Nicholas Diak / June 25, 2018
When it comes to Italian genre filmmakers, Antonio Margheriti is perhaps the underdog when compared to the likes of Dario Argento, Sergio Leone, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. His 1963 gothic masterpiece, Castle of Blood, may be his most revered film, but it’s certainly overshadowed by the work of other Italian genre directors. Sean Spillane of the now defunct Bitter Cinema website summed up Margheriti succinctly: “Even among genre fans, Italian director Antonio Margheriti’s name provokes little, if any, recognition.” This lack of recognition is rather tragic, especially in light of Margheriti’s many contributions to Italian genre cinema. Like many other Italian directors, Margheriti, who operated under the pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson for a majority of his career, worked in a variety of genres: he almost single-handedly established the Italian space and sci-fi genre with his Gamma One quadrilogy, while also helming Spaghetti Westerns, gothic horrors, pepla, gialli, and Eurospy films.
During the 1980s, nearly half of Margheriti’s filmmaking output was focused on “men-on-a-mission” films. These films shared commonalities with the Macaroni Combat genre, the Italian take on war films, which includes titles such as Enzo G. Castellari’s Eagles Over London (1969) and Joe D’Amato’s Heroes in Hell (1973). However, the men-on-a-mission genre is not always beholden to wartime narratives: oftentimes these films focused on small groups of specialized men (or even a single individual) that were usually mercenaries or special forces agents on clandestine missions such as busting narcotics operations, rescuing hostages, or leading small rebellions. As with his sci-fi films of the ‘60s, Margheriti would carve himself a niche in this genre during the ’80s, churning out seven films: Tiger Joe (1982), Tornado (1983), Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), Commando Leopard (1985), The Commander (1988), and Indio (1989) and its sequel, Indio 2: The Revolt (1991). In addition, he directed The Last Hunter (1980), a Vietnam War film (the first by an Italian director) that mixed Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978), and Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), which contains a Vietnamese combat scene. These films make up a significant portion of Margheriti’s filmography, yet they remain as unappreciated as the director himself.
This essay is going to examine three of Margheriti’s men-on-a-mission films: Code Name: Wild Geese, Commando Leopard, and The Commander. All three were produced by Swiss filmmaker Erwin C. Dietrich and starred Englishman Lewis Collins in the lead role, thus becoming a loose trilogy of sorts. None of the three films are canonical story-wise to each other, yet they share major commonalities in regards to production. The German presence is strong in all three films: Manfred Lehmann, Klaus Kinksi, Hans Leutenegger, Frank Glaubrecht, Thomas Danneberg, and others appear in supporting roles. Margheriti regulars John Steiner and Luciano Pigozzi make appearances as well. By this time, Margheriti had moved to the Philippines, so both the jungle setting and Pilipino extras are prominent. This production uniformity provides a microcosm within Margheriti’s mercenary films that is perfect for analysis. First, I will provide a quick plot summation of each film in the Margheriti-Dietrich-Collins trilogy. Second, I will look at how these movies both conform to and subvert ‘80s action genre conventions. And finally, I will address how these films are situated in Italian genre cinema canon.
Code Name: Wild Geese (an obvious nod to The Wild Geese , which was also produced by Dietrich) has Collins starring as Captain Robin Wesley, a tough-as-nails mercenary who runs his men through grueling training exercises. He and his men are contracted by DEA Agent Fletcher (Ernest Borgnine) via a mutual friend, businessman Walter Brenner (Hartmut Neugebauer), to raid a drug operation in Thailand. Wesley and his mercenaries rendezvous with local guerrillas, infiltrate a quarry, and commandeer a helicopter so that they can attack General Khan’s (Protacio Dee) opium operation. In the process, they rescue a drug-addled reporter, Kathy (Mimsy Farmer), take refuge in a mission run by a priest (Pigozzi), and demolish a cargo train full of drugs. During a last push against General Khan’s base of operations, Charlton (Kinski), who had been working with Wesley and Brenner, arrives and reveals his treacherous side. It is only after Wesley attaches a flamethrower to a helicopter piloted by China (Lee Van Cleef) that they are able to incinerate Khan’s soldiers, along with Charlton, and make their escape.
Commando Leopard moves the action south to an unnamed, fictional South American country ran by a dictator, President Homoza (Subas Herrero). Collins is Captain Carrasco, who leads a group of mercenaries and freedom fighters against Homoza. Carrasco carries out a variety of missions against the despot: first by destroying a hydroelectric dam, then by destroying a pontoon bridge erected at the site of the dam, and finally by destroying an oil refinery. At one point, Carrasco is framed for destroying an airplane full of children in an attempt to turn public support away from him. This has little effect, and the accumulation of Carrasco’s victories causes Homoza to flee the country, leaving Silveira (Kinski), the head of the secret police, to lead one final assault on Carrasco’s men.
