This week’s pick comes to us from the Italian front, a rigorous and often overlooked campaign of ETO during World War II. Robert Mitchum stars as a war correspondent (Dick Ennis) (loosely based on famed correspondent Ernie Pyle) in the 1968 production of Anzio, produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis and directed by both Edward Dmytryk and Duilio Coletti. The film also stars Peter Falk (Cpl. Jack Rabinoff), Earl Holliman (Sgt. Abe Stimmler), Arthur Kennedy (Maj Gen. Jack Lesley), and Wolfgang Preiss (Field Marshal Albert Kesselring)..
Anzio tells the story about Operation Shingle, a bold plan devised by Winston Churchill to drop an Allied force behind the famed Monte Cassino Line in central Italy and to liberate Rome in January 1944. The Italian campaign proved to be a stalemate for the Allies who were making very little headway due to the geographical advantages the Germans and their Italian allies had over the invading forces. The film is a dramatization of the operation and the effects its aftermath had with the Allies who underestimated the enemy’s strength and exact location.
Dick Ennis (Mitchum) is a war correspondent who has seen too much war and is tired of its effects on humanity. Ennis joins the American expeditionary force assigned for the invasion. During a press conference with Generals Lesley (Kennedy) and General Carson, (based on Gen. Mark Clark) (Robert Ryan), Ennis shouts out the destination of where they’re heading. An angered Gen. Carson asks Ennis where he comes by his information. Ennis simply replies “from the streets of Napoli general.”
The invasion force is under command of Gen. Jack Lesley (based on John P. Lucas who commanded the failed operation) to establish a beachhead and to build a strong landing force that will move inland and engage Field Marshal Kesselring’s forces who fear that the Allied push will allow them to seize Rome which is no more than two hours away by vehicle.
The invasion sequence in the film is conducted at night in the early morning hours (like most early amphibious operations in the war were done). A sizable force of infantry and U.S. Ranger units help to establish a beachhead within a short while. General Lesley’s British counterparts and fellow American officers recommend reconnaissance patrols and probes to determine the enemy’s strength. Lesley refuses and begins to pile his forces on the beach. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Kesselring disturbed that the Allies have gained a foothold behind the Cassino Line dispatches and reroutes his forces to meet the new Allied threat at Anzio. Kesselring is astonished to find that Lesley’s forces haven’t moved inland and are re-enforcing their present positions. A relieved Kesselring begins to construct what he refers to as as the Caesar Line (to defend Rome) from the Allied threat. Lesley’s cautious behavior has now reassured the enemy that they can still win the battle which is soon to commence.
Ennis and Pvt. Movie (Santoni) commandeer a jeep and decide to go find the enemy themselves. Ennis and Movie spot a dead German soldier in some tall grass by the road and run into Cpl. Rabinoff (Falk). Rabinoff was conducting a commando mission behind the lines to determine the enemy’s strength. Rabinoff wears the shoulder patches of the 1st Special Service Force “The Devil’s Brigade” and is a man who truly feels alive in battle. Both Rabinoff and Ennis have known one another for sometime and their paths seem to always cross. Rabinoff hops in the jeep with Ennis and Movie who take off towards Rome. The three Americans enter Rome and find out that it’s an open city according to a local man who is excited to see American soldiers. Ennis who speaks Italian discovers from the old man that there are only a few military units in Rome and that the city is completely undefended. Ennis feels that this information is critical to get back to General Lesley and the units on the beachhead.
Ennis gives the vital information to Lesley who still refuses to commit, and proceeds with caution. Lesley does eventually commit some of his forces for a recon mission behind the lines to determine just how many forces Kesselring has waiting for them out there. Ennis accompanies units of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th U.S. Ranger battalions deep into enemy territory. Rabinoff is waiting for the force and tells them that they are now in enemy territory and that from then on, that every man keep quiet and alert. Early the next day, the Ranger units are ambushed and captured by Kesselring’s forces who were waiting for them all along. This is what later becomes known as the Battle of Cisterna. where U.S. forces suffered the loss of over eight hundred men captured.
Ennis, Rabinoff, Stimmler, Movie, and a handful of others manage to escape and try to rejoin Lesley’s forces on the beachhead. The story now takes a shift where it was examining all sides of the battle, and now focuses on this small band of American soldiers who are deep behind enemy lines and try not to get captured. In one scene, Ennis and the men are retreating across a field and Ennis notices metal prongs sticking out of the dirt. He tells the men that they are in the middle of a mine field and that they need to retrace their footsteps and safely make it back across. One of the men sees a German tank over the hill which is looking for survivors from the ambush. Ennis picks up some heavy rocks from the debris of an old farm house and uses those pieces to cut a path through the mine field. The rest of the men take his lead and do the same. Rabinoff asks Ennis where he learned this trick. Ennis replies “I learned it from an old Chinese man.” Rabinoff asks “Did he make it?” Ennis replies. “No.” The men make their way through the mine field and avoid capture once again.
The remainder of the film is not unlike any other war film which follows the same formula, the numbers begin to dwindle for a myriad amount of reasons, characters are sacrificed and in the end, the good guys always win. The best performances in the film are Mitchum, Santoni, Holliman, and of course Falk who wrote all his own dialogue for the film. I would say that Falk’s character steals almost everything from every scene.
My favorite scene involving him is in the back of an ambulance with three young Italian prostitutes who have fallen in love with him due to his box of Hershey chocolate bars which are like currency. One of the women wants to accompany him on the invasion and Falk replies “The sergeant said there’s no room for whores on the invasion boat.” He then begins to sing Bye Bye Blackbird with the three women who cry as their lover goes off to war.
Anzio is available on DVD through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented through Netflix.