Two years before John Wayne took a bunch of schoolboys on as cowhands in The Cowboys, Rock Hudson turned up in this WW2 adventure that found him adopting a ragtag group of orphaned boys in an attempt to blow a Nazi controlled dam thus bringing irreparable harm to the German war machine.
Unlike Duke’s film, this one is far more violent as is evident in the opening scene when the adults in an Italian village are slaughtered by German forces while the children watch from afar in the fields overlooking the town. The villagers had refused to give up details about any of the underground fighters that live by their wits in the surrounding countryside. Next up is Hudson and a group of commandos parachuting into the area but find themselves in a trap set by Sergio Fantoni’s German brigade. All are killed except Hudson who’s chute gets hung up in a tree and Rock himself concussed. It’s the children led by Mark Colleano who get him down and carry him to an underground cavern out of harm’s way.
Colleano is the leader of the pack. He’s aggressive and a bully when he needs to be. If Rock wasn’t in the film I’d almost think I’d sat in on a replay of Lord of the Flies. Colleano wants Rock alive and well to help the children get their revenge on Fantoni’s forces. First he’ll need to get a doctor he can trust and once again, using the smarts of a crying child, the gang convinces Sylva Koscina to come to Rock’s aid. For the balance of the film she’ll become a prisoner of the group. Mainly because she wants the children to turn in all the guns they’ve collected and return to a more civilized world.
Once Rock is conscious and coherent, he enters into a struggle for supremacy with the aggressive youngster. Colleano is a hard character to like as his hatred runs strong and fuels his every thought and movement. He wants Rock to teach them now how to seek their revenge yet Rock has a mission of his own to carry out. He’ll have little choice but to give the children a real taste of revenge in an elaborate plan to dynamite a dam under Fantoni’s command sending a lake cascading into a valley killing thousands of German soldiers.
The film is also somewhat of a cat and mouse affair as Rock and the children must reclaim the explosives lost to the German’s during the parachute raid and Fantoni knows Hudson is in the countryside with a bombing target in mind. When Hudson gets his supplies back, Fantoni and his men go into overdrive seeking to find and stop “The Rock.”
This is not a film that takes the war scenes lightly. War is a dirty business. One in which both men and children are going to die on screen. There’s also more going on here than just an action packed war film. While Koscina pleads with Rock not to involve the children, he leads them into war knowing full well he’s doing wrong by them. While Colleano is far from likable as the children’s leader, he’s still a kid and suffering the horrors of warfare up close and personal. He wants his pound of flesh and will pay a heavy emotional price for it.
Sergio Fantoni, whom I fondly recall from Von Ryan’s Express isn’t the stereotypical German officer either. He’s firmly opposed to both Hudson achieving success and the SS officer who arrives to take over the operation.
I know I saw this film as a kid but recalled very little of it. This was a film I’m glad to finally get another look at thanks to a recent release on blu ray from Kino Lorber. Hudson is a well built killing machine here long before there was a John Rambo. It’s a good role for Rock at a point when his movie career was losing it’s steam and the successful McMillan and Wife was on the horizon. Hornet’s Nest was the second war film of 1970 for Rock. The other being Darling Lili for Blake Edwards.
Hornet’s Nest is directed by Phil Karlson,. A name Noir fans should recognize for his contributions to the genre. Notably Kansas City Confidential before going on to direct titles ranging from Kid Galahad to The Wrecking Crew to his final big screen success, Walking Tall. It may have taken me a good many years to see this film again that features a score from Ennio Morricone but I did indeed add an original one sheet to the “vault” a few years back.