If Lee Marvin wasn't counted as part of the Dirty Dozen of the title, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart ponders, does that mean he didn't exist?
"You've got one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near-idiots—and the rest I don't even want to think about."—a psychological summary of the Dirty Dozen
"Well, I can't think of a better way to fight a war."—Maj. John Reisman (Lee Marvin)
Whatever happened to the old-fashioned war movie?
When director Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) saw Nunnally Johnson's original script for The Dirty Dozen, he happened to it, sending it in for a rewrite. The problem, as Aldrich saw it, was that the script had "a 1940s flavor and a 1950 point of view, and we're talking about cancer, not ice cream, because today war is cancer." This explanation came in a letter he wrote about the movie, quoted in the commentary by film history David J. Schow.
Aldrich's goal, instead, was to illustrate his thesis: "Anarchy and rebellion against systems that have been proved phony, hypocritical, and tyrannical are the banners of the future."
E.M. Nathanson's novel of 12 military convicts freed for a suicide mission provided the framework he needed, a means for "having our cake and eating it, too"—that is, making a war movie that reflected the concerns of the Vietnam era but still played out as a war movie. With The Dirty Dozen: Two-Disc Special Edition, you not only get to see the movie, but you get to hear about its impact on film culture.
Facts of the Case
As The Dirty Dozen opens, it's 1944. Maj. John Reisman (Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou) witnesses a hanging. He watches silently as the hood goes over the condemned man's head and the noose is placed around his neck, while the man pleads "I'm sorry" as he falls through the floor to his death.
"It wasn't the most pleasant way to spend an evening," Reisman says later.
Reisman isn't exactly a saint himself, as the brass points out at a staff meeting. His service record includes, shall we say, "a lot of fireworks."
"I didn't write those reports," he tells his superiors by way of explanation.
They've got a proposition for him, an offer he can't refuse: Reisman is to gather a group of 12 hardened convicts for a suicide mission, an attack on a German chateau used for conferences and recreation by the Nazis. They hope to shift the balance of the war by "eliminating a sufficient number of senior officers."
Reisman is wary—"These men are, by definition, incapable of taking any kind of discipline or authority, much less intensive training.—but as he puts it, "I'm volunteered." Reisman does get the brass to agree to one condition: If his recruits "distinguish" themselves, they will be pardoned and freed.
As he recruits his team, the guards at the military prison are dubious. As one puts it, to Reisman's face, "I think the first chance one of those lovers gets, he's going to shoot the major right in the head, sir." One can only imagine how much confidence in Reisman they show when he's not around.
Since this movie has been a TV staple for nearly 40 years, I'd figure that most of the people reading this far know the answers to these questions: Will Reisman succeed in taking this ragtag bunch of troublemakers and making them into an elite fighting unit? Will Reisman survive the process? And, most importantly, will anyone survive the mission?
You'll see a lot of familiar faces in The Dirty Dozen. Some, like Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine (McHale's Navy), were well-known to 1960s moviegoers. Others, like Telly Savalas (Kojak), Charles Bronson (Death Wish), and Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H), were not. The action pic marked a movie debut for ex-football star Jim Brown (Slaughter), who quit the Cleveland Browns during the making of Dirty Dozen.
In the extras, you'll hear Sutherland (Kiefer's dad, by the way) talking about how one scene, rewritten for him after production began, made his career. It's the one where he impersonates a general, making goofy faces to entertain the troops, as they line up for formation.
That's pretty much how the stars line up here, with one or two key scenes that rest in your mind later—like Jim Brown recalling how he wound up in prison for defending himself in a racial brawl or John Cassavettes (Love Streams) refusing to shave with cold water and starting a mutiny among the men.
By far the most memorable performance comes from Telly Savalas as Archer Maggott, the redneck who went berserk and murdered a "slut" in a fit of religious zealotry. He constantly gives us a sinister leer, backed up with a laugh that makes us wonder if he's going to kill another "sinner" at any moment. Though Maggott shapes up under Reisman's tough training regimen like the others, there's always something simmering under the surface that'll make you keep an eye on him at all times, lest he turn out to be the one who'll shoot Reisman in the head.
Charles Bronson as Joseph T. Wladislaw also makes a memorable impression, with a controlled calm that contrasts Savalas's insane tension. When a psychologist plays word association games with him, his answers are all focused on baseball, letting the psychologist—and us—know where he's focused to keep his cool. He also gets more of a part in the final action, since Wladislaw is the only one of the Dozen who knows German.
In the actual lead, Marvin delivers Reisman's cynical lines with a less-is-more understatement that hits the point home gently. It also makes his tough guy moments into a surprising undercurrent of rebellion, perhaps as deep as that running through his misfit unit. You see it early when Cassavettes as Franko mouths off to Reisman and gets a shove and a swift kick in response. Reisman is humanized by a sense of honor as he takes responsibility for his unit, defending them to the skeptical brass.
