August 2, 2013

Movie Review: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

You've seen a general inspecting troops before haven't you? Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid! - Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Writers: E.M. Nathanson (novel), Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller (screenplay)

Producer: Kenneth Hyman

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Charles Bronson, John Casasvetes, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Ryan, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

One of the enduring sub-genres in war films is the “men on a mission” style film. A group of soldiers are thrown together. They clash at first but somehow find a common bond before getting sent on a suicidal mission that most of them won’t return from. And the archetype of that sub-genre is “The Dirty Dozen.” The title is recognizable to almost everyone. And it also happens to be a pretty fun war film to boot, if a little long and uneven at the end.

To quickly summarize for the 12 people who may not know about this film, a group of military convicts are given a chance to wipe their records clean if they train for and go on a suicidal mission to kill German officers at a chateau in France on the eve of D-Day. They are led by Major Reisman, an officer who is as insubordinate with his superiors as the convicts are with him.

That’s it. There isn’t much of an overarching theme to the film. It’s a straight action flick with some humor thrown in for good measure. And that makes for a really watchable film.

Most of the actors in the film had prior experience in the military and some actually fought in the Second World War. Marvin, Savalas, Borgnine and Bronson all served during the war. That brought an extra touch of realism to a film that was – let’s be honest here – a fantasy of sorts. But it’s a good one.

Marvin is great as Major Reisman, a hard-as-nails combat officer who barely tolerates his superiors, most of whom have never fought in a real battle. This mission is his last chance as well. Reisman alternates between encouraging and breaking down his charges, but always stands up for them against outside agitators, the main one being Colonel Breed (Ryan). The hatred that Reisman and Breed feel for each other make for some of the funniest moments in the film.

All the major actors playing convicts did a nice job as well. Cassavetes plays the slightly-nuts Franco (big shock there) as a man who alternates between being a bully and a coward. Savalas nails the all-the-way nuts Maggott*, a religious freak who murders people (mainly women) because they are unclean. He’s actually quite unsettling in the role. There were also two breakout roles.

The first was Jim Brown as Jefferson. At the time Brown was filming The Dirty Dozen in London, he was still the best damn player in the NFL, breaking records like clockwork as a running back for the Cleveland Browns. Owner Art Modell gave him an ultimatum; movies or football. Brown retired before the 1966 season began and became a full-time actor. It’s not a coincidence that the Browns never won another championship after Brown left**. And it was the beginning of a very successful career for Brown.

The other was Donald Sutherland, who hit the acting equivalent of an inside straight in this movie. The role of Vernon Pinkley was supposed to be played by someone else but they dropped out of the movie. Sutherland was called in to replace them. Then there is a scene in the film where one of the Dozen has to impersonate a general and inspect Colonel Breed’s soldiers. The original plan was for Clint Walker, an actor who stood 6’ 6”, to do it. But he didn’t want to. So director Robert Aldrich chose Sutherland to play the role. The cocky, breezy way Sutherland played the scene led to his getting cast as “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H and launched his career. I don’t know who the original actor was, but I hope Sutherland sends him a nice card every Christmas.

What I forgot about this movie is that, despite its length (just under 2.5 hours), there isn’t much in the way of fighting Germans. Between introducing the characters, all the training and the mission prep, the actual attack on the chateau takes up roughly the last half-hour of the film. Granted, that last half-hour is an action-packed half-hour. But for an action-centric war film, there isn’t much of a war.

One thing I didn’t know is that, when the film was released, the violence was quite excessive by the standards of that time. Roger Ebert wrote a review decrying the fact that a burning corpse was visible in the movie. Watching it now, the violence is positively tame by modern standards.

What I find interesting is that just one of the convicts survives the mission, and it is the one who really shouldn’t have been there to begin with. Bronson’s character is on Death Row not because of rape or wanton murder. He’s there because he shot an officer who was fleeing a battle with all of his unit’s medical supplies. The only way to stop him was to shoot him.Which I think is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. And I guess Aldrich did as well since Bronson’s character is the only convict to survive, along with Major Reisman and his sergeant.

There was also some controversy in the way the Germans at the chateau were killed. They are trapped in the cellar which doubles as an ammunition bunker. The Dozen dump grenades down the air vents along with about 100 gallons of gasoline and then Jefferson throws a live grenade down each vent (just before a sniper kills him). It’s a particularly cruel way to kill, especially since there are civilians in the cellar as well. But Aldrich wanted a bit of “war is hell” in the movie.

One negative against the film is the choppy way the end of the film was edited. The cuts between the Germans caught in the wine cellar, the Dozen setting their explosives and the firefights with German soldiers trying to reach the chateau are not particularly smooth.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t a lot of heft or seriousness to this movie (the chateau fricassee aside). It’s as much an excuse to have a bunch of actors who play tough-guy roles shooting guns as anything else. Even Lee Marvin said the film was nothing but a “moneymaker.” But it’s a fun moneymaker. It also paved the way for more movies of its type; in the next year alone, The Devil’s Brigade and Where Eagles Dare would come out. And it calls out to that part of every American that chafes at idiots in positions of authority. We're a people whose ancestors came to this country because there were idiots in authority in their home country. So we're almost predisposed to cheer for a guy like Major Reisman.

On the current list, I would place The Dirty Dozen below The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s a well-shot, well-crafted film. It has a lot of action and some nice humor. But it’s like appetizers before the main course; nice but not satisfying by itself. The Dirty Dozen doesn’t have the heft, plot or pacing to crack the top echelon of this list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good film. Any movie that stays on this list is worth watching, and The Dirty Dozen will likely stay in the upper-half when all is said and done. This is a great film to watch with friends or on a lazy weekend, maybe as a home-made twin-bill with Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone. It definitely should be a part of your collection.


* This is one of the all-time great movie names for a villain. Probably second behind Roy Stalin.

** To Modell's credit, he has since admitted this was profoundly stupid of him to do. It probably cost him two NFL titles and two Super Bowl titles (which went to the Jets and Chiefs instead when they played the Colts and Vikings in Super Bowl III and IV, respectively, before the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Cleveland with Jim Brown at running back would've likely won at least one of those matchups.


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