One of the advantages of watching old, obscure films with no expectations is that occasionally one will surprise you. Such was my experience with The Five-Man Army (1969), a picturesque spaghetti western that doubles as a clockwork heist movie. It stars Peter Graves as the Dutchman—basically the Jim Phelps of the wild west—who enlists a small team of misfit crooks to execute a perilous train robbery in Mexico. His team: past-his-prime demolitions expert Augustus (James Daly), violent muscle-man Mesito (Bud Spencer), expert knife-thrower Samurai (Tetsurô Tanba), and unscrupulous acrobat Luis (Nino Castelnuovo). Using intelligence gathered from Mexican revolutionaries, the group sets into motion an elaborate, dangerous plan to steal half a million dollars in gold from under the noses of the Mexican Army.
By no means high art, The Five-Man Army is nonetheless a well oiled machine for its type, blending a familiar western rogue’s gallery (à la The Magnificent Seven) with the low-dialogue, visual story-telling of filmic heists (like Rififi or Topkapi). The performances are good, the scenery is eye-catching, and the team’s impossible mission deploys a balanced blend of timely execution and unexpected glitches. But the film’s strongest element is a sweeping soundtrack from the legendary Ennio Morricone. The music is practically a character, and one theme in particular, planted early, recurs at strategic moments to elevate a good script into a rousing, uncommonly satisfying film. All I wanted was a casual, background matinee, but this one ended up getting its hooks in more than I was expecting.