Private Harry Frigg (Paul Newman) has a war record second to none in his own special field – getting out of prison. There isn’t a stockade that can hold him, and he is frequently inside one as a result of having the kind of tongue that says rude things to senior officers.
But in a war, there is a use for everything. Which is why Private Frigg one day finds himself in the private office of General Homer Prentiss (James Gregory) at Supreme Allied HQ, being called by his first name and asked if he would like to also be a general.
All Harry has to do for his stars is to get into an Italian villa where five Allied generals are enjoying every luxury that captivity can offer – and then get them out.
In charge of the villa “prison” is Italian colonel Ferrucci (Vito Scotti), who formerly managed a hotel. The fabulous food, wine, and accommodations seem sufficient justification for suspecting that the captive generals are not working too hard at finding a way out.
Frigg is made a two-star general because he has to outrank the generals – two American (Andrew Duggan and Tom Bosley), one Canadian (John Williams), one British (Charles Gray), and one French (Jacques Roux) – he has to rescue.
Having parachuted into Italy and got himself interned in the magnificent villa outside Milan, Frigg has plans for a rapid escape. But the sight of the villa’s widowed countess owner (Sylva Koscina in her first American movie), now living in the lodge, has him putting the escape off for a day or two.
When Frigg accidentally finds a secret passage out of the villa into the lodge, it becomes a job that will take months.
Then Major von Steignitz (Werner Peters) and the Nazis arrive, and the six generals are whisked away to a German stalag that is practically escape-proof. It’s a real challenge for Frigg, but he eventually checks out and takes the big brass with him.
The film has quiet wit and sometimes cunningly probes the whole fabric of relations between military ranks, but it is never quite as good as it promises to be.
The key defect is probably the casting of Paul Newman as Frigg. Newman is not a funny man. He is a clever and sincere actor trying to be funny.
Scenes at the villa were filmed not in Italy but at the Alverno Heights Academy for Girls in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in Los Angeles. Interiors were built at Universal Studios.
Private/General Harry Frigg
Countess Francesca Maria Eugenia Donatello Di Montefiore
Major von Steignitz
General Homer Prentiss