By Charles EP Murphy
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The twelfth theme was "Underdog"
SIX AGAINST THE DARK (1965) dir. Val Guest
PLOT: It’s the height of the Siege of Crete. Both the embattled Creforce soldiers and the locals bear the near-nightly bombardment with stoicism and aggressively drunken mid-bombing revelry – unaware that German agents are sneaking in under cover of the bombs. The sinister Hauptmann Kaufmann (Christopher Lee) plans to enact a reign of terror and sabotage in advance of the next invasion.
Intelligence officer and former Classics professor Harold Remington (Jon Pertwee) and bombastic Maori corporal Jimmy Waititi (Nikolas Morrison) are out in the field when they become aware of Kaufmann’s forces. Unable to get soldiers in time, they gather a ragtag group of locals – cheery brigand Kondekos (John Laurie), soul-searching priest Father Lanthimos (Peter Cushing), eager teenager Yanis (Peter Craze), and village woman Demetria (Barbara Shelley) who butchered paratroopers in 1941 – to find and rout the invaders. The first clash goes badly wrong, as Yanis is wounded and the Germans begin a night-time cat-and-mouse battle against the outgunned allies.
Father Lanthimos sacrifices himself in the end, leading the bulk of the Germans into a trap – a trap that works because the sneering Kaufmann felt his opponents lacked the stomach for sacrifice. Remington leads his team back to Heraklion, blooded by battle.
POINTS OF INTEREST: “Six Against The Dark” was the third of the ‘Hammer War’ films and the first to be made with that tagline, following “The Invasion of Crete” and “The Savage Jackboot”. A number of props and sets return from “Invasion”, helping this film come under budget.
This was the first post-war Cretan film where the Maori soldier was an actual Maori – Morrison was one of the dozens of Maori-Cretans ‘war babies’ – and unlike the early 40s propaganda films that used soldiers on leave, this was the first with an actual actor. “Six” is popularly remembered as ending the practice of white actors ‘browning up’ or Anglo-Indians being used, though the latter would still occur on TV until the 1970s.
One of the German soldiers is Peter Craze’s older brother Michael.
While a modest hit in 1965, it was the 70s that made it a cultural landmark. To capitalise on Jon Pertwee’s popular run on Doctor Who, the BBC aired the film in the summer of 1971 – it did well enough to be repeated annually until 1977. This inspired “The Dalek Hunters” (1973), a Terry Nation story in which the Doctor and his companion help four Thal agents track down a Dalek squad.
REVIEW: Crete shows up in British war films almost as much as the Battle of Britain, and it’s not surprising when it’s the only victory we had before the Soviets and Americans entered the war. It’s also got variety – you can have the large-scale battles against the failed paratrooper invasion, you can have the RAF and Royal Navy fighting the Siege, you can have groups hunting down German special forces saboteurs, you can use it as the springboard for liberating Greece & the Allies march through the ‘soft underbelly’ or you can show the bombing of Romania’s oilfields. And with New Zealand and Australian soldiers in Creforce, it comes with a foreign market.
The biggest reason, however, is that “plucky underdog” factor. In popular imagining, Crete is the tale of a diverse army and a cheery rural people who were surrounded, outgunned, and likely to fall like the brave mainland did, but, just as Britain itself did, they all held out, fought back, and went back to the continent to kick the Axis out. It is a tale of people who should have lost but did not because they had pluck on their side.
“Six Against The Dark” prints this legend loud and proud. Corporal Waititi is a Maori soldier as recorded in propaganda and white men’s diaries, a loud, smiling, haka-performing overgrown kid who is adapt at shocking violence. Kondekos the brigand is a real-life Robin Hood who hates Nazis. Our heroes are patched together out of amateurs, bonded together by their desire to fight evil. The women of rural Crete are impressively savage amazons – though here, the legend is changing. In older films, Cretan women appeared but were always slightly ‘backward’, the implication that they’re not fully civilised and that’s why they act in way contrary to our own proper, dignified women. Hammer’s own “The Invasion of Crete” ran with this as well, but that was 1963 and this film is 1965. Demetria is just young and eager; a woman from London’s swinging nightclubs given a machete to swing.
