Judge Dennis Prince once heard a racy riddle about a popular man at a nudist colony who carried two cups of coffee and a dozen donuts...
Train them! Excite them! Arm them! Then turn them loose on the Nazis!
In an experience that can best be described as "Hollywood goes to war," here's a film that seems to contain the usual earmarks of Tinseltown's vintage take on combat: colored a clean khaki and green, adorned with plenty of ethnic seasoning, and making no bones about the evil enemy that opposes it. It struggles a bit in its aging, but it still makes for an important piece of the war and combat genre.
Facts of the Case
It's 1944 and the Allied forces are preparing for their D-Day invasion. Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin, Point Blank) has just been "volunteered" to train and lead a band of twelve military convicts into a prominent German chateau to dispose of as many high-ranking officers as possible, thereby causing logistical interruption to their chain of command. For their service, the convicts will be granted full pardons for their transgressions. Any failure or insubordination, however, will result in immediate execution for each of the miscreants. Reisman's first task is to break down each soldier's resistance, then build them up collectively into a collaboratively functioning unit. Having proven their ability and worthiness, Reisman and his Dirty Dozen parachute behind enemy lines to conduct their suicide mission, one they may not survive.
As American's began to wonder aloud over the merits and potential success in the ongoing Vietnam war, Hollywood delivered a message of clandestine heroics and unsung wins for our side. Commando-themed films emerged in the 1960s to tell America that plenty of good goes on behind enemy lines, even though we didn't readily hear of it. Films like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare told of finely-trained tactical teams of soldiers charged with infiltrating the opposition's operations, delivering small victories that could result in ultimately toppling the enemy in the end. The Dirty Dozen took a twist on this approach by first recognizing our best chance at success might rest in the hands of those we have ourselves condemned. But the film also dared to project an attitude of would-be soldiers blatantly questioning the purpose and presumed fruitless outcome of their efforts (as in, "Risk my neck, for what? I'll take my chances in the noose.") Acclaimed Director Richard Aldrich presented the film, then, as an exercise in breaking the rules, questioning authority, and exposing the potential prejudice of the military itself. Given this was the 1960s, this is exactly the sort of outlet many sought, getting a bit of lunatics-running-the-asylum warfare along the way.
For proper enjoyment, The Dirty Dozen needs to be accepted on its own merits and within its original vintage, as a three-act war tale from the 1960s that gathered an impressive cast and launched the careers of many actors (and one defecting pro football player). The script patiently invested enough time to properly develop each character before dropping them into a military meat grinder, acknowledging the fact that audiences of the day needed to care about the characters if they were to care about what happened to them. In comparison to today's fare, it's undeniably naïve in its depiction of the horrors of war, yet it's definitely accomplished in the development of Hollywood's celebrated "big event" picture (and it was the top-grossing film of 1967). While Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine were well recognized by audiences, the film also launched careers for then-unknowns like Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, and John Cassavetes. As an ensemble, they work well together. Marvin grunts and gruffs his way along with enjoyable scorn for his superiors. Borgnine commands his way with mocking amusement towards those he orders about. Robert Ryan, as the insufferable Colonel Breed, effectively elicits our disdain for his haughty style and propensity to use his rank as a platform for his egotistical endeavors. As for the Dozen, Cassavetes shines as the cynically seething Franko, and Bronson is the epitome of he-man heroics embraced by audiences of the day. Savalas is perfectly unhinged as the born-again Maggott, a spiritual man of unforgiving convictions. And, it should be understood that Sutherland gained himself a leading role in M*A*S*H after lampooning the role of an inspecting military general.
On this new Blu-ray disc, The Dirty Dozen largely benefits from a high-definition turn but the results are uneven. The image quality, encoded in a 1080p / VC-1 transfer, is usually highly detailed and well saturated. Textures that have never before been seen in numerous television broadcasts, and were even absent from the recent two-disc remastered standard definition DVD, are often striking here. You can practically count every one of Lee Marvin's snowy white hairs, and you'll dive deep into Ernest Borgnine's characteristically lined brow. Costuming also benefits from the high definition treatment, giving us a good look at the details of the period wardrobe. Unfortunately, the source material wavers occasionally, some scenes suddenly being overcome by a murky blur or color timing shifting noticeably within the same interior setting. Also, expect some situations where film dirt and degradation distracts from a scene. Thankfully, these situations are the exception, not the norm, and the overall experience here is superior to previous presentations, televised or digitally delivered.
The audio mix comes by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (at 640kbps) and it performs reasonably well. The soundstage certainly opens up to permeate the viewing area with Frank DeVol's triumphant score. Other elements of the original soundtrack sound confined, constrained, and a bit muddled. The front-centered dialog is generally clear and intelligible, and the low end actually gets to jump into action for some of the explosive effects, but as far as rear channel action, this one remains largely underutilized.
Extras on this Blu-ray disc include all those from the previous 2-disc SD release. The biggest of these is also the least enjoyable—the 1985 made-for-TV sequel, The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission. Despite the fact this telefilm managed to reunite Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Jaekel, the effect is nothing more than a retread of war movie clichés that never engages our interest like the original. Sadly, it's largely forgettable and easy to skip over. With that out of the way, be sure to give the audio commentary a listen, since you'll be given the opportunity hear surviving cast members Brown, Lopez, Stuart Cooper ('Roscoe Lever'), and Colin Maitland ('Seth Sawyer') provide some anecdotes about the production. They're joined by author E.M. Nathanson, producer Kenneth Hyman, film historian David J. Schow and military advisor Dale Dye. Dye and Schow do most of the talking but there's plenty to learn about the film in this track. Ernest Borgnine provides a current-day introduction to the film. It's a very staged 3-minute affair, but it's appreciated nonetheless. The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines runs 47 minutes and tells of the exploits of a similar crew of real-life soldiers that parachuted into enemy territory in support of the Allied advance. A 30-minute military training film follows, featuring Lee Marvin and playing today largely for nostalgic value. The extras wrap up with the feature film's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apparently, the dirtiest of this Dirty Dozen was the crooning Trini Lopez, by proxy of his unwise agent (or was that on advice from his sponsor, Frank Sinatra?) His character, Jiminez, was efficiently eliminated after Lopez demanded more money for his appearance in the picture. In a deft move that would have made even Riesman proud, director Aldrich wasted no time in disposing of Jiminez, having his neck broken, off screen, while parachuting into German territory.
"You're not gonna hurt me, I'm gonna hurt you."
In a now-amusing perspective, a freshman film critic, one Roger Ebert, decried the film in his 1967 review, sarcastically citing its sadistic violence as being egregiously overlooked by the Chicago Police Censor Board. To wit: "If you have to censor, stick to censoring sex, I say…But leave in the mutilation, leave in the sadism, and by all means leave in the human beings burning to death. It's not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on." Viewed today, the violence seems very sanitized, most gun shots effecting a jerking back of the body but without a drop of visible blood. A couple of later deaths, however, did allow for some of the red stuff, even going so far as to showing the effects of a head shot that must have certainly startled unwary theatergoers. Mostly, though, it's all a rather tame game of bang-bang-I-got-you-you're-dead.
Don't look for stark realism here, but do seek this film out as an example of the Hollywood machinery at work while a director slips in an anti-war undertone. On Blu-ray, this one isn't top tier, but it clearly outperforms the standard definition release.
This court finds nothing but commendation for these formerly condemned, now fully redeemed, soldiers. All charges are hereby dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Cast and Crew
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