Thursday, April 10, 2014

Salt in the Wound (1969)

aka The Liberators

aka War Fever

Original title: Il dito nella piaga

World War II, somewhere in Italy. Lieutenant Michael Sheppard (George Hilton), freshly arrived at the front from West Point, manages to bring himself into quite a bit of trouble on his very first mission, getting the shooting squadron he commands killed by sheer obstinacy, and ending up having to team up with the two men he was supposed to have being shot – Corporal Brian Haskins (Klaus Kinski) and Private John Grayson (Ray Saunders).

After various violent misadventures the not exactly loving trio ends up “liberating” a small Italian village. Here, the cynical Haskins learns he still has love, though probably not much decency, in his heart, and Grayson finds himself protecting a little boy, while Sheppard just might learn something about the realities of the lives of people not born into the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the soldiers’ new found self-realizations and the peaceful village life that makes them feel like human beings again might not amount to much for them in the long run, for a German combined arms unit is closing in to “liberate” the village right back.

Salt in the Wound is one of the clear highpoints in the storied career of Italian genre film director Tonino Ricci. Ricci was one of those low budget filmmakers who could turn out pretty horrible crap, but when provided with an interesting script, actors actually there to act (if only a little), and a smidgen of money, his films ended up rather interesting, or even – as in this particular case – pretty damn great. Ricci, going by the resulting films, was putting as much visible effort into his films as the budgets allowed, with many a beautiful shot of unbeautiful things, and much clever – if not exactly subtle – editing. Competence (and more) in the required action scenes is pretty much a given in this context anyway.

A large part of Salt’s effectiveness does of course rest on its acting ensemble, with fine, multi-dimensional performances by Hilton and Saunders and a Kinski palpably enjoying to be allowed to show other emotions in a genre film beyond craziness; though Klaus does of course do craziness here too, and even particularly fine. That’s probably because the film actually gives him (as well as Saunders) opportunity to show where all the violence he expresses comes from. Having said that, I suspect people not fond of the ways of Italian genre cinema will not be satisfied with even these performances, for while the film has some interesting ideas of its own, and its characters are more multi-dimensional than in a shoot ‘em up style war film, it shows these things in the most unsubtle ways possible, with many an opportunity for melodramatics for everyone involved. For me, this approach fits the themes involved well. I also don’t believe war movies are a very good place for emotional subtlety (not to be confused with psychological subtlety), with melodrama’s heightened emotional states rather more fitting to the experiences the characters in these films go through.

Watching Salt, I found particularly impressive how little this film with a traditional “redemption through violence” plot actually believes in violence as being redemptive, eschewing that idea not only in the final scene when the film’s last survivor of our protagonists puts his new medal unto the grave of an unknown soldier (who just might have been one of our other protagonists). For a film of its style, Salt seems honestly and deeply bothered by the cost of violence, not just as a melodramatic gesture but at its actual emotional core. It is hardly a sign one can misinterpret that the film’s most directly redemptive moment for any of its characters is when Saunders breathes life back into a little boy, a thing that – in a film from a very Catholic country that starts quoting from the bible and sees Saunders character struggling with the difference between his religious belief and the way the world is – is hardly an accident, and is pretty much the opposite of redemption through violence.

It’s also rather uncommon in the genre to not just show bad men (or rather “bad men”) redeem themselves in dubious manner, but for a film in it to actually show why these men probably weren’t quite right even before the war began. Again, it’s all very melodramatically realized, but it’s also effective and thoughtful.

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