The plot concerns an uptight by-the-book Captain Cash (Dick Shawn), ordered to take the remains of an exhausted company and capture the village of Valerno. (This is set in 1943, in Sicily.) The Italian soldiers there, under the command of Captain Oppo (Sergio Fantoni) are more than willing to surrender -- as long as they're allowed to have a festival that night first. Naturally, Cash strenuously objects to this, but the offer of a peaceful surrender wins him over. A gigantic village-wide wild party ensues that night. The Italians get ready to surrender in the morning as promised, but things start going awry. Things really go wrong with the Germans show up unexpectedly and capture the entire town. Then the Italians and Americans have to work together before they're all executed at dawn. This being a comedy, there's no doubt of the outcome, but it's how they beat the Germans that's so funny.
This movie isn't perfect. The humor style isn't going to work for everyone. And the festival drags and drags (though it's not without its moments). On re-watches, I admit, I tend to skip right over that part. The section right after it, with everyone hung over and trying to deal with the aftermath and Major Pott and creating a fake battle is probably my favorite section, but I also love the whole end once the Germans occupy the town. I mean you get Dick Shawn in drag, as just about the ugliest woman imaginable. Makes me laugh and laugh.
James Coburn and Aldo Ray are, of course, my favorite parts of this movies. They play Lt. Christian and Sgt. Rizzo, respectively. They are hilarious without being outright silly, like some of the rest of the movie. Aldo Ray gets to speak a bunch of Italian, which is awesome. He spends a good portion of the movie in an Italian uniform that is too small for him (it'll stretch!), and that alone cracks me up. I'm also extremely fond of Sergio Fantoni, who I know mostly as Captain Oriani from Von Ryan's Express. He was one of my favorite characters in that movie, and I love him here too. He's the perfect relaxed foil for uptight Captain Cash.
I spend a lot of this movie imagining some of this company hooking up in a couple years with Lt. Hanley and Sgt. Saunders in France. Particularly as William Bryant is in this movie, as well as Kurt Kruger, and Horst Ebersberg, and Jay Novello. It's hard not to think Combat! while watching this, as there's so many common denominators.
It also has an absolutely fabulous catchy main theme by Henry Mancini that I never tire of hearing:
The main title music
Lt. Christian translating Oppo's gesture.
The entire village brawl
The fake battle, particularly where Oppo shoots Christian and he refuses to fall down.
Capt. Cash in drag
Aldo Ray kidnapping Major Pott
When Major Pott flips his wig and starts spouting the most odd things