Jungle Brothers: Antonio Margheriti’s Wars

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Vietnam 80-83

When Hollywood tackled Vietnam in the late 1970s, it did so with a troubled conscience — The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, for example, portrayed the conflict as a moral and psychological catastrophe — but the response of Italian filmmakers to the war was, it is fair to say, less complex and far from anguished. The impact of American popular culture and political power on postwar Italy was profound, but this had started to fray by 1968: “the Vietnam war changed the way a whole generation of Italians thought about America,” wrote Paul Ginsborg, “for Italian youth of this period the ‘real’ America became another: the anti-war protests on the campuses, the Californian communes and counter-culture, the Black Power movement” (1). Italian cinema was always conflicted about the U.S.: the pepla had inaugurated a system of derivative film cycles that thrived off the back of American box office hits, but the neorealists were generally hostile to an imported consumer capitalism that they considered a mortal threat to local traditions as well as an ideological enemy. In fact, this avaricious and resentful bond proved to be a source of true vitality for Italian films of this period. 

Antonio Margheriti was the first Italian director to put Vietnam on the screen and he did it in a way that combined each Italian impulse: feasting on the Hollywood source while denouncing the Pentagon war machine. This was delivered with a gleeful, gory brutality aimed at the fleapit cinemas, grindhouse theaters and, later, the video rental stores, rather than the Academy Awards. In the Italian genre tradition, his Vietnam movies verged on nihilism: any humanitarianism or political content was reduced to a cynical veneer of moralism on an efficient money making machine. Margheriti’s 1980s was largely occupied by his Vietnam ‘Macaroni combats’ of 80-83; a series of Indiana Jones clones that spanned the middle of the decade; and the mercenary adventures of 84-88. These were almost interchangeable, recycling footage, explosions, model work, locations, cast and crew members; they also provided an energetic coda to a prolific, parasitic career. 

Margheriti’s first Vietnam entry was unorthodox: the primary aim of Cannibal Apocalypse was to cash in on the splatter successes of Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato, and the only part of the film that actually takes place in Vietnam is a brief opening flashback. But it is a Vietnam film: the entire premise is a crude metaphor for the traumatic and brutalizing effects of the war experience. John Saxon and Giovanni Lombardo Radice play two veterans who return carrying a virus that compels them to eat human flesh; they transmit this to their victims zombie-style, unleashing an epidemic of cannibalism onto the streets of Atlanta. The war, Margheriti suggests, has been brought home. This was a fantastic, ludicrous conceit and it seems amazing that Saxon ever believed he was signing onto a serious war drama, but he committed himself to the role with a grim determination verging on despair: coinciding with a collapsing private life and period of depression this film probably didn’t help matters, but the edge of genuine personal misery provided a bleak, somber undertone that made it work so well. The energetic carnage, propelled by the ostentatiously gruesome special effects of Giannetto de Rossi, simply underpinned the hollow horror of PTSD that was the basic theme of the movie. Cannibal Apocalypse belonged in the company of films like Nightmare City and Dawn of the Dead but with an extra layer of desolation that effectively communicated the psychological shadow of the war.    

On August 2nd 1980, the neofascist Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari detonated a bomb at Bologna Centrale railway station, killing 85 people and wounding 200. Two days later, Cannibal Apocalypse was released in Italian cinemas and four days after that Margheriti released his first full Vietnam adventure, The Last Hunter. This is the film that opened his personal war cycle, setting up the next decade. Marketed as THE MOST VIOLENT WAR MOVIE EVER MADE it re-shot The Deer Hunter with the grisly shocks and lurid sexuality craved by grindhouse audiences: machine gun massacres, soldiers skewered by gigantic booby traps, eyeballs shot out in graphic close-up, the sexual menace of frustrated, drug-addled grunts. The combination of gory special effects and the casting of Tisa Farrow (fresh from Zombie Flesh Eaters) and David Warbeck (gearing up for The Beyond)  placed the film firmly within the Italian horror milieu. This weird, unstable mix of anti-war drama and exploitation horror was, in fact, quite effective: the jungle had a feverish, fetid atmosphere made more malevolent by the gleeful mayhem and carnage that Margheriti’s crew conjured up. The cheap, gratuitous violence and sleazy, toxic undertow came closer to the tone and atmosphere of Michael Herr’s Dispatches than the more prestigious epics of 1970s Hollywood. Only when The Last Hunter tried to be clever, either through the anti-war slogan blazoned across the final reel or the convoluted emotional twists of the ludicrous plot, did it actually become stupid.

