THE LAST MERCENARY
Germany-Italy-Spain 1968 (shot on location in Spain and Brazil, interiors done in Barcelona)
starring RAY DANTON
directed by Mel Welles (credited on some prints to Dieter Muller)
THE LAST MERCENARY did play theatrically in the US, distributed by Excelsior Pictures (hmmm, is that any relation to the company of the same name once operated by Dwain Esper?), and the American release print is what seems to have been used for the 1980’s Dutch VHS release my dvd-r of this film comes from (it’s subtitled in Dutch).
A European co-production, THE LAST MERCENARY looks from a distance like a war film, based on the posters, but after the initial scenes of Danton fighting as a mercenary in some African conflict, the film moves to Brazil, where Danton’s character (Marco Anderson) is working as a low-level hired gun, in this case protecting a mine against crooked business interests (including a mute “Man In Black”!!!) who seek to put the mine out of business. Considering the Brazilian (or Spanish–after the scenes in Rio, who knows where it was shot) setting and Danton’s riding a horse and the vaguely Spanish-sounding music, the film seems like a Western. One could easily imagine this set in the late 1800’s with George Hilton in the role, or frankly, if Danton’s character were cleaned up a bit (and kept his hands off his boss’s wife), this plot could be used in a 40’s Tim Holt or Charles Starrett western. Machine guns and hand grenades do re-emerge in the film’s final third, however.
Ray Danton has always been one of my favorite movie tough guys of the 50s and 60s. After a strong career in the US in films such as THE LONGEST DAY, THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, THE GEORGE RAFT STORY, THE BEAT GENERATION, and THE BIG OPERATOR, Danton began working in European genre films (jungle/spy/crime) and doing guest starring roles on a number of American TV shows, alternating the two. He moved into directing in the early 70’s with the drive-in classics THE DEATHMASTER (starring Robert Quarry) and THE PSYCHIC KILLER (starring Jim Hutton), and then branched into television directing, where he had a long and successful career until his death in 1992. While in Europe, Danton made a wide variety of films and wound up working for such legendary directors of Jesus Franco and Luigi Capuano. You can read my review of Danton’s 1967 Italian crime comedy HOW TO STEAL A BILLION…AND GET AWAY WITH IT on the IMDB (as of 11/2013, mine is the only review). Danton had superb timing and understatement as an actor, and he managed to radiate toughness, yet in the scene with the girl on the merry go round in THE LAST MERCENARY, he also shows great warmth and sensitivity. I will be sure to keep an eye out for his many TV guest starring roles.
Danton carries THE LAST MERCENARY and may well be in every scene. Interestingly, he’s also listed as Associate Producer–there must be an interesting story behind that. Danton had worked with Pascale Petit (female lead in this) earlier, in the 1965 spy film CODE NAME: JAGUAR, which I highly recommend, and he’d also worked with director Mel Welles the year before this in an obscure project called HELLO GLEN WARD, HOUSE DICK (aka Llaman a Jamaica, Mr. Ward) about which I know nothing.
Actor/director/voice actor MEL WELLES is well-known from his acting in Little Shop of Horrors to his directing of the perennial drive-in and television favorite ISLAND OF THE DOOMED (with Cameron Mitchell) and the 70’s drive-in staple LADY FRANKENSTEIN (with Joseph Cotten). He also directed (I just learned this recently—it’s credited to a German name, evidently necessary to secure German financing) the 1965 Italian spy film OUR MAN IN JAMAICA, starring Larry Pennell (Dash Riprock on The Beverly Hillbillies), one of my favorite Eurospy films. Mel Welles has a great eye for location filming in OUR MAN, and that’s also quite evident here. Although some scenes were obviously shot in Rio, the scenes near the mine operation could well have been shot on location in Spain. Whatever, Welles creates a film that’s always interesting looking. There are also some odd flash-forwards and flashbacks in the film’s first third that only seem to make sense later, in hindsight. An American action film of the day would probably not have had such abrupt jumps in chronology.
The existential hitman/soldier of fortune/gunslinger character was a staple in 60’s and 70’s cinema, and essentially, that’s what we have here. This is an obscure film in a lesser-known period of an important American film star’s career. It’s a real tour-de-force for Ray Danton and also a feather in the cap of director Mel Welles. I’d love to see a letterboxed DVD of this appear some day, but that might be wishful thinking…
And in case you are wondering, despite this being a European film and an international co-production among three countries, Ray Danton DOES loop his own voice, and that deep rich voice of his (he would have been great in radio, like Gerald Mohr was) and those knowing eyes communicate VERY well…thank you, Ray Danton, for such an enjoyable body of work…