Beyond the star power, what makes this movie a classic is the blending of cynicism with its straight-ahead action. Made while America was in Vietnam, the prison recruiting and the convicts' reluctance to rejoin the war—even to escape hanging in some cases—is juxtaposed with their bravery and teamwork. This is reflected the period's concerns about the fighting in Vietnam and the draft. Alain Silver at Senses of Cinema says that director Aldrich tended to portray "personal codes and moralities" within stories of heroism, with "matters of circumstance" ruling the lives of his characters. These Aldrich traits mix with the larger moral concerns of the Vietnam era to shape The Dirty Dozen into a human story, showing war's effects on the men who fight it. It creates a metaphor for war that goes beyond the movie's artificial situation, implying that all soldiers, not just a hypothetical convict brigade, are compelled and controlled by the larger forces of fate and the war machinery. It might even give you pause to consider larger questions of freedom and free will. Backed up by sharp scripting and acting, Aldrich creates a war drama that holds up well today, while a political polemic would have faded away when Nixon pulled the troops out.
You'll also notice that the actual mission takes up less than a third of the movie, because the emphasis is on Reisman's forging of the team and his battles with the brass to ensure his men a fighting chance.
Some elements—such as the scenes in which Reisman forges his convicts into a team, even goading a silent giant (Clint Walker, Cheyenne) who killed a man with his bare hands into a fight to show that he can take on even the toughest recruit—may seem clichéd today because they have been repeated in numerous contexts. Still, I'll take the word of the people in the commentary who tell me what an original movie this was back in 1967.
The picture is well preserved. There are a number of drab-looking scenes, but they seem to have been used by Aldrich to create a prison-like atmosphere. The action in the night scenes of the final mission comes through well. The music, dialogue, and battle noises come through clearly on the remastered soundtrack.
One of the most interesting elements of the commentary is that there's a dissenter in the ranks here. Capt. Dale Dye (Band of Brothers), an ex-Marine who offers basic training for war-movie actors, spent much of his portion of the commentary pointing out things that were inaccurate. "Does it have credibility? Nahh!" is a typical Dye comment as he holds forth on the explosions and Reisman's training tactics. Still, he admits that he's seen the movie a number of times and admires Marine veteran Marvin's performance. You'll also hear from several of the cast members, including Jim Brown, Clint Walker, and Trini Lopez, who fills us in on the behind-the-screen story behind his death scene. Author E.M. Nathanson tells us how his original story changed from page to screen. I found the multi-voice commentary unusually easy to follow. Thanks, guys, for taking turns patiently and giving your names often when you started to speak.
The "making of" featurette covers some of the same ground, but lets us see how the actors have aged since 1967. You'll also get to see a vintage short, "Operation Dirty Dozen," made during the 1966 filming. This one gives you shots of the actors partying in swinging London as well as the expected scenes from filming.
Want some real war stories? You'll find "The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines" interesting. It profiles a parachute unit known for minor acts of rebellion and provides a few illustrations of how war stories get embellished. Sometimes, it's too cautious in stressing that there weren't any real Dirty Dozens made up of convicts like you see in the movie, but otherwise it's good at bringing you into the World War II era. There's also an undated recruitment film hosted by Lee Marvin, but I didn't find that one very interesting.
The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission
Lee Marvin's line, repeated several times with variations, is apt for this 96-minute-long extra, a made-for-TV sequel from 1985. The setup's the same, but there's one big change, since this Dirty Dozen's members are more highly skilled fighters from the start. That conveniently dispenses with much of the training so that the sequel can focus on action, but it seems clichéd.
Marvin and co-star Ernest Borgnine look a little out of place, since the movie takes place the same year but was filmed nearly 30 years later. Marvin's edge has dulled, most likely due to the repetitive and generic dialogue in the script, but Borgnine somehow manages to improve on his performance the second time around. The actors in this Dirty Dozen doesn't make much of an impression. You'll also find Germans speaking English to other Germans here, something that nearly always turns a scene into something less dramatic than a Hogan's Heroes rerun.
This movie might have been okay on its own, but I found it a tedious mess right after watching the much better original. Watching the retread made me appreciate the quality of the original The Dirty Dozen more and illustrated my earlier point about fresh ideas morphing into cliché. Put the sequel on the shelf for one of those boring, rainy summer nights when nothing's on the tube and you have nothing to do. Still, it's not a bad idea to put the sequel in as a bonus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
War movies, no matter how good or how much they reflect the times, aren't for every taste. The violence in the final mission may not be graphic by today's CGI-enhanced standards, but the toll in human lives on both sides is clearly shown. With Hitchcock-style editing, Aldrich hits that home even without a lot of on-camera carnage.
Even if you've never seen The Dirty Dozen, you've heard of it. You've seen bits of it turn up in countless other action movies. If you watch action movies, it's time to see one of the originals.
The Dirty Dozen receives a full pardon for distinguishing itself in cinematic battle
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by Ernest Borgnine
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