Sunday, March 26, 2023

15. Tekko (in watercolor)


I painted a watercolor of my favorite Hornet's Nest boy. Following completion of the One Week 100 People sketching challenge (March 6 to 10), I still had a lot of energy left over. Hence this, based on a group photo on-set taken by Claudio Patriarca. 


14. Ronald Colombaioni was Mikko


Sunday, March 5, 2023

13. Thousands of paper poppies


IN AN email, also posted on his website, Daniel Keller (Tekko) wrote: "(A) 'correction' was an outdoor scene that had to be re-shot after a month or two. All the red poppies in the field had, by the second shoot, wilted. So thousands of paper poppies were placed by hand to be consistent with the first shoot."

I thought at once of the scene where the 15 boys (and the two small children) are watching in dread as their families are rounded up by the SS. The kids are seen from the front, and then briefly from the back. Viewing my screenshots, trying to figure out who was who, from the colors of their shirts and the texture of their hair, it seemed that some of the kids to the left had exchanged positions, indicating a span of time between the filming of the front view and the back view. And the grain field, as it sloped down to the village, seemed a bit dryer and more golden than in the close ups where the kids were crying as their families are shot -- where green heads of grain and some very real flowers are clearly visible. 

But I have guessed wrong so, so many times about this movie and the boys in it that I could not be sure whether this was just the power of suggestion. I wrote this to Dan, but he didn't comment in his reply. 

Oh, all the mishaps that accompany a film production. All the efforts at construction and rectification that occur behind the scenes, unbeknownst to us viewers. Another memory of Daniel's:

"The actual shooting had all the cinematic trickery of any major production. For example, the explosion of the dam was of course not a real dam but a scale model, perhaps 5 or 10 meters long. The Italian craftsmen built it so well that by the time the tiny explosives made it burst the camera had run out of film and they had to do it over." 

This was incredibly bad luck. Funny, except I can imagine the extra labor and lost time in making up a new model of the Della Norte. When Silva Koscina delivered the line: "They can always rebuild the dam" I don't think anyone realized how prophetic it would be, though the word "always" is not without caveats.

I can think of a third mishap, actually, on a smaller scale: the replacement during shooting of Daniel's character name, Tekko, with "Paolo", a change that was not carried over into the end titles, so that for viewers who checked the cast, he would forever be thought of as "Luigi Criscuolo", a totally different boy. Add to that the decision to alphabetize the boy cast members by surname (except for Mark Colleano, John Fordyce and Mauro Gravina), so that although he was one of the more visible boys with speaking lines, he got bumped down to second to the last.

Another funny error: on one of the posters, where a few of the boys are standing in a line in ankle-high grass, Gaetano Danaro (Umberto) appears twice. He is the first boy to the left, in a shirt the illustrator has whitened out so that it looks like Carlo's, and third from the right, in clothes the correct color. 

I wonder if, after so many years, those who were actually there, in Piacenza and Rome, during the filming in the summer of '69, can tell us what they remember of all this, and let us know if there were more. The production was delayed, Daniel wrote, and he had to miss the first month of school. Sounds like an adventure, at least for a 15-year old. But for the boys, were there other mishaps too? Cuts and scraped knees? People slipping on rooftiles, falling out of trees? I wish we knew.


The poppy illustration is mine, a detail of an oil sketch, not wanting to put up pictures of the boys crying amidst the beautiful red flowers. Though Daniel did write: "For crying scenes they blew menthol into our eyes. Tears then gushed painlessly." 


Text copyright 2023 by Lakambini Sitoy. Sources: Email correspondence with D. Keller, available at  

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Saturday, February 18, 2023

12. Valerio Colombaioni was Arturo

ARTURO (Valerio Colombaioni) is another boy who is very easy to identify.  He is small and wiry and dressed in a dark blue V-neck sweater and baggy black pants, his black hair falling in waves over his forehead.  He has a hard little face, nut-brown skin, and intense dark grey eyes that echo the colour of his sweater.  His overall aura is of toughness and deadly efficiency.

