The grim yet rewarding WW2 drama ‘5 Branded Women’ is one of those hard-to-find gems that’s been criminally forgotten for decades. Liked by the public more so than the critics, it has rightly garnered something of a minor following among film buffs.
Five peasant women are thrown out of their Yugoslavian village for cavorting with a German officer. With their heads shaved and branded traitors, they band together to fight the Nazis, before joining a band of guerrillas where they ultimately find love and loss in equal measures.
Known in Europe as ‘Jovanka and the Others’, what I liked here is that the movie took little time in setting up its engaging story, and featured an interesting mixture of the ensemble international cast. Although the film has an abundance of strong female roles, you do get a sense of male exploitation at times, especially the near-nudity in the prolonged waterfall scene.
In a role intended for Gina Lollobrigida, top-billed Silvana Mangano (then-wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis) was suitably strong as Jovanka, the leader of the pack. I thought Vera Miles was terrific as the tragic Daniza, the only one of the women not to sleep with the German officer. French icon Jeanne Moreau was the largely unsmiling Ljuba, while 19 year old Carla Gravina, shone as the pregnant Mira. It was odd seeing Barbara Bel Geddes as one of the shorn women, but she was very good as the sympathetic Marja, although due to a Broadway engagement she was reportedly the only one of the actresses who declined to shave their head for the film.
The excellent male cast had Van Heflin as the very strict head of the Partisans, who reluctantly lets the women join their group. Reliable Richard Basehart was quite touching as the German Captain, captured by the Partisans and forms a bond with one of the women. Steve Forrest was the German ladies-man who is castrated after his dalliances with the five women, and tough-guy Harry Guardino was memorable as the ‘loose-cannon’ of the group.
Watching the movie today, it’s hard to imagine that director Martin Ritt hated this movie, stating that it was the only one of his pictures that he was ashamed of. Ritt would go on to have bigger success with Oscar favourites ‘Hud’ (’63) and ‘Norma Rae’ (’79), before making his final movie; ‘Stanley & Iris’ in 1990, the year of his death. The cold and snowy cinematography was by Giuseppe Rotunno, who would photograph Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ (’63) and the Hollywood pictures ‘Carnal Knowledge’ (’71), and ‘All that Jazz’ (’79).
With moments of wrist-cuttings and firing squads, the compelling ‘5 Branded Women’ is a poignant picture with both strong male and (especially) female roles. With its potent mix of patriotism and hypocrisy it pulls no punches, and remains a realistic and sometimes shocking anti-war film. Just don’t expect much in the way of a happy ending.