Directed by: Gordon Hessler | 100 minutes | action, adventure, drama, war | Actors: Bruce Davison, David Patrick Kelly, D.W. Moffett, Jay O. Sanders, Keith Szarabajka, Oliver Reed, David Carradine, Branko Vidakovic, Slavko Stimac, Boris Komnenic, Andreja Maricic, Klaus Pagh, Anton Sosic, Svetislav Goncic, Gordana Bjelica, Irena Prosen, Lidija Pletlovic, Danica Maksimovic Korzen
In the eighties, B movies were still real B movies, from the first minute it was clear what you were watching: a B movie. What makes a B movie? In a B movie, everything is second-rate; the actors, the lighting, the set, the effects, the script. With B movies, the makers had to make do with the old sets from other films, with actors who were well past their peak or who no one had heard of and the special effects were from more than a decade earlier. And probably all because some vague producer wanted to film a script that the rats wouldn’t even sniff.
Or, and this is sometimes the case, because the script is too controversial, deviates too much from what is considered tasteful and acceptable. Sometimes such a B-movie is interesting for that very reason: we get to see something completely different than what we are used to. However, very often B-movies are little more than a repeat of a commercial success of a few years earlier and these films do not try much else than to live on that success for a while.
Many of the productions of the past fifteen years look much better than their predecessors: production means have become cheaper because there is no longer any need to shoot expensive film, because this can be done digitally. What is saved on film can therefore be spent in actors and on the decoration. In addition, thanks to digital animation, considerable savings can also be made on stunts and expensive set pieces; With the push of a button, we can turn ten soldiers into an entire army on Mars to battle evil aliens. You just use the software that has already been developed for another film.
The B-movie of this time can therefore sometimes no longer be distinguished from its bigger brother: the A-movie. Where it can of course still go wrong is the script, a good story is the only thing that cannot be expressed in money. Hollywood sometimes wants to put twenty or more scriptwriters on a screenplay for their expensive productions, but that is no guarantee that you will get a good story. Just think of Ridley Scott’s ridiculous “Prometheus” (2012).
And then, is “Wheels of Terror” (1987) – a film about a German tank commando of criminals on the Eastern Front – a B movie? Where shall we start? The lighting is done fairly neatly, a nice fresh image. It is strange that the light is exactly the same in every scene; whether in the barracks, in a cabin or in a tank, all the same bright light that seems to come from all sides. It is as if we are in a television studio and that is not surprising when you consider that director Gordon Hessler has mainly done many television productions, including work for Hitchcock. The actors also come from the same corner. In itself great actors and we have all seen them in the nineties, but again mainly known from TV and not an ensemble to really warm up to.
It is also clear that Hessel was allowed to fire some shots at the training ground of the army in the former Yugoslavia and drive a few laps over the heath with the tanks present. Don’t expect spectacular action scenes a la D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), the tanks probably had to be back in place before nightfall. And what you cannot film yourself, you always have historical footage of, for example, airplane bombings.
The story remains; Well, that’s a bit thin, but it has to be said: “Wheels of Terror” is quite entertaining despite its clear B-movie DNA. A tank command of German criminals who have to fight as punishment on the Eastern Front are the good guys and you know that because they speak with an American accent, while the wrong Germans speak English with a German accent, and the heroes of course hate the Nazis and the SS.
Soldiers who hate their superiors and who they also kill when they get the chance, you can’t imagine that in an American version. That’s what the better B movies are for: combining the horror of the war with underpants fun and letting the protagonists do bad things that we actually like.
Quentin Tarantino must have looked at “Wheels of Terror” as well, because the ending of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) is similar. In “Wheels of Terror” David Carradine and Oliver Reed are quickly executed before the credits, and Tarantino leaves as a engrave a swastika in the head of Christoph Waltz. Two nice unnecessarily brutal endings where nothing more needs to be added. “Wheels of Terror” is unpretentious old B-stamp entertainment for the enthusiasts or the less picky viewers.