He is one of the demolition swimmers. In a shot just before the team begin their descent of the cliff, you see him, along with the bigger Umberto (Gaetano Danaro) manually ripping German uniforms into pieces that will protect their hands from rope burns. The ease with which he does this attests to his amazing physical strength. As they install the plastique explosives, Arturo is the boy highest up on the dam and directly below Turner (Rock Hudson), which means he is the last boy down, skittering the final suspenseful meters before making a clean dive into the water as searchlights rake the darkness above him. At this moment when I saw the film in 1980, the girls in the audience let out a collective “Eeeek!!” By that point it seemed everyone was invested in silent, diminutive Arturo.

Arturo is one of the rooftop gunners in the Reanoto vengeance massacre. As he and Aldo and two other boys prepare to climb up a tiled rooftop, he hunkers down in wait by some bales of hay, and at Aldo’s signal, turns to scuttle up a tree, moving with utter confidence, like a cat or a squirrel. Though in this sequence he crouches in the same position as the two other boys as he fires his weapon, there is considerably more drama in the tense lines of his body. Then, running to the army truck in triumph, mouth wide open in a yell of delight, he leaps over rubble without even looking at the ground.  A few moments later he is kneeling by the tailgate of the truck as it roars away, hanging onto the frame above with one relaxed hand, laughing and impervious to danger.

He is a lookout, perched high in a treetop. In the scene where the boys are having their rudimentary breakfast, you notice Arturo rappelling down his tree to silently join the group, as the small boy Romeo leaps up to take his post. And he, Romeo and another boy, Mikko, form the pyramid at the beginning of the film, utilizing their acrobatic skills to distract the German soldiers as their comrades recover the unconscious Captain Turner. In every scene he is in, he acts with his physique: notice the movement of his shoulders when Turner thunders at the boys to shut up their whistling, and his body bends into interesting angles as he sits or reclines.


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Valerio Colombaioni, 14 years old in 1969 when Hornet’s Nest was filmed, was already a professional circus performer, having made his debut at age six, as a clown. According to another cast member, he and his cousins Ronald (Mikko) and Giancarlo (Romeo) were acrobats as well. He is not cute in the child-like sense, unlike the other actors who use voice and facial expressions to appeal to the audience. He seems to be in a world of his own, as though unaware of being filmed, hinting at the intense concentration a physical performance requires. You never know what Arturo is thinking, but he commands respect.

Valerio grew up to be handsome. He continued to work in circuses, and appears to have retained his childhood professional name, Ercolino, throughout his life. (Google tells me that this Italian word means a child who is robust or sturdy). He also appeared in films:  L'arciere di fuoco (Long Live Robin Hood), 1971, Squadra antifurto, 1976; Roma a mano armata, 1976; La Banda del Gobbo, 1977. He was a stunt performer in Cemetery Man (1994) and Pinocchio (2002).

With several members of his family, he appeared in Federico Fellini's I Clowns(1970). This documentary, or mockumentary, was made for Italian television and opened in the same month (December 1970) as Hornet's Nest/ Il Vespaio. 

Could the little hammer-wielding clown at the end sequence of I Clowns (1970) be Valerio?

Valerio appears on the poster of Sempre Piu Difficile

The Tom d'Angremond documentary Sempre piĆ¹ difficile (1981), with Dario Fo, explores the world of the small Italian family circus, focusing on the Colombaioni family – Valerio, father Nani and uncles Willy and Carlo among them. (This film is impossible to find on-line: if anyone knows of a copy, or even snippets of it, please get in touch.) 

"Valerio" seems to be a name he used for his film appearances. In his current work and social media profiles, he goes by the name Leris Colombaioni.  

In 1988, he had a significant role in the gorgeous La Maschera, 1988, with Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Maloney, appearing as a performer in a small travelling circus along with family members Nani, Walter and Saskia. This film, shot in Italian and with the parts of the English-speaking cast dubbed in, is incredibly hard to find: I've had to make do with screenshots from a Youtube channel. I recall seeing La Maschera in full at a friend's house in the early 2000s and wondering who that handsome Italian actor who'd played Iris's admirer was, and wishing the circus folk had had more screen time.

Valerio and Nani Colombaioni in La Maschera, 1988

As Ercolino, with Iris (Helena Bonham-Carter) in La Maschera

In Hornet's Nest / Il Vespaio, Arturo’s role is pretty much as it is in the original screenplay. Here is his first named appearance in the Michael Avallone novelization (1971):

“In the treetop above the locale of the cave, a boy named Arturo, aged eight, saw the procession coming. He immediately put his fingers to his lips and imitated the song of a bird. 

