In 1944, the Allied forces land unopposed at Anzio – behind the German lines on the west coast of Italy – but instead of pushing inland and north to Rome, their commanding officer, General Lesly (Arthur Kennedy), decides to dig in.
Battle-hardened American war correspondent Dick Ennis (Robert Mitchum) “borrows” a jeep and drives the 30-odd miles to Rome and back accompanied by US Ranger Private Movie (Reni Santoni) and Canadian commando Corporal Rabinoff (Peter Falk).
They encounter no significant German forces, but their report on the absence of the enemy and the clear route to Rome is dismissed as General Lesly is more concerned about having the strength to hold Anzio and decides to dig in and await an expected counter-offensive from the Germans.
This gives the German commander Field Marshal Kesselring (Wolfgang Preiss) time to bring up his big guns and build elaborate defences – the Caesar Line.
A week later, Lesly orders two battalions of Rangers into an assault on Cisterna, a strategic village several miles inland, with Ennis tagging along. The troops are ambushed, with most of them killed or captured.
Ennis and a half-dozen soldiers escape the German trap and spend several days wandering around behind enemy lines before struggling back to Anzio to report on the German defences.
The film skips the two major German attacks which almost drove the Allies back into the sea, the long torturous stalemate and the tremendous troop build-up which eventually enabled the Allies to break out of the seven-by-eleven-mile beachhead four months later.
Missing, too, is any sense of what it was like to live in a hole in the ground for four months under constant observation and bombardment from the Germans on higher ground ringing the beachhead.
Ennis comes to the conclusion – after finally taking up a gun himself – that men fight wars because they enjoy it; it sharpens their senses.
This is undoubtedly true of some men, and Anzio is a whale of a movie which caters to this same taste for adventure and violence.
Robert Mitchum is his usual taciturn self, but the film’s best performance is by Peter Falk as one of the men who gets a kick out of killing. Without them, we couldn’t win wars – but without them, we might not have wars.
Cpl. Jack Rabinoff
Platoon Sgt. Abe Stimmler
Maj. Gen. Jack Lesly
Maj. Gen. Luke Howard
Gen. Van MacKensen
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring