Film review: The Invincible Six
by Michael Schell
Sommer and Whitman in
The somewhat Magnificent Seven in 1960s Iran
Supposedly based on an obscure novel by Michael Barrett called The Heroes of Yucca, this B-grade offering from the end of Jean Negulesco's prolific career has been aptly described as a knockoff of the Seven Samuri/Magnificent Seven genre wherein a motley but honorable band of misfits defends an innocent village from a whole lot o' bandits. Its most notable features are:
The leader of our eventual band of do-gooders is a charismatic left-hander (Stuart Whitman) that the others call Tex, though he lacks a Texas accent or other obvious Texan identifiers. His partners include the debonair Brit Ronald (Ian Ogilvy) and the unflappable African-American Mike, played by Lon Satton as a knockoff of the Barney Collier character from Mission Impossible. Together with four unnamed co-conspirators (including two women dressed as Catholic nuns), they attempt to steal the Iranian Crown Jewels from a Tehran museum. This goes badly: Mike breaks into the electric closet and kills the lights, but not the rest of the security system. So when one of the thief's bullets penetrates a display case, alarms go off, vault doors close, guards arrive, and two of the thieves are killed. We don't find out what happens to the fake nuns, but Tex and Ronald are next seen fleeing aboard a freight train to meet up with Mike in Shiraz. So ends the urban prologue which establishes why the three men are on the run, while providing the rest of us a view of some famous, ostentatious jewelry that's still seldom captured on film.
The real star of the movie is the Iranian countryside, which Tex and Ronald find themselves in after ditching the freight train. As they walk down a lonely country lane, a car pulls up, driven by an old white geezer with a bowler hat and a German accent. This is the Baron, played by Curd Jürgens (the bad guy in The Spy Who Loved Me). We later get confirmation that he's a real German when he confides to Tex that he spent the end of the Second World War "in one of your lousy prison camps". The Baron is worldly, speaks fluent English and has a talent for keeping his stylish suit clean and pressed no matter how grimy or bloody the surroundings. He gives Tex and Ronald a lift to Shiraz, where they reunite with Mike as Negulesco takes the opportunity to insert some footage of traditional Persian dancers and acrobats.
Meanwhile we're introduced to Giorgio (Isarco Ravaioli, a prolific actor in Italian language films). He's the most mysterious of the main characters. Aside from his ethnicity, we're told little about his background or motivation, but when we first see him he's absconding with an Iranian government jeep. At a police checkpoint he claims to be a construction worker, whereupon the police show him a photo of a local criminal that they're pursuing. It's Jahan, played by the Iranian star Beh Rouz [Vossoughi]. Giorgio soon spots Jahan walking along the road, and kindly offers him a lift ("The police were asking for you this morning"). Jahan accepts. In a flashback, he is shown in a tuxedo murdering the lover of his fiancée.
Giorgio and Jahan stumble into the same Shiraz dive where the three Anglophones are staying. Mike uses his mechanical skills to "break" Giorgio's jeep. When Giorgio can't restart it ("Maledizione!"), Mike "fixes" it, in the process alertly noticing that it has been stolen. In gratitude Giorgio invites Mike and the others to hit the road with him and Jahan. The men leave Shiraz and are soon reunited with the Baron, who has lost his car (repossessed by the police) but gained a donkey ("I won him in a game of chance where I wasn't the one taking the chances"). As if to remove any doubt about his essential criminality, the Baron's ubiquitous black briefcase opens accidentally to reveal a pistol and lock picking tools. This impresses the others, who invite him aboard to fill out the titular Six.
A brief police chase scene with Jahan and Tex gives Negulesco an excuse to film the Persepolis ruins. The Six give the cops the slip by speeding off on a dirt back road, where they eventually reach a village that seems to have been abruptly deserted by its inhabitants. A hangman's tackle and noose adorn the central square, and show signs of recent use. The Six check out the public baths, where Jahan translates a sign in Farsi: "Men Monday and Wednesday, Women Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday". One thing's for sure: the women in this town were cleaner than the men.
In the mosque the Six discover the recently deceased corpse of a 40ish man, still dressed and wearing an expensive looking amulet. Finally inside the village jail they come across the beleaguered police chief (Anoosh Artin) and his beautiful, young and tough daughter (who looks plausibly Persian to me but is actually Warrene Ott, a generic American blonde in movies like The Undertaker & His Pals). After the Six spring father and daughter, the chief explains how the Army had just captured and hanged the local bandit leader Malik, but left without neutralizing the rest of his 70-odd gangsters who, with their new leader Nazar (in a grotesquely bad portrayal by James Mitchum, son of Robert) have been shooting up the village trying to get at Malik's body, ostensibly for superstitious reasons. Fortunately the police station has a hidden cache of movie rifles that shoot magical movie bullets. You know the kind: precision-guided, cause bad guys to jump straight up when shot, automatically replenish themselves so you never have to reload, etc. The chief and daughter arm themselves, and Jahan too insists on staying behind to help fight the bandits ("I'm Iranian"). The Westerners prepare to leave, figuring that they've done their good deed for the day, but then change their minds and join in the village's defense. After all, what's a few dozen bandits with automatic weapons and home-field advantage when you've got six B movie stars on your side?
Nazar arrives by jeep under a white flag to demand the body, but the chief refuses and the Six bury Malik in the presence of his chador-clad mother before settling in for a fight. Did I mention that the village is at the bottom of a valley and that the bandits' positions are in the high ground surrounding it? There's no safe way out now, and the town radio is broken, so there's no easy way to summon help.