Down below the children were playing out front at the mouth of the cave. … They scattered at the bird call and look down the line to the trees. They saw Aldo coming, with Giorgio and Silvio flanking a tall, golden-haired woman. 

A fire was in progress at the cave’s entrance. Some of the children were bringing in water, others carried wood. Arturo’s whistle sounded again.”

The main difference between the movie and the screenplay Arturo is their age. The screenplay Arturo, as a consequence of his youth, does annoyingly cute things, like letting go of a railing on the dam  -- Look Ma, no hands! – to impress Turner; an unnecessary detail that would have detracted from the suspense of the dam-climbing sequence. Prior to the events of Hornet's Nest, young Arturo was supposed to have scaled the Della Norte dam from base to top, just for the heck of it, though this does not come out in the film.

1980 onwards: Valerio/Arturo left quite an impression on me. I painted my childhood avatar, also called Bing, wearing his outfit. I couldn’t imitate any of his physicality, so in consolation, as soon as I was out of school uniform and far from the critical eyes of my mother and sister, I began to buy clothes like his.  Over the years, I’ve owned a succession of dark blue V-neck sweaters, sometimes bought from the men’s wear section, worn with dark pants and leather shoes or boots. They give me a feeling of power.


Text by Lakambini Sitoy, copyright 2023
Screenshots from Hornet's Nest (United Artists), 1970 and La Maschera (1988), screenshots from Youtube.
Solo portrait of Valerio Colombaioni probably by production photographer Claudio Patriarca
Image of Arturo from Hornet's Nest poster, in gouache, artist unknown.

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Friday, January 27, 2023

11. Giancarlo Colombaioni was Romeo


ROMEO (Giancarlo Colombaioni) is the youngest and the smallest of the Reanoto orphans.  He and two others appear at the very start of the movie, utilizing their acrobatic skills to distract the German soldiers as their comrades recover the unconscious Captain Turner.  He is the topmost in this three-man formation, balancing on Arturo’s shoulders then pitching forward skillfully to land, roll and right himself in a couple of seconds. In this way the trio set the tone of toughness and precocity, at least when it comes to the boys.

He is the lookout seen in the background, cautiously making his way down a tree, as Turner emerges from the cave, blinking in the daylight, the morning after the rescue. In the truck scene, he’s on the right side of the vehicle, directly behind the cab (closest to the camera) and appears to be having a really good time with his weapon. He’s one of the six boys who distract the German soldiers atop the dam as the demolition team dispatch two guards sitting in a bunker of sandbags. 

Romeo doesn't speak. He can often be seen in close-up, his angelic features at odds with his tough, impassive expression. In one scene in the cave, he and Carlo (Mauro Gravina) are shown cradling submachine guns, embodying the film’s selling point of war-blighted innocence. In the group shots, he often stands next to his two cousins, but on occasion he is positioned next to Rock Hudson, and has a tendency to look wonderingly up at him, the film playing up the difference between his diminutive, albeit sturdy, form and that of the 6’6” Hollywood star.


In the Avallone novelization of the screenplay, Romeo was supposed to be 8 years old.


Giancarlo Colombaioni was 11 when the movie was filmed. He is cousins with Valerio and Ronald Colombaioni, the two other boys in the acrobat formation. They belong to a noted and very large circus family (the surname is unusual and apparently is not associated with anyone outside the clan) that counts the clowns Carlo and Alberto Colombaioni as well as Arnaldo (Nani) Colombaioni and the juggler Willy Colombaioni among its members. It is likely that Giancarlo was already performing professionally at his young age, perhaps as a clown or an acrobat. In a 1985 movie, Robinson Crusoe mercante di York, he has a role as a juggler. It appears he has performed in circuses all his life.


Text copyright 2023 by Lakambini Sitoy

Screenshots from Hornet's Nest, 1970, United Artists
Earlier: Action boys and English boys
Why Hornet's Nest? Why only now?

