The film opens with long, beautiful shots of ancient European art and sculptures being blown to pieces amidst the sounds of war and dissonant screams; a lone narrator begins his tale of "eight American soldiers" as the scene abruptly flashes back to a few weeks beforehand. Prior to the Battle of the Bulge, a ragtag squad of American soldiers (strongly implied to be some sort of replacement outfit), led by one-eyed Major Abraham Falconer (Burt Lancaster) and including Sgt. Rossi (Peter Falk), art expert Captain Beckman (Patrick O'Neal), and the highly intelligent narrator and sole African-American, Pvt. Allistair Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr. ), takes shelter in an ancient Belgian castle, the Maldorais, containing many priceless and irreplaceable art treasures. Although Falconer begins an affair with the young and beautiful Countess (Astrid Heeren), he is surprised to find the Count of Maldorais Henri Tixier (Jean-Pierre Aumont) encouraging him; in fact, the impotent nobleman hopes the Major will impregnate the Countess so that his line may continue. Meanwhile, Beckman begins to butt heads with Falconer over both the value of the art (in the context of either saving or destroying it in the event of a German assault) as well as Beckman's own unrequited attraction to the Countess, who seems to symbolize the beauty and majesty of the European art he studied before the war. The enlisted men seek their own pleasures in the brothel of the nearby town, the psychedelic "Reine Rouge" (Red Queen) run by a mystical madam, whilst Beckman marvels at the castle's artworks, many of which are stored beneath the castle for safekeeping. Sgt. Rossi, a baker before the war, falls in love with a baker's widow and decides to go AWOL, resuming his pre-war life; another soldier falls in love with a Volkswagen Beetle; his affection for the foreign vehicle borders on paraphilia and becomes a long running and anachronistic gag throughout the entire movie.
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