That night a few bandits try to raid the village, but the Six repel them, dropping about 20 of them literally one bullet per bad guy. The surviving bandits retreat, but a hooded figure infiltrates the village through a hidden tunnel and slips into the bathhouse. Tex pursues, and after a hand-to-hand fight both fall into a pool. Tex rips off the head covering and discovers that the figure is not one of the (male) bandits, but Zari, Elke Sommer's character. Of course by falling into the water, Sommer has drenched her blouse, thus revealing her attractive nipples. Zari, it turns out, was Malik's woman. Her exact provenance is not revealed. We're told that she met Malik while working as a belly dancer in Tehran. She obviously doesn't look Persian, and at one point she crosses herself like a Catholic. She also says "to Nazar and men like him I'm an infidel, but I must respect their beliefs". But on the other hand she mocks Tex and Ronald as "you foreigners" and talks about "our Persian ways", so go figure. Zari tells Tex that Nazar has to "prove himself" to the other bandits by dragging Malik's body back to the hills. Seasoned cineastes will suspect that there's more to it than that, and will also predict that Zari and Tex, being in the same basic line of work (golddigging) will eventually hook up now that Zari is officially available.
Life returns to the town the next day as the villagers file in from their (undisclosed) hideout. Among them is the cowardly, self-important mayor. Three of the Invincible Six attempt to break out by jeep to summon the Army. They shoot several bandits, but the guide they'd recruited from the village is killed, so with no one to show them the escape route, they retreat back to town. Now's a good time to point out that Giorgio's jeep is one of those magical movie good-guy vehicles that repels bad-guy bullets, never runs out of gas, and never breaks down when you're on the run.
A bandit disguised as an Army lieutenant arrives in the village and tries to con the mayor out of Malik's body, but he doesn't fool Tex and Mike. Along with the chief's daughter they shoot his guards and imprison him. I guess wearing a stolen uniform that has an unpatched bullet hole in the back is something of a giveaway.
While Tex and Zari engage in wary flirtation Ronald gets careless in the morning watch and wanders outside the village gates. He's captured by the bandits and tortured by Nazar, but all the bandit chief gets out of him are snide James Bond-style retorts. His battered body is dumped in the village while Zari belly dances for the village men. The grieving Tex reacts like a real man, by glugging whisky and screwing Zari (after going down on her...I guess he's a gentleman thief, this Tex).
Finally the big showdown comes. Nazar has managed to steal Malik's body and amulet from the mosque. He's also kidnapped Zari, and is back at his camp trying to torture the location of "the treasure" out of her. It turns out that Malik buried a nest egg somewhere, and both Zari and Nazar are eager to get their hands on it. The Invincible Six, now down to Five, set out for Nazar's camp, forcing the fake lieutenant to lead the way. En route they discover an unexpected case of dynamite in the back of the jeep. Thus armed, the good guys sneak up on the camp, an approach accompanied by a reprise of Hadjidakis' title theme, and edited as a crude imitation of Pike & Co.'s procession to the climatic gunfight in The Wild Bunch. The bandits, despite having machine guns and guard towers, never notice The Five deploying explosives around them, so their camp is quickly blown sky high. In the chaos, Nazar escapes, Zari is rescued, and Giorgio is killed taking out Nazar's bodyguard (a comical stereotype with a rotund body, bald head and walrus moustache). Zari babbles to the Baron that the amulet which Nazar has stolen from Malik's body contains a map to the treasure, a fact previously known only to Zari and Malik's mother.
For some reason Nazar rides back to the village unaccompanied. He mounts the center square, where the hanging rope is still attached, squeezes off a few rounds and taunts the police chief. It turns out that the men of the village are hiding atop the town walls with guns, but like idiots they let Nazar murder the chief before they start shooting. Tex returns just in time to watch this barrage from ten feet away. Being a Movie Good Guy, none of the militia's bullets hit him even though he's standing directly behind Nazar in their line of fire. It takes 17 seconds of steady bombardment to finally kill Nazar, whereupon Malik's mother emerges from hiding, removes the map from the amulet and burns it. Why she does this is not made clear. I guess it's supposed to be some sort of selfless, karma-inducing gesture of closure, though maybe the old woman memorized it on the fly, secretly planning to retrieve the treasure for herself later, MacKenna's Gold-style. All we know is that Zari arrives with the other survivors in time to hysterically discover her grand plans literally going up in smoke.
With the bandits wiped out, the village rejoices. Their mayor promises not to divulge the identities of Tex and the others to the authorities when they arrive. Jahan stays behind to marry the chief's daughter. Tex says "you're a lucky girl", although I'm skeptical (Jahan is courageous and lives by a code of honor, but is impulsive, violent and presumably still has a murder charge hanging over him). The mayor wishes the Baron "auf Wiedersehen" to which the Baron replies "I hope not" before hopping into the jeep with Tex and Mike. Naturally their clothes are cleaned and pressed for the occasion. Zari, with no reason to stay around, decides to hop a ride with them. The four come to a fork in the road, where the Baron flips a coin then points right, in which direction our adventurers head off as the credits roll.
I first saw this flick on overnight TV in New York sometime in the 1990s. It's classic "Late Show" material. I've always remembered the catchy theme tune and the shots of the Iranian countryside, so my reasons for rediscovering it are purely nostalgic. Otherwise this low-caliber effort is likely to be of interest only if you're attracted by the features enumerated at the beginning of the review. Here's to B-grade movies and fun memories!
- First published May 2015