A styleless stylist like near contemporary Don Siegel, Phil Karlson hewed to the straight & narrow narrative line. But, unlike Siegel, never got past B+ pics. And if those budgetary limitations keep this blunt-edged WWII thriller from getting past its more far-fetched components, Karlson runs such a clean, confident show, you go along with it. Rock Hudson, in great physical shape if looking more ‘70s than WWII, can’t dawdle under Karlson’s no-nonsense hand as the sole survivor of a special sabotage unit sent into Nazi-occupied Italy to take out a major dam. Alone and injured, he falls in with a gangly gang of teen partisans eager for revenge against the Germans who murdered their families. With their baby faces and tougher-than-nails attitude, it’s an irresistible set up as Hudson trains them as mission replacements and the kids force him to add on a personal revenge test run. It's like THE DIRTY DIAPER DOZEN . . . but in a good way. There’s an awful lot of whistling in the film (secret signals & esprit de corps, don’tcha know) and a few uncomfortable sexual story beats (a female German doctor gets attacked twice; and those baby partisans sure spend a lot of time in nothing but raggedy underpants), moments Karlson, to his credit, doesn’t shy from. Same holds for some uncomfortable moral questions. War's made some of these kids cold-blooded killers. Still, there's one big question even Karlson can’t finesse: how come American forces want to blow up a irreplaceable dam with the war coming to an end?
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The main theme in Ennio Morricone’s score is distractingly close to his FISTFUL OF DOLLARS/’64 theme.
DOUBLE-BILL: John Wayne used kids in much the same way for the cattle drive in COWBOYS/’72, an altogether classier, if not really much better film. (Super John Williams’ score, though.)