Wednesday, May 22, 2013

MM Movie Review: The Battle of El Alamein

“La battaglia di El Alamein” is a 1969 Franco-Italian movie about one of the most famous and pivotal battles of the Second World War with an emphasis on the heroic stand of the Italian Folgore airborne division. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni and written by Remigio Del Grosso and Ernesto Gastaldi it starred Frederick Stafford, George Hilton and Michael Rennie. Actually there were other actors who had larger roles but, for whatever reason, those three received top billing. The film wastes no time in getting to the action, the only background being a brief prologue text which states, “June 1942. As Gen. Erwin Rommel swept toward the Nile, the fall of Egypt and the capture of the Suez Canal seemed inevitable. Italian and German advance units raced toward Alexandria. Benito Mussolini had given explicit orders: The Italians must arrive first!” With that we take up with a column of trucks carrying a troop of Bersaglieri as they race across Egypt to make a junction with the Germans. While trying to pass through a gap in a minefield the convoy is attacked by the British. Despite some daring and heroic efforts by Sergeant Major Claudio Borri (played by Enrico Maria Salerno) they are thwarted by the superior firepower of the British after taking heavy losses. This opening scene, as well as introducing us to Sgt.Maj. Borri, lets the audience know what we are in for; action, heroism and tragedy which will mark the rest of the movie.
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


  1. I just watched this movie with a friend and we were both pleasantly suprised at just how good a movie it is, all things considered. The only thing that really bothered me was the use of M113 APCs (I am used to seeing M48 Pattons serving as Panzers). I was very impressed to see an actual Semovente SPG and an M13/40 light tank though. Altogether a good movie to watch and your review sums it up very fairly.

    1. I agree, non-period tanks are something history buff movie viewers are used to but the APC's were jarring as they were not only not correct to the period but also employed as though they were battle tanks, which was just odd all around. Still, as you say, it was a pleasant surprise to see (briefly) a few actual, period-correct Italian tanks which is rare as not many survived the war.