After watching Klaus attempt to foil an Allied plan to blow up the dam in CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS, I was ready for a second dose of WWII war-xploitation, this time with our boy switching sides and starring as -- wait for it -- an American GI.
Frankly, when SALT IN THE WOUND (aka THE LIBERATORS) started I wasn't even sure the disc contained the right movie. I'd previously seen the film about 20 years ago when my Klaus fascination really started, but I most definitely did not remember the ponderous, pretentious opening in which a narrator talks about the creation of the earth and sky and all the creatures on the planet as the screen fills with shots of rock formations and deserted stretches of land. ("Crap. I hope they didn't put a peplum on here by mistake," I thought as I folded my laundry.)
But it was the right movie and before the credits even roll we're treated to two American soldiers who cross the line, even for wartime. One -- a seemingly battle-fatigued African American soldier named John Grayson (Ray Saunders) -- murders a group of surrendering German soldiers. The other -- an opportunistic little sleaze named Brian Haskins (Kinski) -- kills an elderly German woman when she catches him robbing her home of what valuables she has left.
Court martialed and sentenced to die in front of a firing squad, the two condemned men are handed over to Lt. Michael Sheppard (George Hilton), a green West Point grad getting his first taste of what really goes on at the front. Taking charge of the execution detail Sheppard ends up leading them right to their death as a squad of Germans attack the soldiers while they're loading their rifles in accordance with protocol. Seizing the chance to escape, Haskins and Grayson high tail it into the woods with Sheppard joining them (when he eventually reaches them Kinski snarls a wisecrack about making up his mind a little faster next time).
Sheppard -- a by-the-book officer out to make up for his gaffe -- is determined to take the two killers in and see they get the justice they escaped. After a few ill-advised attempts are foiled by the soldiers (including one in which Grayson leaps at Sheppard off a cliff wall!), the three form an uneasy alliance and realize that sticking together is their best hope for survival against the Germans. Along the way, Haskins and Grayson adopt new identities in an effort to distance themselves from their pasts and maybe carve out a new life after the war.
Emerging from the hillside they discover a deserted-looking Italian village. When the residents see the Americans they hail them as liberators (hence one of the flick's alternate titles) and greet them with open arms. Unfortunately, the Germans also have their sites set on the town (I'm not exactly sure why as the scenes with the Nazi officers aren't dubbed in English) and it's up to the three GIs to hold off the Germans and save the townsfolk that have so warmly welcomed them.
While CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS is a pretty straightforward action movie that can only go as far as star Richard Harrison can take it, SALT IN THE WOUND is a riveting and entertaining war drama with plenty going on, not to mention a juicy leading role for Kinski. His Brian Haskins/Norman Carr is cold, opportunistic and out for nobody but himself, a trait that rears its head at the ugliest of times. But he's also touched by the love of a woman in the village (Betsy Bell) and the gratitude and acceptance of the villagers appears to cause some cracks in his cynical facade.
Rediscovering this film after twenty years or so, Kinski's performance is a revelation and immediately jumps into my Top 10 Klaus Performances. The voice talent is totally wrong for him (it needs to be more weasely and less "gruff American GI"), but like most great Kinski performances he doesn't need words to deliver his most powerful moments. In particular, a scene when the trio first arrives in the village and Daniela (Bell) gives him flowers is powerful, touching stuff.
It's a fun anti-hero role for a star usually cast as a heavy or red herring and he relishes sneering his way through the early parts of the film. You can see his contempt for everyone from MPs, the military court and scared soldiers to chaplains, the Allies and Germans dripping from every word and motion. His struggle to keep the bad parts of his personality at bay later in the flick make SALT IN THE WOUND a rock-solid keeper.