holding off the British|
British guns launch a massive barrage to weaken the Axis defenses prior to their final attack. While under heavy fire, Claudio has a bugler play a tune (mirroring a scene in the opening of the movie) and gets the men to sing to boost morale and get their minds off impending death. Meanwhile, Rommel returns to HQ and, contrary to orders from Hitler, decides to retreat, using the Ramcke battle group, along with the Italian units of the Folgore Division and the Ariete Armored Division to stand fast and cover the retreat of the rest of the army, though it is mentioned that the other Italian units have no transportation and will surely be lost in the process. Sgt. Maj. Borri is ordered to pull out with his Bersaglieri, which he does reluctantly as his brother and the rest of the Folgore troopers prepare for their last stand. This takes up the climax of the movie as the British launch their final attack, which is held off by the men of the Folgore Division with desperate courage. Italian tanks arrive to give support but are hopelessly outmatched at which point the Folgore men, having literally fought to the last bullet, attack the British tanks with Molotov cocktails.
|Attacking a British tank with a land mine|
Finally, after wiping out all armored opposition, a sandstorm prompts Montgomery to recall his forces. Lt. Borri and his company are still hanging on but there are practically alone. So, he gives his men the choice to stay and fight with him or to surrender. He and those with him collect land mines and some dynamite to hold out as long as possible. His brother Claudio, learns that the rest of the army has retreated or been wiped out and rushes back by motorcycle to tell his brother and presumably persuade him to leave. So, he is there when the remnants of the Folgore Division fight to the last, taking out several more British tanks with little more than their bare hands. The lieutenant will not leave of course and is killed in one of the last poignant scenes. His brother and a handful of survivors are taken prisoner by the British and each salute each other out of mutual respect for their fighting ability. The End.
|Montgomery and the British top brass|
That last little bit of gallantry was actually true to life. The British and other Allied witnesses noted the extreme heroism of the Italian forces in holding out against impossible odds. “The Battle of El Alamein” is a pretty simple but effective war movie, especially showcasing the courage of the Italian airborne troops. It gives a good and mostly accurate overview of the whole battle while focusing on the sector of the Folgore Division. The centrality of the two brothers helps to humanize the struggle going on and, as far as history goes, it is pretty accurate aside from some mistakes like British armored vehicles that are clearly not of World War II vintage and some uniforms that are not precisely correct but nothing major. Although it had a limited budget, probably thanks to help from the Italian army, the movie still has an epic feel to it with major, large-scale battle scenes featuring many infantrymen and lots of tanks. The actors all do a pretty good job, some even giving excellent performances. The only complaint I have is that a better transfer is not available for this classic. The DVD I have is really ‘bare bones’ with no extras, no scene selection and looks to be just a transfer from VHS. The one I have is dubbed in English and there is no option for subtitles but that was not an issue for me. This movie should have a better DVD release with the picture quality cleaned up and refined with modern methods. Still, it is not the worst transfer I have ever seen and for anyone interested in the Italian army or World War II in North Africa it is definitely worth a look.
|Two enemies salute|
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Ferdinando II and become Queen of the Two-Sicilies. She was still a teenager when the engagement was agreed to in 1830 and the local aristocracy in Turin held a magnificent engagement party for her. Onlookers remarked on how lovely the young princess of Savoy looked with her large deep eyes, light complexion and thick dark hair, charmingly shy and reserved. The princess had to be a little nervous about the marriage, not only because she was leaving her family for the first time but also because there was not a great deal she had in common with her husband-to-be.
Yet, though she had almost no one close to her for company, Queen Maria Cristina was greatly loved by the ordinary people of the Two-Sicilies who were charmed by her demure beauty, kindness and sympathized with her for the way she was treated by her seemingly cold and indifferent husband. In fact, at times he seemed to delight in offending her, whether by his vulgar language or having dancers perform in their underwear. Originally quite popular as a “man of the people” the public reputation of Ferdinando II suffered both by the perception of how he treated his wife as well as the violent suppression of any calls for constitutional government (hence his eventual nickname of ‘King Bomb’). But Queen Maria Cristina was always adored because of the care and compassion she showed toward her adopted country and because of how she endured her less than ideal life, with patience and pious devotion.