Margheriti repeated the formula two years later with Tiger Joe, clearly made in haste and using up resources from previous films but adding a bizarre tinge of romantic chemistry by inserting House on the Edge of the Park starlet Annie Belle as a guerrilla fighter who teams up with David Warbeck’s mercenary gunrunner. Then, following an Indiana Jones detour (Hunters of the Golden Cobra, starring Warbeck and John Steiner) and some camp Sci-Fi (Yor, Hunter from the Future), Margheriti returned to Vietnam in 1983 with his Rambo rip-off Tornado. Set in the dying days of the war, on the border of Cambodia and with the American army disintegrating, the film follows the flight of Sgt. Sal Maggio (Giancarlo Prete) who goes renegade after assaulting the tyrannical Captain Harlow (a hateful, creepy Antonio Marsina). It is grim, terse and brutal: a relentless barrage of explosions, shoot-outs and torture set within a damp, muddy, infested and oppressive jungle. In some ways this was the most successful Italian war movie of all, simply because it did not attempt too much: stripped down to essentials, the film followed its own trajectory with relentless focus and a submerged, cold fury. In Tornado the anti-war sentiment was not conveyed by excessive horror or trite platitudes, but through the depiction of a morally bankrupt war winding down, military authority reduced to careerism and pathology and the rank and file mentally checked out and waiting to exit. If The Last Hunter depicted the depravity of the war, Tornado portrayed its strategic emptiness and moral inversion. Like The Last Hunter, the film achieved its purpose almost by default rather than design: both the limitations and excess of execution went some way towards rendering the extremity of the Vietnam experience on screen. 

Mercenaries 84-88

Margheriti was one of the great hacks of Italian cinema. His career represents an essential strain in Italian postwar film: not the grand auteurs of critical acclaim, but the protean, anarchic, unscrupulous, profit-driven world of the filone and the seconda visione. His ability to jump on any genre and wring something out of it (commercially, sometimes artistically) and to do it for anybody from any country willing to stump up a budget, made him one of the most productive mercenaries in Italian film. Looking at his total body of work, Margheriti had two primary assets that served him throughout. First, he was highly skilled at model work, fully developed in his early Sci-Fi films and utilised by Sergio Leone on Duck, You Sucker!  Second, he had a taste and talent for the Gothic, as demonstrated by his early chillers (including his one widely acknowledged classic Castle of Blood) and his giallo Seven Deaths in the Cats Eye and Western And God Said to Cain. More broadly Margheriti was a proficient opportunist with a knack for time-saving and cost-cutting that accounted for his ruthless productivity. Plots, crews, actors, sets and scores were reused, copied and recombined, producing startling and sometimes inspired hybrids as well as odd moments of deja vu. Margheriti was not above recycling his own film stock if necessary: the climactic scenes of his 1966 Sci-Fi extravaganza Wild, Wild Planet were brazenly reused in his Eurospy caper Lightning Bolt the following year. 

The 1960s was Margheriti’s commercial and artistic peak. During this time he produced a fast, fun, and incoherent rush of pepla (Golden Arrow, Hercules Prisoner of Evil, Giants of Rome); a clutch of chaotic, sexy Eurospy romps (Killers are Challenged, Lightning Bolt); a series of lush, violent, erotic gothic horrors that sat easily alongside the work of Bava and Freda (The Virgin of Nuremberg, The Long Hair of Death, Castle of Blood); and the psychedelic excess of his Gamma-One series, financed by M.G.M. but doing most of the heavy lifting for Italian Sci-Fi (Wild, Wild Planet, War of the Planets, War Between the Planets, all made in 1966). By the end of the decade he had also ventured into Spaghetti Westerns with one notable success: the dark, Gothic-tinged revenge tragedy And God Said the Cain which brought Bava atmospherics to the Wild West, something Bava himself never successfully managed. The 1970s saw lucrative contracts from America, but proved artistically moribund. A colour remake of Castle of Blood (Web of the Spider) was disowned by Margheriti and the decade limped by with undistinguished western hybrids, comedies and crime dramas, before finally fizzling out completely with the 1979 creature feature Killer Fish, in which Lee Majors and Karen Black were menaced by stock footage of munching piranhas. The resulting product was evidence that Margheriti was not fully committed to this adventure, even if he enjoyed the junket to Brazil.

This is the backdrop to his energised return in 1980 with Cannibal Apocalypse and The Last Hunter, and in this context the tropical combat niche he carved out was a personal renaissance. Alongside the Vietnam ‘trilogy’ he also shot his India Jones rip-offs in the Philippines with a regular crew and cast that included David Warbeck, Luciani Pigozzi and John Steiner. This pattern of work would continue with a new leading man and West German money for the last successful film cluster of Margheriti’s career: the Erwin C. Dietrich-produced mercenary movies starring Lewis Collins. Post-Professionals and having failed to land the role of James Bond, this is often viewed as a dingy twilight episode for Collins, but he looks like he’s having fun and his stolid, surly persona (an acting range described by Taylor Parkes as “an oscillation between smirking and glowering”, 2) anchors the chaos well. There is also something special about the way these films reunite a gang of ageing stars: the audiences and opportunities were dwindling fast by this point, so there is a touching, even romantic, poignancy to the resurrections of Klaus Kinski, Lee Van Cleef, Luciano Pigozzi and Paul Muller. 

