FANTASIA OBSCURA: Looking for a feminist action flick? This Dean Martin spy-fi is sadly not it

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you’d be surprised by what turns up as you throw out the trash…

The Ambushers (1967)

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures

Directed by: Henry Levin

Imagine if we had a genre work where women are truly important to the plot.

We’re talking something suggesting Annihilation crossed with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman film, where woman are truly important to the story and to making a better world. We discover that women are necessary for our ability to reach distant stars, mainly because our ships require them to be the pilots, and that in order to insure that this vital program be in place that we have a security force, one with very capable women in them to secure our future.

Well, we did get a film with those elements; unfortunately, it was this one:

Yeah, we’re talking an f’n’ Dean Martin as Matt Helm film, of all things, which starts with a credits sequence from Hell scored by Boyce and Hart that bears no import whatsoever to the rest of the film…

When we finally get to the film itself, it starts with a test of America’s own flying saucer program, producing a scout ship capable of bridging the stars. This interstellar marvel is piloted by Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule), an accomplished pilot and agent of ICE, which stands for Intelligence and Counter Espionage and has no relation to the real life ICE (thankfully),  who in addition to everything else is female, which is important because the fields generated by these craft kill male subjects regardless of species, making the only ones going to the stars women.

The test, overseen by men (naturally/unfortunately) and led by MacDonald (James Gregory), are impressed with the results, until interference overtakes the EM fields on the craft, forcing it to crash in Mexico. The interference was produced by Jose Ortega (Albert Salmi), who has eventual plans for selling the saucer, and immediate plans for Sommers, leaving her with a horrid case of PTSD…

…which we learn about when our scene turns to the training academy for ICE, where we find Matt Helm (Martin) getting (re)fresh(ed) on/with the recruits. We find Helm was placed there for reasons other than having an agent going over procedures with the trainees, while the audience was going over them as well through the “male gaze”: We find that Helm had been on a prior assignment with Sommers (one not depicted in either of the two prior films, The Silencers or Murderers’ Row) where they had gone on assignment as husband and wife, and the powers that be feel that Sommers is more likely to “snap out of it” if they team her with her ersatz hubby…

Yeah, I think we could all use five minutes to take a break to get over using this “defining a woman through her man” trope crap; see you on the other side…

Yes, well, right; our happy (?) couple make their way to Acapulco to investigate beer magnate Quintana (Kurt Kasznar), who is the front for Ortega and gives him cover while he goes about his schemes, which for this story consist of offering the flying saucer to the highest bidder. Trying to get in the way of bids by Francesca (Senta Berger) and Nassim (David Mauro) for the craft, Helm and Sommers have to fend off these anxious saucer buyers as well as the thieving seller, hoping that at the end of the-

But yeah, you knew right away that this is how it was going to play out. We’ve gone through all the “spy-fi” that the 1960s gave us and all those secret organizations trying to take over the world we all sat through, so there’s no real surprises here: Hero shows up, defines/defeats villain, rinse and repeat. And there’s nothing to encourage the producers to go off formula; if anything, the less surprises, the better, mainly in deference to their lead.

To call Dean Martin’s part in this film (or any of the Matt Helm movies, really) a “performance” is to use the term in a way you may not have intended. Martin shows up and does a version of the drunken persona that he’d trot out when on stage with the rest of the Rat Pack, only with a gun in one hand and a beautiful woman underneath him way too easily, and that’s the extent of each film. You’re on board only if you’re a Dean Martin fan or have no concern for the safety and dignity of any of his co-stars.

No, the film’s no Atomic Blonde; the best you can say is, it’s not as outright misogynistic as In Like Flint. The effects are as crap as the quips and the rest of the actors probably dialed it back to allow Dino to shine more, or at the least allow some glow from what embers he could muster. Aficionados of the Helm films (which, yes, amazingly, there are a few) claimed this was the worst of the four; somehow, the follow-up film, 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, ended up being better received by these “fans” despite pandering to even lower tastes than this film.

Which is the biggest problem with the picture, and why as a film with lots of genre elements this is especially worth dragging into the light: This is one of the worst examples of extreme sexism ever offered, one where women with extraordinary abilities, like being the only ones to carry Earth’s flag to the stars and form the core of an efficient counter-intelligence agency that keeps us safe, all of that is just accessories the babes are made to wear while they shut up and smile. These accomplishments? That’s nice, honey, now get me a drink and sit on my lap like a good girl, you…

It’s because we had films like The Ambushers that we need films like Atomic Blonde, Wonder Woman, and Annihilation. It’s not enough to hope the proposed new Matt Helm film featuring Bradley Cooper would do a better job with the source material and apologize for the 1960s films; we need to balance the scales on a cosmic level with new works to counter these in our cultural conscience.

Let these women do amazing things on their own for themselves, damnit!

NEXT TIME: “Stumbling is not failing” – Malcolm X

About James Ryan 134 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…