The SS under the command of the evil Major Taussig comes to the small Italian village of Reonato looking for the partisans led by a man named Scarpi. When the townspeople refuse to give the Nazis the location of the rebels, Taussig orders them massacred. Only the children, mostly boys, who were away playing in a nearby field at the time, survive, although they witness the deaths of their parents from afar. Some of them are too young to even comprehend what they just saw...
Later that night, an Allied DC-3 flies a commando team led by manly man's man Captain Turner into Italy somewhere near Reonato. They're to be met by Scarpi and his men in a field. Unfortunately, the mission goes tits-up right from the get-go: Heer troops led by the stern Captain Friedrich von Hecht have captured a partisan member and forced him to give up the location of the rendezvous. The minute the Americans start parachuting in, the Germans rush in and shoot them all. Turner, who was last out of the plane, is caught by a gust of wind and blown away into the forest, where he gets hung up in a tree. Back at the field, after finishing with the American paratroopers, the Germans engage the partisans in a firefight and soundly defeat them. Only Scarpi escapes, pausing long enough to use his rifle to shoot the captive partisan who betrayed them.
Turner and Aldo in von Hecht's office.
Captain von Hecht, who saw Turner get carried into the forest, sends his right-hand man Schwalberg to go and retrieve him. He wants him alive. However, when Schwalberg and his men find where Turner ended up, all they find is his discarded parachute, gun and helmet. As it turns out, Turner hit his head and was knocked unconscious, and he was found by the children from Reonato, who (somehow) managed to get him down from the tree and drag him away before the Germans got there. They take him back to the cave they've been hiding out in since the SS wiped out Reonato, where we get to the know the kids a little better.
The oldest is the levelheaded, teenaged Dino. But he has a younger brother and sister, and with their parents dead, he has decided he can't risk being the group's leader for fear of his siblings losing their sole remaining caregiver, so he mostly just tends to stay behind and guard the cave with a shotgun the kids stole. Thus it is that the leadership responsibilities fall to the second oldest boy, Aldo. He's only the leader because of his age and because of his extremely forceful personality. The younger boys look up to him because he's cool, brave and takes action; but he also acts without thinking, is short-tempered and abusive, using threats and violence to keep the other children in line, and worst of all, ever since he witnessed his father getting shot, he hasn't been quite right in the head, and is very obviously on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown.
The boys took Turner because they've stolen a cache of MP40 machine guns from the nearby German garrison, but they don't know how to use them. The only gun they know how to use is the purloined shotgun. And Aldo has it in his head that what they need to do is get revenge for the annihilation of their town. To this end, he wants Turner to teach him and the other boys how to use the machine guns. Unfortunately, it seems the American hit his head harder than they thought, because he hasn't regained consciousness since being brought to the cave.
Elsewhere, von Hecht is annoyed that Schwalberg failed to capture Turner, because they found a s**t-ton of demolition gear among the Americans' equipment, and without a prisoner to interrogate, he has no idea what the Americans had been planning on blowing up. Worse, he thinks Turner may still try and do the mission solo. His efforts to convey his worries to the local SS C.O., Colonel Jannings, fall on deaf ears. Von Hecht hates the thuggish SS, and the feeling is more than mutual; Jannings isn't listening to anything von Hecht tries to tell him.
Worried Turner may die, Aldo takes two of the boys, Silvio and Carlo, and goes to get a doctor sympathetic to the partisans. However, Scarpi is waiting for him there. He demands to know what Aldo has done with Turner, but Aldo refuses to tell him, on the grounds that because he found Turner, the American belongs to him, as though Turner were a hamster or something. He gives not two s**ts for the partisans' cause, and only wants Turner to help him get revenge on the SS. Before the argument can progress any further, von Hecht, thinking the partisans may have taken the wounded American to a doctor, bursts in with some men. Proving to be firm believers in the philosophy of shooting first and asking questions later, the intruding Germans shoot the place up, killing Scarpi and the doctor while Aldo escapes out the back, and only after they're dead does von Hecht realize he should've asked about the American...
Kids and guns. A dangerous mix.
With that doctor dead, Aldo looks for a suitable replacement. He, Silvio and Carlo go to a hospital controlled by the Germans, where the youngest of the three, Carlo, uses his seeming innocence to lure a concerned German doctor named Bianca out to where the other boys can jump her. They take her back to the cave, but she refuses to help the still comatose Turner unless the boys agree to turn him over to the German army as a prisoner. Aldo loses his temper, and, when Bianca slaps him because he's acting like a little prick to her, he completely loses control and attacks her. Spurred on, the other boys join in, and, in their rage, they decide to use poor Bianca as a proxy for the Nazis who massacred their town, and it quickly becomes apparent that Aldo intends for the doctor to get gang-raped. Suddenly, he's seized from behind and thrown aside as if he were a rag doll. Turner is awake... and he doesn't take too kindly to the boys' conduct.
After taking the night to recover, Turner agrees to help the boys in their plan. But first, they need to help him in his original mission, to blow up a dam. To do that, they need to steal the demo gear from the German base. Bianca, for her part, remains with the children, her maternal instincts leading her to become protective of Dino's younger brother and sister. She doesn't really get along with Turner, though, considering his agreement to teach the boys how to use weapons a monstrous thing, and their working relationship eventually comes to blows later.