Released in 1984 as an unofficial sequel to the British mercenary caper The Wild Geese, Cold Name: Wild Geese became something else altogether: a convoluted, morally polluted, propulsive action flick, carried by its exotic locations, military-grade hardware and exploding miniature models. Collins plays a British mercenary with a stubborn conscience stiffened by the death of his heroin addict son; he dispatches this with gruff economy, dragging the plot through to its exhausting conclusion. Klaus Kinski is menacing and sibilant as a corrupt, duplicitous mercenary, while Lee Van Cleef is tough and terse as an ex-con paid to fly a helicopter. Hong Kong is left to shimmer through bleeding sunshine, showing off all its sleek 1980s glory, while the jungles and rivers of the Golden Triangle are humid, murky traps, filled with menace and mystery. The atmosphere is thickened by the oriental electronic soundtrack of German prog rock band Eloy, a score so good that Margheriti reused it in another film three years later. Other than this, the film looks cheap and the stunts are clumsy, relying on Margheriti’s model-making skills and the gusto with which the cast run out of foliage and jump out of explosions. The non-stop, kinetic frenzy and incomprehensible plot layers create an engaging energy that is, in its own frantic way, entertaining. It’s a terrible mess, but the trick somehow worked and made enough money to justify a bigger follow up.

Margheriti and Collins returned to the Philippines in 1985 to put together Commando Leopard: a bigger production budget paid for more ambitious stunts, extravagant explosions and an Ennio Morricone score. Set in the Operation Condor world of South American drug cartels, Marxist guerrillas, lethal right wing death squads and the military dictatorships that deployed them, the tone is more solemn, with depths and shades to the plot that almost give the impression of actual political conviction.  It is a rich environment for mayhem that Margheriti fully exploits. This time Collins plays a different kind of mercenary: a political adventurer fighting for an exotic cause with a band of committed rebels that includes a ruthless Scottish comrade played by John Steiner and a beautiful fiance played with tough elegance by Christino Donadio. Klaus Kinski is the commander of a militia perpetrating human rights abuses across the countryside which gives him power over the bumbling dictator he ostensibly serves. The whole concoction works far better than is often credited, capturing the lawless irrationality and sleazy sadism that characterised the military regimes of this time, while giving the rebels a genuinely moving moral grandeur, lifted by the depiction of Manfred Lehmann’s warrior priest. This would, in fact, be Margheriti’s last significant film until The Commander in 1988 and it is among his best.

There is something about The Commander that feels, to me, like a swansong. For a start, it was like family: with Collins, Steiner, Van Cleef and Lehmann all returning, these people had worked together for a long time; back in the Philippines, where Margheriti now lived, female lead Chat Silayan was also involved in a relationship with Margheriti’s assistant director son Edoardo. Lee Van Cleef stayed in Naples, his art-collecting, gardening gangster prowling around a cliff-top Amalfi villa accompanied by his sinister manservant (Paul Muller), the location itself vividly recalling Italy’s cinematic Golden Age. There was not much money so musical cues and footage were brazenly recycled from Code Name: Wild Geese; it was, basically, a shoddy production, although the crew was seasoned enough to produce something engaging. But this was 1988:  the Italian film industry was effectively extinguished; old greats like Kinski and Van Cleef on the cusp of retirement; and Margheriti himself could not hope for wider distribution than VHS or West Germany. Nobody watched this stuff in Italy anymore, because nobody really went to the cinema anymore: 1990 would be a historical low point for ticket sales and those tickets went to American films, which captured the majority of the Italian film market. TV was King, and the King of TV was Silvio Berlusconi, who took the same piratical and exploitative attitude towards entertainment that Italian genre films often had. As Peter Bondanella quickly noted, the 1980s was a period of “stagnation and decline” (3) for the Italian film industry, albeit concealed by Academy triumphs for Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci. Finance was hard to find and Italian distributors had no interest in Italian products. The Italian films that did acquire enough prestige for commercial distribution and critical praise treated Italian film as a dead heritage, worthy of reference, tribute or emulation only. For this reason, The Commander is one of the last films of its kind: a final flat-line of the Italian filone, dying off in the dingy backroom video rental store racks. 

  1. Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy 1943-1980 (Penguin, 1990), p.301-2
  2. Taylor Parkes, ‘Hunks Punch Lunks: The Fascist Sex Cult of the Professionals’, The Quietus, April 2014.
  3. Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealism to the Present (Continuum, 2004), p. 385
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