Francesco II, and complications soon set in. Her condition deteriorated rapidly and only five days later she passed away on January 21, 1836. She was buried in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Naples, the King married again in less than a year and his new wife would be the major influence on the life of little Francesco II. Nonetheless, as a boy he was always taught to honor the memory of his late mother, who had died bringing him into the world, as the ‘saintly queen’ or ‘holy queen’. He would be the last King of the Two-Sicilies and after he had lost his throne and was living in exile he began to push for the Church to take up the cause of his late mother. Her pious reputation was such that there was great support for it and in 1872 Pope Pius IX recognized her status as a Servant of God. The cause continued to progress and on May 6, 1937 Pope Pius XI recognized the Queen as a Venerable Servant of God and, most recently, on May 3, 2013 Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to her intercession, opening the way for her to be beatified, the last step on the road to canonization as a saint.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
King Ferdinando II of the Two-Sicilies, part of the Spanish Royal Family, annoyed the British by siding with Don Carlos. They were also concerned by the growing discontent in the Two-Sicilies and the increasing support for a republican revolution. Why were the British or French concerned at all? What was Sicily to them? The answer, of course, was that Sicily was right next to the British naval bastion of Malta and straddled the main seaway to the Suez Canal which was just starting to be built the year before Garibaldi and his men landed at Marsala. The French and British were therefore greatly concerned about any unrest that might disturb this enterprise upon which so much of global commerce was to depend. The British even sent warships to encourage the Neapolitan navy to stay away while Garibaldi and his men were landing (once the troops had disembarked the Neapolitans destroyed one ship and captured the other).
Garibaldi captured Palermo and his ranks slowly grew as locals volunteered to join him. The Neapolitan army also had a problem with desertion. A key element was the local aristocracy who responded in various ways to the crisis, none of them very helpful to Francesco II. Some fled the island immediately as soon as Garibaldi landed and these were those most supportive of the Bourbon monarchy. Obviously, they would be no help. Most, however, considered the cause of Francesco II lost and decided to make common cause with Garibaldi who promised to respect their rights and privileges. This would later cause a degree of rebellion and banditry by those peasants who felt Garibaldi had sold them out by not tearing down the aristocracy completely and redistributing their lands. King Ferdinando II had shown that he would do whatever was necessary to maintain his rule, be it promising a constitution only to revoke it later or shooting down rebels and shelling entire cities to rubble. If he had still been around things might have been different but few had confidence that Francesco II was made of such tough stuff. The pragmatic types looked at the situation and reasoned that the Bourbons were doomed and their only options for the future would be a united Italy ruled by Giuseppe Mazzini and his radical republicans or a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Vittorio Emanuele II. Mazzini was unthinkable so these invariably suppressed their distaste for Garibaldi and supported his red shirt army to maintain the existing social order.
In a last, desperate effort to avoid disaster and win back popular support, King Francesco II issued a constitution in June but it was to no avail. After the “now you see it, now you don’t” constitutions of his father, very few people were prepared to believe that the King was serious about constitutional government and simply ignored him. More volunteers joined Garibaldi though the Neapolitan army still had some sizeable garrisons on the island. In July Garibaldi captured Milazzo with 5,000 men after the overall Neapolitan commander refused to reinforce the garrison there. His caution did him no good and a few days later he surrendered Messina to Garibaldi by which time it was the rebels who held a significant numerical advantage and the remaining garrisons surrendered quickly. Throwing caution to the wind (and alarming the government in Turin) Garibaldi wasted no time and transferred his forces over to the mainland at Calabria. After that, a string of victories ensued as many Neapolitan forces deserted, some even joining the red shirts and most of those who did offer resistance did so with little support or coordination. The army and navy seemed to melt away, King Francesco II fled Naples and made his last stand at Gaeta.