The final film, The Commander, returns to mercenary work in southeast Asia with Collins as Major Colby, an elite gun for hire. Colby and his men are hired by drug-lord Colonel Mazzarini (Van Cleef) to go into Cambodia and put a stop to General Dong’s (Dee) drug and weapons operations. Colby’s group is infiltrated by Hickok (Manfred Lehmann), a CIA agent who has undergone plastic surgery to look like Mason, a past acquaintance of Colby’s. Hickok’s goal is to retrieve a CD-ROM that contains a list of CIA agent identities. After multiple instances of double crosses while traversing the jungles of Thailand into Cambodia, Colby and Hickok manage to destroy Dong’s operations, retrieve the disc (repeatedly referred to as a floppy), and outwit Mazzarini by blowing up his yacht.
The ‘80s as a whole saw an explosion of both big and low budget martial action films. Late-game Cold War-era narratives were prominent, taking place in a variety of locales, such as the Middle East (1987’s Death Before Dishonor), Africa (1986’s Delta Force), and even south Asia (1988’s Rambo III). Some films even took place stateside with Vietnam vets assuming a vigilante role, as in The Exterminator (1980), Rolling Thunder (1977), and Taxi Driver (1976). Of interest to Margheriti’s Collins-Dietrich trilogy are the “return-to-Vietnam” films and the Latin American action films that fall under the Cold War action film umbrella.
With the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 and the eventual fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, the American policy of halting Communist expansion into South Vietnam had effectively failed. The Vietnam War was officially over, and America was not the victor. In a revisionist history stance, if perhaps given one more shot at Vietnam, would America be victorious? The various return-to-Vietnam narratives represent precisely that fantasy. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos) is the most well-known example of this type of film: it has John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) returning to Vietnam to photograph a POW camp, and, in the process, he winds up rescuing the POWs. Other films of this ilk followed suit, such as the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films and Cannon’s various Ninja and American Ninja films (with many of them taking place in a variety of other Asian countries as a proxies for Vietnam).
While struggling to deal with post-Vietnam woes, America also tended to conflicts and on-going conflagrations in Latin America. Aside from President Reagan launching the War on Drugs that targeted countries south of the border, the U.S. aided Contra rebels in Nicaragua, supported the government of El Salvador during its civil war, invaded the Caribbean island of Granada in 1983, and invaded Panama in 1989. This was a continuation of a trend of American involvement in Latin America in the decades prior, such as assisting in overthrowing President Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala (1954) and President João Goulart of Brazil (1964) in a military coup d’état, and aiding the Colombian military in its conflicts with leftist guerrillas. American action films of the ’80s that dealt with Western perceptions of Latin American tensions and anxieties are plentiful: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990), Commando (1985), Predator (1987), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), and Latino (1985), to name a few.
At a cursory glance, the Margheriti-Dietrich-Collins trilogy emulates these films quite well, with Code Name: Wild Geese and The Commander falling into the return-to-Vietnam camp and Commando Leopard into the Latin American action film camp. Margheriti’s proficiency at emulating the American action formula was noticed in the November 20, 1985 issue of Variety, with the reviewer (“Lor”) noting that Margheriti’s mercenary film Tornado “comes off credibly as an American-style film” and “has only a minimum of clichés, understandably taken from hits The Deer Hunter and First Blood.” This descriptor of Tornado is applicable to the Margheriti-Dietrich-Collins trilogy as well. The jungle action, coupled with explosions and gunplay, rogue generals turning to illegal operations, and the freeing of POWs are found in everything from the Rambo sequels to the Missing in Action films. Margheriti copied the formula and realized the action sequences on a micro budget, usually via his trademark miniature models, such as the exploding plane in Commando Leopard and the car driving on the side of the tunnel in Code Name: Wild Geese.
By copying the formula and integrating into the ‘80s action film arena, Margheriti’s films become indistinguishable from the likes of Rambo, Missing in Action, American Ninja, and others. Thus, they seemingly reinforce American value narratives: retroactive victories in Vietnam and Latin America. Yet, at closer inspection, the three Margheriti films actually subvert genre expectations: none of the actions and victories carried out in the films are achieved by Americans, let alone American military personnel. John Rambo and James Braddock (Chuck Norris’s character in Missing in Action), Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff’s character in American Ninja), and others are all former or current United States military men, oftentimes still acting in an official (though clandestine) capacity. However, the various roles of Collins and his men (be it mercenaries or guerrillas) are all non-American and not part of any American military branch.
