October 1, 2013

Movie Review: Play Dirty (1968)

You want me to inform against my own men, sir? - Colonel Masters (Nigel Green)

Director: Andre De Toth

Writers: Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin (screenplay), George Marton (story)

Producer: Harry Saltzman

Studio: United Artists

Major Stars: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Nigel Davenport, Patrick Jordan, Harry Andrews

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.

I am almost 100% sure I have never seen a more cynical war film than Play Dirty. A “men on a mission” film, it is overshadowed by The Dirty Dozen, which came out a year earlier. But where that film involved the redemption of the commander and his charges, there is no redemption in Play Dirty, at any point. And that unyielding viewpoint allows it to overcome a mediocre script to be a good war film, but not one of lasting impact.

Using the exploits of the real-life Long Range Desert Group in WW2 as inspiration, Play Dirty involves a gang of criminals and cut-throats used by Colonel Masters (Nigel Green) as an irregular unit to probe hundreds of miles behind German lines in North Africa. On the verge of having his unit disbanded and his project shut down, he presents his superior (Brigadier Blore – played by Harry Andrews) with photos of a German fuel depot. He gets one more chance to prove his unit’s worth with a 400-mile ramble behind German lines to blow the depot.

It's here we get the first taste of the cynicism of Play Dirty. The brigadier calls in his subordinate and presents Masters’ plan as his own, using the irregular unit as a decoy for the real unit made up of British regulars. As these plans are made, Masters has Captain Douglas (Caine), a BP executive overseeing fuel deliveries, attached to his unit for his expertise. He is led to believe he is leading the attack when it is in actuality Captain Leech (Davenport), a mercenary-minded soldier who only cares about keeping Douglas alive because Masters is paying him a £2500 bonus.

The unit is made up mostly of the most despicable men you have ever seen in a film. There is no one here like Charles Bronson’s Wladislaw in The Dirty Dozen. Even Caine’s Captain Douglas, ostensibly the hero through the early part of the film, is revealed to be a cynic and cold at heart. And Captain Leech…it’s a great role that Davenport has and I wish that De Toth had given him a larger role. Davenport plays Leech straight; there are no efforts to make him likable. He’d sell you to the Germans for a nickel and you’d be a fool to trust him. Let me put it this way; the most sympathetic character in the entire film is a German nurse and she's a Nazi. That is how cynical and dark this film is; the Nazi is who you feel for.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot of Play Dirty. It depends on a couple of twists and its characters to be effective rather than its tepid dialogue. The final 20 minutes is great and the end of the film is not only one of the best endings I have ever seen, but it is the only way this film could have ended and been true to itself.

But that great ending comes after what is mostly a plodding film punctuated by moments of violence. The biggest moment is when Leech and Douglas watch the regular British unit sent after them get ambushed by a German patrol. The slaughter and explosions are visceral and unrelenting; the blood and death here are much more graphic than anything seen in The Dirty Dozen.

But moments like that are few and far between for the majority of the film. And while that is okay for a war film that isn’t built around action, like Ivan’s Childhood, it’s not a good thing for a war film that needs action. Combine that with the “meh” dialogue and you have a war film that could have been so much more, but is still worth watching.

It used to be that the only way you’d ever see this movie is if you bought the DVD. But I have recently seen it on television once or twice. Which surprised me; I always thought the unrelenting negativity of this movie towards war and its practitioners would keep it off the screen. But it isn’t too expensive to buy if you want to own it.

On the list, Play Dirty is definitely a lower-tier film. And if it wasn’t for the sheer cynicism of this film, it wouldn’t make the list. But the last act is fantastic and that earns this film a spot. But only above the two weakest films currently on this list; I couldn’t justify placing Play Dirty ahead of Von Ryan’s Express.

If you get the chance, check this film out. It's a fun ride overall and the ending is off-the-charts awesome. And Michael Caine is in it. And any film with Michael Caine is worth watching.


Post a Comment


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon