FIVE BRANDED WOMEN, an Italo-American co-production of a stark WW2 drama, didn’t make much impact in 1960—a gross of $2,900,000 putting it 77th for the year—and is little-seen today. Martin Ritt, in his only direction of a war picture (apart from one sequence of Hemingway’s Adventures Of A Young Man two years later), was quite unhappy with his involvement. Likely it was having to work with the overbearing producer Dino De Laurentiis, or maybe he was miffed by some choppy editing, or irked by a poorly conceived ad campaign. It can’t be due to the impassioned performances from his strong cast, the interesting, adult-minded script, evocative locations or Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s fine music score, all laudable elements. The screenplay is credited to Ivo Parelli, covering for Paul Jarrico and Michael Wilson, both still affected by the taint of blacklisting. *
Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, 1943. Condemned by their townsmen of sexually consorting with the enemy, five women are shorn of their hair and banished to the countryside, where they must fend for themselves. Each had their reasons for their actions, and one was completely innocent, but mercy and charity are absent in a landscape ruled by violence. ‘Jovanka’ (Silvana Mangano) becomes the de facto leader of ‘Ljuba’ (Jeanne Moreau), ‘Daniza’ (Vera Miles), ‘Marja’ (Barbara Bel Geddes), and ‘Mira’ (Carla Gravina). Eventually they are allowed to join a partisan group.
Van Heflin plays the stern commander, Harry Guardino a volatile fighter, Richard Basehart a German officer they capture. The three men form complicated relationships with three of the women, but happy endings are not in the cards. All the actors do compelling work, and there are several affecting scenes, with an excellent finale.
Since Yugoslavia wouldn’t cooperate (bitter feelings from brutal days), Italy and Austria provided the impressive location work. While the scenery cries out for color, it was the right emotional choice to use black & white, given the subject matter; Giusuppe Rotunno was the cinematographer.
Steve Forrest plays the German soldier the women were used and cast off by, an arrogant womanizer: he loses more than his hair when a partisan patrol catches him in the act. Suitably grim, thoughtfully written and performed, the film was poorly marketed, with garish poster ads playing up the sensuality of the actresses, a lure more fitting for an exploitation actioner than a serious look at a tragic time. Underrated film is well worth seeking out.
With Alex Nicol, Gérard Herter, Romolo Valli. Photographed by . 115 minutes.
* The script was adapted from the novel “Jovanka e le altre” (“Jovanka and the others”), written by Ugo Piro. Or was it the other way around? The book was published the same year as the movie was released, so maybe it was one of those tie-in jobs whipped up in concert with the production. Piro later wrote the screenplays for much-praised The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis and Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion as well as the Yugoslav WW2 epic The Battle Of Neretva.
Mangano happened to be producer De Laurentiis’ wife, but she was a major star in Italy on her own. She’d just featured in the superb, satiric-tragic Italian World War One epic La grande guerra/The Great War, and the lavish costume spectacle, Tempest, that one produced by her hubby. Van Heflin was in that as well, and he made a Dino tri-fecta by starring in yet another offbeat 1960 WW2 picture, Under Ten Flags.