It is the time of the Mexican Revolution, and one ne'erdowell is doing his best not to get involved, even exploiting the situation. He is Luis Dominguez (Nino Castelnuovo) and is currently using subterfuge to join a work party to avoid the government troops, knocking one man out for his permit and improvising with a clove of garlic to divert the attention of the soldier stamping the slips. But as he goes to jump on the truck, he gets word from The Dutchman (Peter Graves) that he has a job for him and he must drop everything because there is a lot of money to gain. Soon the shadowy mastermind has gathered up four cohorts for a daring robbery...
That the Five Man Army, a Spaghetti Western from the subgenre's heyday when what seemed like thousands were being made and pretty much all finding a distributor, was recalled among its many, many peers was down to the name on the screenplay. There were two, but it was Dario Argento who went on to the internationally recognised career, though before he made his directorial debut with classic giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the year after, he was making a living as a screenwriter, quite often with Westerns such as this. The most celebrated of those was another recognised classic Once Upon a Time in the West, but straight after that Argento was crafting one of those heist movies.
The heist caper was very popular in film internationally during this decade, so naturally that drifted towards the Western and usually it was either a bank being raided or a train was the target, as it was here, the benefit of that being it lent itself to an action-packed setpiece, which in this case took up a good proportion of the second half. Before that the team had to be assembled, which may look amoral when the opening titles depicted a wide selection of photographs taken at the time of the revolution, including people either about to be shot or having just been shot, which might lead you to believe there would be a political slant to the proceedings in a Bullet for the General kind of way.
You would have to wait a while to find that out, since most of the running time was spent planning and executing that heist, the first couple of acts leading up to the raid a much of a muchness, the sort of thing you could see in any number of other movies as the men banter and learn their purpose in the crime to liberate a few cases of gold from a train carriage guarded over by soldiers, not to mention the great big cannon on the back of the last part of the locomotive, also heavily manned. What many noted at the time, and continue to mark, was the Dutchman was played by Peter Graves, who was then enjoying television fame as the leader of the IMF, that was the Mission: Impossible crew, and this bore a similarity to that hit show.
In cowboy garb, of course, but the whole setting up of the scam and execution, complete with managing any unexpected hitches that may have arisen, was undoubtedly reminiscent of Graves' exploits on weekly TV, which was likely why he was cast, and also likely why, when he was best known for playing a goodie, the twist occurs at the end. He provided a dependable centre for the rest of this to orbit around, including James Daly as the explosives expert, Tetsurô Tanba as a character named Samurai who offs folks with his accurate knife-throwing, and most recognisably big Bud Spencer, just as his career in a double act with Terence Hill was taking off, appearing as the food-loving brute who takes care of the heavy lifting - literally. They make a solid ensemble alongside Castelnuovo, but it's really when the robbery gets underway that this turns into a nifty thrill ride, with such obstacles as what to do when one of the thieves falls off the train offering a neat line in tension. If not top notch, The Five Man Army was certainly worthwhile, Ennio Morricone score and all.