CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Robert Totten’s “The Quick and the Dead” is a presentable war movie made on a budget. Like Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” or Corman’s “Ski Troop Attack” it concentrates–for both budgetary and dramatic reasons–on a small group of characters under extreme pressure. This allows the action to be kept “local,” with no masses of men or machinery to distract the viewer. Totten’s film (he both directed and co-wrote it with Sheila Lynch) is a “grunt’s” film, offering a ground-level view of combat where you have to be close enough to the enemy to catch his last expelled breath. When the Army Air Corps briefly appears it is like a deus-ex-machina–a wondrous thing that turns instant defeat–the patrol had been captured by Germans–into instant victory. But that image of the dazed and bloodied German officer wandering back and forth like a gruesome marionette does tend to linger.
Victor French’s Milo Riley is a less than a John Wayne-like hero. He struggles just to stay alive and the deaths of each of his comrades visibly diminish him, as a simple mission to seek and destroy an enemy observation post spins more and more out-of-control. The film also allows civilians a voice, most notably in the characters of the two sisters, Theresa and Maria (Majel Barrett and Sandy Donigan) who tag along with the Americans as a matter of practical survival. (If anything in the film seemed forced it was the developing romance between Milo and the widowed Theresa.) En route back to their own lines, the patrol manages to find and destroy a hidden German munitions dump and, with the sisters’ aid, reaches out to a band of partisans operating in the surrounding hills. Only two members survive to briefly join the partisans and aid in repulsing an attack on their mountain redoubt. The partisans are presented in an equivocal manner. First seen happily arguing and gambling the day away, we then learn that they are less-than-thrilled to be hosting the hunted Americans who destroyed the ammo dump. Milo’s old line about fighting to keep everyone’s families safe is trumped by the partisan leader’s reply that the Americans’ families are 3,000 miles away, while the partisans’ families are right there with them. But in the end, they will fight because they must and, as their live-in priest proclaims, it is “Judgment Day” for the quick and the dead alike.