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Putting the baby in "Baby Brigade": Giancarlo next to Mauro Gravina and John Fordyce


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

10. Action boys and English boys


THE THREE young actors Daniel Keller, Daniel Dempsey and Joseph Cassuto -- plus a fourth, the slender boy in a white shirt – form a group I think of as the “English boys”.  They are native English or bilingual Italian-English speakers who, from the anonymity of the “chorus”, help to drive the plot and to supply important information (such as the presence of enemy trucks or the location of the transmitter in Capt. Von Hecht’s office), which would be pointless to dramatize.  They “tell” rather than “show” – the opposite, incidentally, of the prose writer’s mandate. They support the main characters by questioning or reacting to them.  Tekko, Giorgio and Franco were prominent in the novelization and early drafts of the screenplay, and Keller, Dempsey and Cassuto were included in the list of main cast members accompanying the New York Times review of the film.  The four “English boys” don’t speak more than a handful of lines collectively, but the story would progress very differently without their parts in the dialogue. 

They do not speak with the shrill voices of childhood nor with the rumble of adolescence.  They are in between.  In the scenes where the boys chatter excitedly in English, it’s interesting that it’s higher voices rather than lower ones that are heard -- in keeping with the intention of the original script that the orphans would be ages 8 to 12.  

Indeed it seems that there are really only two or three voices blurring together to represent the rest.  There’s no real dialogue to this chatter but just single lines (“He’s gonna blow up the dam!”) excited cries and laughter and, once, tantalizingly, a few words spoken in an Italian intonation but too faint to make out.  The sound they make reminds me of the hubbub of crowd scenes – brusio, Dan Keller said they were called.  He added his voice to a few of them in his time as a child dubber in Rome.  I wonder, actually, if that isn’t just young Dan in the recording studio, being layered and layered over himself. 

Despite Hornet’s Nest being a movie set in Italy with actors that sound and look Italian (even the German soldiers), there is no Italian dialogue.  A stray “Bellissima!” does not count. The actual Italians among the boys are silent.  Two of the older ones do get to speak in English, though they still sound as if they’re speaking Italian, which to me is quite charming.  

Was it unfair that most of the Italian cast were seen but not heard?  I don’t think so. They get to act with their bodies, and Hornet’s Nest would not be the adventure fantasy that it is without them.  I think of them as the “action boys.” They get to scramble up trees and handle plastique and fire guns from rooftops, spent casings flying about their ears. Several were from Naples and could swim and had movie-making experience. Three were professional circus performers.☺

A mixed bag: British, American and Italian actors

Text © 2023 by Lakambini Sitoy

Screenshot from Hornet's Nest (1970), United Artists featuring characters Arturo, Luigi and Paolo.

B&W photo by Claudio Patriarca. Thanks to Dan Keller.

Earlier: Why Hornet's Nest? Why only now?

Soon: Valerio Colombaioni

Sunday, January 15, 2023

9. Joseph Cassuto was Franco


FRANCO is the first boy you see in the trailer, clad in a grimy white shirt and red shorts, dashing to the mouth of the cave to let Dino know that Aldo has arrived with the dottore. In the scene where the boys rescue Turner, he is the one who suggests to Aldo that the American may not want to help them in their revenge. (“Maybe he’ll say no, Aldo. Maybe he won’t want to.”) In the scene in the cave where the boys reveal the stash of weapons they keep in the niche, he’s the one on the right, picking up and passing the Schmeissers to the others. 

Dino names him as one of the boys whose father built the dam. He’s on the driver’s side of the truck as it barrels through Reanoto, by the tailgate.  He’s among the six who distract the German guards atop the dam by yelling and making provocative gestures, and appears to be the one who does a somersault in the water. He's a bit on the hyperactive side, leaping across the screen to help pin down Bianca and punching Aldo vigorously (and vertically). He resembles Carlo at first glance, but is bigger.

In the scenes where the group of boys mingle seemingly randomly, Franco can often be found next to Giorgio, Tekko and/or Tonio.

In the based-on-the-screenplay book by Michael Avallone, Franco is one of five demolition-team swimmers.

Cassuto, called Joseph in the New York Times review of the film but Giuseppe in the credits, was  likely the boy from Israel referred to in a 1969 article in The Forum, the student newspaper of Notre Dame International School in Rome. He lives in Israel today. 


To come: The "action boys"

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10. Action boys and English boys

  THE THREE young actors Daniel Keller, Daniel Dempsey and Joseph Cassuto -- plus a fourth, the slender boy in a white shirt – form a gro...