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The Secret Invasion

The Secret Invasion(1964)

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teaser The Secret Invasion (1964)

A minor league predecessor to the 1967 box office smash The Dirty Dozen, The Secret Invasion (1964) is an unpretentious "assemble the team" actioner directed by Roger Corman, produced by his brother Gene and filmed on location in Yugoslavia. When compared to the films being produced by the major Hollywood studios, this was strictly a B movie in terms of its production costs and aspirations but for Corman, who was famous for turning out low-budget but profitable films in record time, The Secret Invasion was his most expensive project to date.

Set during WWII, the film opens in Cairo where British Intelligence selects five convicts for a dangerous mission under the command of Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger). The commando unit consists of Jean Saval (William Campbell), an art thief, Simon Fell (Edd Byrnes), a forger, John Durrell (Henry Silva), a murderer, Terence Scanlon (Mickey Rooney), a demolition expert, and Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone), the former head of a crime syndicate. Their orders are to tunnel into a prison in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia and smuggle out Italian General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte) so he can lead his own troops against the Germany army. Similar to crime caper films in which the best laid plans go awry, the mission proves to be more complicated than expected with surprises around every corner the imprisoned Italian general, for example, turns out to be a Nazi plant.

"The odd thing about this movie," Corman once stated in an interview, "is that it had a very similar plot to an old western of mine, Five Guns West [1955]. It also came out before The Dirty Dozen. I've heard stories that the producers of The Dirty Dozen actually postponed production of their film an entire year because they realized that our storylines were so similar." Although R. Wright Campbell, who was nominated for an Oscar® for co-writing the script for Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), is credited with penning the screenplay for The Secret Invasion, an entry on Mickey Rooney in Current Biography 1965 states that he wrote the script. Regardless of who actually wrote it, the film makes up for what it lacks in originality with taut pacing and non-stop action.

The project was first initiated by David Picker, the head of production at United Artists, who approached Corman for ideas. "...Bob Campbell, who had just done [The Wild] Racers [1968] for me, had finished a script titled "The Dubious Patriots," Corman recalled. "Once again, the theme was one I liked very much: bad men sent to do good as a way to redeem themselves and win their freedom. In New York on the way back from Racers - I gave Picker the script on a Friday and he said, "We'll look at it. But we're backed up with scripts and it might be a few weeks before I can get to it." Corman didn't expect anything to come of it since his experience with dealing with the major studios was not positive so he was surprised when Picker called him back on Monday to greenlight the film. "It went that fast," the director said. "Right place at the right time. The title was changed to The Secret Invasion, which was believed to be more commercial. UA budgeted the production at $600,000, which was double my bigger [Edgar Allan] Poe pictures. The film was shot in the summer of 1963."

As expected, Corman, a fiercely independent filmmaker, and the UA management didn't always see eye to eye on everything. The premise, for example, required some tinkering. "Initially, the prisoner being held was an atomic scientist, the only man knowing the missing key ingredient in the equations to make an atomic bomb," Corman said. "So by freeing him, the five criminals help unleash atomic warfare. And UA said they liked the idea but not that man. So I changed him to an Italian general who would lead the resistance against the Nazis and thereby facilitate an Allied invasion of Italy. UA wanted them to be full-out heroes with less subtlety than I might have sought. I had wanted them to unwittingly and ironically do something bad on their way to being heroes. But this was the majors and with a half-million of their dollars at stake, I had a feeling these characters might lack nuance. I knew this was one of the drawbacks to working with the studios story by committee."

The six-week, thirty-six day shoot for The Secret Invasion would eventually prove to be Corman's most difficult and problematic shoot. For one thing, there were numerous production problems such as not receiving all of the military equipment and troops he was promised due to a recent earthquake in Yugoslavia that superseded his request in favor of the relief effort. Other headaches included an overzealous local production assistant who liked to fire a real gun in the air to clear the set of onlookers before filming a scene and an insistence by Yugoslavian officials to place red stars on the uniforms of all the extras playing Yugoslav Resistance partisans. Corman resisted, saying it didn't make sense for someone working for an underground resistance movement to reveal their identity in this way the Nazis would shoot them on sight but the local officials prevailed so Corman simply found a solution to the problem in the editing room later.