Using a clever ruse, Aldo gets von Hecht and most of his men away from the base, allowing Turner to break into von Hecht's office and recover the explosives (as well as the dog tags of his slain men). In the process, however, he is forced to kill a few Germans who wander in, in particular Gunther, an SS corporal assigned to hang around and keep an eye on von Hecht. Having retrieved what they came for, Turner and the boys beat feet before the Germans return, having realized they've been tricked. Von Hecht finds the bodies and realizes the explosives got taken. He also realizes it was Aldo who tricked him. Uh-oh.
Having secured the explosive gear, Turner begins drilling the boys in the use of the machine guns in preparation for a raid on the SS' headquarters, after which they'll go and hit the dam. Turner's easygoing, charismatic manner make the other boys begin idolizing him instead of Aldo, and a jealous Aldo starts seeing the American officer as a threat to his leadership of the group. He starts challenging Turner's authority, behaving rashly and without regard for his own safety or that of his friends, and the more and more he isolates himself from the group, the more and more he surrenders to his building insanity and desire to kill Germans - and not just SS, either.
"Nein! Not the super-wedgie!"
In the meantime, the theft of the explosives and the deaths of the German soldiers, particularly Gunther, has convinced Jannings that von Hecht's fears about Turner are correct. However, much to von Hecht's annoyance, Jannings insists against all evidence to the contrary that the American's target will be some remote, out-of-the-way tunnel, and not the dam. He makes it an SS operation, too, and places the severely displeased von Hecht under the command of, you guessed it, Major Taussig, the guy who ordered the massacre of Reonato before. Remember him? The overconfident, arrogant Taussig thinks he can handle one American and a bunch of brats... but he and the SS are about to find out the hard way that when the attacked Reonato, they may have just kicked a hornets' nest (title drop!)! Everything is leading towards an explosive climax which will see if Turner and his "kiddie brigade" can take on the SS and blow up a heavily-guarded dam!
A dark and gritty World War II adventure movie filmed on location in Italy and co-produced by the Italians, this film is quite grimdark and violent, and also possibly one of the filthiest movies I've ever seen. Everyone is always sweating and in bad need of a good bath, with messy hair that needs combing, and clothes that need a trip through the washing machine. It all adds to the realism, of course; war is dirty and messy.
Hornets' Nest stars macho man Rock Hudson, fresh off his successful starring role in the big screen adaptation of Alistair MacLean's novel Ice Station Zebra, as the determined Turner. He does a pretty good job in what is essentially a one-note tough guy role, although he does, later one, get to emote a bit during scenes where Turner wonders he's doing the right thing by arming a bunch of preteen and younger kids.
Other standout performances include the achingly beautiful Sylva Koscina as Bianca, whose compassionate, kindhearted nature make it truly saddening all that she endures throughout the film. She begins by denying the crimes of the Nazis, but eventually takes up arms against them herself. Still, there is the uncomfortable scene where she's almost raped by the kids, and roughed up by Turner later, and I really have to wonder what the hell directors Phil Karlson and Franco Cirino were thinking.
Mark Colleano as Aldo.
There's also Mark Colleano as Aldo, and holy s**t, can that kid act! Colleano really plays the whole "psycho teen" angle to the hilt and makes Aldo a believably dangerous and reprehensible, but still somehow pitiable character. Indeed, almost all the actors playing the boys do a good job, particularly Mauro Gravina as the adorable, ill-fated Carlo, and John Fordyce as Dino. These two are really the human face of the group of children (nevermind Dino is probably close to eighteen). If Aldo represents all that is wrong with youth, then the warm and compassionate Dino and the eager, curious and hopeful (despite the tragedy that has befallen them) Carlo represent all that is good and pure in it.
This finally brings us to the German characters, who save for Lithuanian actor Jacques Sernas as Taussig, are played almost entirely by Italians doing bad Teutonic accents. The high-ranking colonels and generals are stilted and laughable, but Sernas is pretty good. His Taussig oozes despicable arrogance and casual cruelty.
Sergio Fantoni as Captain von Hecht.
The best German character, though, and, indeed, probably the best character in the movie, is the very, very blonde Sergio Fantoni as von Hecht. He's a perfect example of an antagonist who isn't a villain. He's a decent enough guy who's just on the wrong side of an unjust war and knowingly serving an evil regime, acidly making his distaste for "you SS people" known at every turn, even at the risk of his own career and maybe even his life. Most interestingly of all is how he treats his mission to find and eliminate (or capture) Turner. Von Hecht is a hunter, you see; and he sees the American officer on the loose as a challenge that he must accept and try to overcome. For him, it's less about advancing the Nazi cause (he could give a rat's ass about that) and more about the thrill of the hunt. And (mild spoiler here), he isn't one of this egomaniacal hunters drunk on his own superiority over his enemy; when his own prey bests him in the end, he accepts his defeat with dignity.
If the movie has a fault (the rape scenes aside), it is that it is a little on the unrealistic side when it comes to the battle scenes, and also can't quite seem to settle on a tone or moral. We have (essentially) untrained kids mowing down countless Nazis left and right, and it can't quite seem to decide if it wants to show war as a fun adventure or as a grim reality with tragic psychological tolls that come with children becoming killers, and its efforts to have it both ways leave it feeling a bit disjointed.
Tie-In Merchandise: There was a novelization written by pulp writer Michael Avallone published by Popular Library at the time the movie was released. It hasn't been reprinted. It's one of the better movie novelizations I've read, especially in that it doesn't include the second rape scene. Instead, it's consensual sex. In addition to this, in 2010, Quartet Records released a CD of Ennio Morricone's score for the film, in a limited edition of 3,000 copies.