And of course, the German mission is in advance of a New Invasion – they’re not just there to undermine our resistance so the Commonwealth abandons the island, Crete’s not just a target because its refusal to fall is making the Axis look like crap, oh no. Defeating this small band of Germans ensures the Axis can’t launch a second great wave of paratroopers and capture the island for their rapacious ends.
So historical accuracy is very much out the window. “Six” is correct that there were civilian militias that went Nazi hunting alongside Commonwealth officers and Germans did sneak onto the island for sabotage purposes, and that’s pretty much it.
But we’re here to watch a film! How does “Six” stand up as a film?
One of its great virtues is that it gets in and out fast, barely reaching 80 minutes in its story of a single night. Here, the use of myth and fondly remembered propaganda work to its advantage. We ‘know’ the characters and their situation; they don’t need much fleshing out for us to root for them. The downside, of course, is that they’re a very one-dimensional bunch (and the Germans don’t even get one). Only Father Lanthimos, weary with doubts about the war and its suffering and with his quietly noble fate, stands out as a person on paper. Every other character relies on the actor’s own charisma to come alive – though of course Cushing has quite a lot of that too.
One bit of character work outside of the Kill Nazis mission is Jimmy and Demetria flirting. This has a few lines of script devoted to it but is primarily put across by how Morrison and Shelley constantly play off each other, always standing close and looking to each other in quiet moments. The sense the actors give it is that these two are playing a game of one-upmanship. Their relationship is another bit of legend: the ‘war babies’ were primarily from larger towns and cities, rarely the countryside, and it wasn’t done in front of the Commonwealth soldiers (and certainly not the local clergy). But everyone ‘knows this happened’, so here it is happening, and everyone is happy with it, and why not have that myth?
Val Guest makes a valiant effort to make you think this is Crete, with a combination of cleverly lit studio sets and Gibraltar location filming. On a modern TV and in crisp HD disc quality, the seams sadly show in a way they didn’t in the old days but we can’t hold that against him. The limitations of budget and location are turned into a virtue by canny directing, filming the initial battles and stalk scenes as a horror film more than a traditional war story – this, along with “Savage Jackboot”, cemented the ‘Hammer War’ style of using horror’s tricks and cinematic language to create a sense of looming threat. Even though you know Father Lanthimos’ death is coming, your hair still raises as the Germans come out of the dark like Lee’s vampires. When a Nazi gets close to Demetria’s hiding place with the wounded Yanis, it’s a monster outside the damsel’s hiding place.
The initial gunfight is the best scene of the film. Our heroes move in on the Germans, showing by their movement that they are a mix of professional and amateur, becoming aware as they go that there are more German soldiers than they expected – Remington clearly is panicked but knows they’re in too deep – as they move in, the enemy subtly show they are aware and Hauptmann Kaufmann waits, waits, waits, up until he calmly asks them to surrender before Remington can do the same. And then, as Remington asks, Kaufmann spins and fires and Yanis drops. The ensuing battle is fifteen seconds of quick cuts and gunfire before a retreat, the Germans ignoring their single casualty like they are incapable of caring.
(The worst scene of the film is when the refined Remington and the coarse Kondekos bond over their mutual love of Hercules myths. It’s too obvious and cringey and Pertwee seems to think this is a comedy scene while Laurie is playing it straight. And also why are they not saying Herakles?)
“Six Against The Dark” is a key film for the development of ‘Hammer War’, a key film for Crete war stories, and a key film for cultural in-jokes. But beyond all that, it’s a heart-racing film about outgunned and outnumbered underdogs fighting implacable foes and winning; the story will grab you even if you know it’s a bit silly, and isn’t that the point at the end of the day?
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: 1/5
FILM ITSELF: 4/5