These were minor irritations compared to a clash of egos on the set between two of the film's stars which Corman later admitted was "probably the worst experience I've had on a set in my entire career. It was four in the morning and we were shooting in a foreign land aboard a patrol boat. It was a crucial scene and Stewart Granger, who played the hero...refused to go through with it because he felt that the key line, a line that was written for Edd Byrnes, should be given to him. Granger turned to me and said, "If I don't get that line, I'm walking off the picture." Byrnes, hearing this, said "This is my line. It's in my dialogue. It was written for me. If I don't keep it, I'm walking off the picture." Edd finally got the line. Stewart walked off the picture. I wasn't too worried, though, because he couldn't walk off the boat and he certainly couldn't walk out of Yugoslavia. Eventually, after about an hour, we got everyone back together again. So at five in the morning, with the sun just about coming up, we quickly shot this scene and then stumbled back into our hotel and went to bed."

Despite its relatively low budget for a WWII action tale, The Secret Invasion looked like an A-picture and ended up grossing approximately $3 million at the box office. It also fared well with the critics. Judith Crist of The N.Y. Herald Tribune called it "a slam-bang World War II adventure film that proves it takes a lot of action and glorious color photography to make the old clichs sit still...Yugoslavia and, chiefly, Dubrovnik have never been more photogenic than as background for this bit or commando derring-do." Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote that the film, "yielded a rather surprising amount of brisk muscularity and panoramic color, if not always credibility....For the most part, Mr. Corman has them [the cast] on the go, spraying bullets galore. And the men's outwitting of a Nazi commandant, well-played by Helmo Kindermann, has a bald brashness that makes it credible. Finally, the grim irony of the fadeout holds a good, firm twist." And even Variety chimed in with a similar opinion: "Secret Invasion has action almost unceasingly....[Raf] Vallone, who gets top billing in Europe, carries most of the acting responsibility. He gives one of his usual excellent performances...[Henry] Silva is excellent in last half of the film...Arthur E. Arling's color camerawork is the film's top asset. He has beautifully photographed the unfamiliar but photogenic port of Dubrovnik, using the idyllic scenery as a background and, by contrast, a commentary on the fighting and killing which takes place against it."

United Artists was the one who profited most from The Secret Invasion even though their bookkeeping methods showed that the movie didn't break even. Corman challenged their accounting records, saying "Look, either straighten this report out or I'm sending in the auditors." The head of UA was quick to respond: "Don't audit. We'll buy out your participation for $400,000. You can have a check tomorrow. sign away all your rights, your piece is paid off, and you attest that our books are true and accurate." Corman and his brother Gene ended up signing the agreement and collecting their money but Roger forego any future freelance deals with major studios and returned to the folds of A.I.P. where he had much more freedom and profitability on his projects. His next feature for them was The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the last of his Edgar Allan Poe film adaptations.

Producer: Gene Corman
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling
Art Direction: John Murray
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: Ronald Sinclair
Cast: Stewart Granger(Maj. Richard Mace), Raf Vallone (Roberto Rocca, Organizer), Mickey Rooney (Terence Scanlon, Demolition), Edd Byrnes (Simon Fell, Forger), Henry Silva (John Durrell, Assassin), Mia Massini (Mila), William Campbell (Jean Saval), Helmo Kindermann (German Fortress Commandant), Enzo Fiermonte (Gen. Quadri), Peter Coe (Marko, Resistance Leader), Nan Morris (Stephana), Helmut Schneider (German Patrol Boat Captain).
C-95m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

Life is Too Short by Mickey Rooney
The Films of Roger Corman: Brillance on a Budget by Ed Naha
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome
Roger Corman by Gary Morris
The War Film by Ivan Butler
Current Biography 1965

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