In Wild Geese and The Commander, Collins is a British mercenary leader, his men of various backgrounds (mostly German), with a minor exception being the character Hickok, who is part German and part related to “Wild Bill” Hickok. In Wild Geese, the DEA is unable to thwart the opium operation, so it must subcontract out to Wesley and his mercenaries. In The Commander, it’s Colby, under the employ of another drug baron, who successfully halts the drug operations of General Dong in Cambodia—it is not an American operation. In Commando Leopard, it isn’t undercover CIA operatives supporting the rebels who overthrow the dictatorship, but Carrasco, a native from an unidentified South American country, along with Scottish mercenary Anrade (John Steiner).
For these films, the statement isn’t simply that the Americans cannot accomplish the task at hand, but rather that any American involvement at all will lead to either treachery or disastrous results. In both The Commander and Code Name: Wild Geese, Americans are the source of treachery to Collins’ characters and their respective missions. In Code Name: Wild Geese, Wesley, while destroying a narcotics laboratory, happens upon a 5.25” floppy. Viewing the contents, he realizes it is a list of buyers of drugs, which includes his friend and American businessman Brenner, who acted as a liaison between Wesley and the DEA. It comes to pass that Brenner is responsible for selling the drugs that resulted in the death of Wesley’s son. Wesley dispatches Brenner in his high-rise office with a few slugs from his silenced pistol.
The Commander is a convoluted film of treachery within treachery, with Mazzarini as the overt mastermind. However, it comes to pass that Hickok’s CIA boss, Frank (Christian Brückner), is actually in cahoots with Mazzarini and wants to use Hickok (in the guise of Mason) to procure the CD-ROM for Mazzarini’s nefarious plans. It is only with Colby’s ingenuity and eventual partnership with Hickok that they are able to stay a few steps ahead of Mazzarini and eventually deliver the villains their comeuppance. And finally, in Commando Leopard, there is an act of treachery against Carrasco, but it is actually from rescued prisoners who were planted by Silveira. Instead, Americans are referred to in a phone dialog between dictator Homoza and General Benitez (Tony Carreon). Homoza calls up Benitez to give him a set of orders, with Benitez replying, “That might not be feasible. This isn’t Berlin; we have no American [sic] behind us.” The implication here is that, if Americans were involved in the conflict, they would be the antagonists, fighting against Carrasco and his rebels. This echoes past instances of the U.S. Armed Forces and the CIA backing right-wing military dictatorships, such as Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala in the 1950s and the Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador during the El Salvador Civil War. Overall, for the Margheriti-Dietrich-Collins trilogy, the victories are not America’s victories, and when involved, Americans actually act against their own interests and assume an antagonistic role.
Critical stance on America’s foreign policy aside, Margheriti’s men-on-a-mission mercenary films are important for another reason: they illustrate a rich cumulative lineage of Italian cinema that goes back to post-World War II reconstruction efforts. This period of Italian cinema saw the emergence of neorealism films, such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Shot on location and using nonprofessional actors, Italian neorealist films strove to capture post-war Italy “as is” for the working class folks. This almost documentary style of filmmaking had a profound impact on subsequent Italian film cycles, including the mondo films of the 1960s. The mondo films, the most well-known being Mondo Cane (1962), were a type of documentary (sometimes real, many times staged) that contained vignettes of sensational, taboo, and exotic practices designed to shock the audience. The exploitative practices showcased in moved the goalposts of what could be depicted on film, as evident with the the violence and gore in other genres such as the giallo, the gothic horror films, and the cannibal films of the ’70s and early ’80s, such as Man from Deep River (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The man eating aspects of these films would align the Italian industry for the wave of zombie films following Dario Argento’s European cut of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), while the jungle setting of these films would provide the backdrop for the majority of Italian mercenary films of the 80s: from Margheriti’s work to Bruno Mattei’s (Strike Commando , Strike Commando 2 ), and other films such as Operation Nam (1986) and The Last American Soldier (1988). The on-location filming in the jungle of the Philippines harkens back to the tenets of neorealism.
At initial glance, the Margheriti-Dietrich-Collins mercenary films may appear to be typical Italian genre knocks-offs of American ‘80s action films, but, as illustrated, Margheriti’s films run much deeper than that. His films perfectly emulate the American formula while also critiquing the American military agenda in Vietnam and Latin America during the previous decades. In this regard, the movies are true exploitation fare, in the very essence of the word.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of Italian genre films, H. P. Lovecraft studies, and retro-modernism. He is the editor of The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s and the co-founder of the Ann Radcliffe Academic Conference. He can be found at nickdiak.com and @vnvdiak.
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