Monday, December 31, 2012

#19 - Sergeant York


 
BACK-STORY:  “Sergeant York” is one of the great American classic war movies.  It was directed by Howard Hawks (“Air Force”,  the original “Dawn Patrol”)  and starred the biggest Hollywood star of that time – Gary Cooper.  It was the first major American biopic that told the story of a living person.  The desire to avoid law suits and controversy led to great efforts by the studio to keep the film accurate and authentic.  Of course, the main effort was to keep Alvin York happy.  York (true to his portrayal at the end of the movie) was not interested in taking advantage of his fame.  However, persistence on the part of producer Jesse Lasky eventually wore York down.  York drove a hard bargain and insisted on veto power over the screenplay and would accept only Cooper playing him.  The movie was a huge success and was the highest grossing film of 1941.  (The studio insisted on the outrageously high ticket price of $2.20!)  The movie was also critically acclaimed and garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Actor (Cooper over Welles in “Citizen Kane”) and Editing.
OPENING:  The national anthem plays over the credits.  Words tell us we are in the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee in 1916.  A church congregation’s hymn is interrupted by the drunken carousing of Alvin York and his drinking buddies.  York uses a pistol to etch his initials in a tree.
SUMMARY:  A scene in the town general store establishes that the townspeople are isolated hillbillies.  Mention of the hostilities in Europe evinces puzzled looks and “What war?” remarks.  As far as their opinion, it is summed up with “t’ain’t none of our business”.  They may be isolated but they represent the prevailing opinion of the American public at the time the movie began production.
"You want me to do what with this?"
                York and his buddies (Ward Bond and Noah Beery, Jr.) go to their favorite bar.  It straddles the Tennessee – Kentucky line so Tennesseans can step into “wet” Kentucky to get a drink.  Naturally, a humorous bar fight breaks out.  It seems that York will fight if pushed.  File this away for later.  The cinematography puts the audience in the middle of the fight and the piano player literally controls the tempo of the scene.  York returns home to his saintly, put-upon ma (Margaret Wycherly).  She enlists the aid of the sagely pastor played by Walter Brennan.  Pastor Pile tries unsuccessfully to reform the hell-raising York who is only willing to concede that he will be open to the idea in the future.  The pastor predicts that religion “may come like a bolt of lightning”.  Spot on prediction!
                Isn’t there supposed to be a romance somewhere in this 1940s movie?  York reacquaints himself with the girl- next-farm named Gracie (Joan Leslie).  She is 16 and he is 28.  Before you cry “creepy”, remember these are hillbillies.  Before York can properly court Gracie, he must become the stereotypical American landowner.  A montage portrays his efforts to raise the cash to buy some bottom land.  In the montage is rail-splitting, of course.  The last of the cash comes from York’s victory in a turkey shooting contest.  All he has to do is get the bird to pop its head up and it’s over.  (I wonder if this would work with humans.)  Would you believe the property owner has sold the plot to York’s Gracie competitor?  York gets drunk and has bloodshed is on his mind when the Lord intervenes with that predicted lightning bolt.  The Lord adds sound effects in the form of a hymn from the nearby church just in case York is thick-headed.  York takes the hint and is born-again.  He even teaches Sunday school.  Redemption accomplished.  What is left?
"Is the target that huge circle?"
                War!  It comes in the form of a speeding rider and bold-faced headlines.  The bumpkins quickly agree that now it is our business, except holy-roller York who has a fundamentalist belief that thou shalt not “tech someone off”.  He refuses to be drafted, but even with the help of the pastor he cannot get an exemption which accurately reflects the niggardliness (look it up in a dictionary before you have a cow) of draft boards in WWI.  He ends up at Camp Gordon in Georgia.  It’s like a fantasy boot camp for adult men!  York makes friends with a guy from, you guessed it, Brooklyn.  Pusher (George Tobias) is the urban opposite of the rural York.  He teaches York what a subway is and York teaches him to kill the last turkey in a line first and work your way to the front.  Their tough drill sergeant curses York out for his pacifist leanings.  Just kidding, instead of curses he uses snide remarks.  That changes when York impresses everyone at the rifle range with his Robin Hoodesque prowess.   Damn it, this guy could be a killing machine if not for those pesky morals.
                York’s commanding officer (who gets a commission for every dead German killed by his unit) tries to get through to York.  He gives the dead-eye a civics lesson that must have had the audiences nodding.  He unfairly throws in a reference to Daniel Boone. That was below the belt!  York holds his own with his adherence to the Fifth Commandment (that’s the one about killing, you heathens).  However, he agrees to go on a ten day furlough to contemplate the commander’s duty trumps religion argument.  York takes along an American History textbook.  It’s God versus country.  On a hillside with his dog, York struggles until:  1.  the wind blows the Bible open to the “render unto Caesar” passage 2.  the dawn comes up  3.  patriotic music swells.  (The Founding Fathers say “I see your lightning bolt and raise…”)
                At the 1 hour 37 minute mark, we are finally off to war.  A trench episode introduces our soon-to-be-hero to bombardment.  Brit: “ If one has your name on it, there’s nothing you can do.”  One has the name of a comrade on it so York is introduced to death.  From here on, he’ll be putting the names on.
"Gobble, gobble"
                On Oct. 8, 1918, York’s unit goes over the top (to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  The mission is a frontal assault on a machine gun infested hill.  The trip across no man’s land is fraught with touchdown signaling deaths.  The camera keeps us informed of York’s progress as well as that of his generic comrades.   When the assault stalls, York and 17 others are ordered to flank the ridge.  In the process, they surprise a group of Germans at breakfast and take them captive.  Unfortunately, this draws the interest of two machine gun nests on the hill which proceed to spray the area pinning down captors and captive alike.
                York takes it upon himself to rectify the situation.  He becomes the killing machine his commanders had hoped for.  The quartermaster also loves his not wasting bullets on missed shots.  His turkey hunting experiences come in handy with is appropriate because everyone knows the Germans are the turkeys of Europe in intellect.  (Germnas don't read this blog, do they?)  Oddly, six Germans charge York in a row instead of the line he had outlined in the barracks.  No matter, York “techs them off” in random order with his captured Luger.  Picking off the others from front to back results in the surrender of the entire unit.  York gathers up the prisoners, one of whom dastardly kills Pusher with a grenade.  (WWI or WWII – they are still evil!)  York (and the seven surviving Americans) returns to American lines with 132 prisoners.  He is an instant hero.
CLOSING:  York recounts his exploit to his commanding general to verify for the audience that his superhuman feat was indeed the real deal.  When asked what motivated him, York simply says that the machine guns were killing his men and gave him no alternative.  York receives several medals including the Medal of Honor from Gen. Pershing.  He is thus rewarded for fighting for his country.  He declines all endoresement offers and refuses to profit from his fame.  His returns home to a brass band playing at the train station.  (A scene brilliantly parodied in “Hail the Conquering Hero”.)  The state of Tennessee rewards York and his new bride with an idyllic farm and they live happily ever after
RATINGS:
Acting =  A
Action =  6/10
Accuracy =  B
Plot =  B
Realism = B
 
Overall =  B+
 
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It depends on their tolerance for corn.  Certainly there is nothing offensive in it.  The combat is 1940s intense and has only a brief glimpse of blood.  The romance is appealing and not schmaltzy.  Cooper is charismatic and likeable.  A patriotic American woman should enjoy the plot and it won’t hurt if they are religious.  I would think non-American females might be left cold by it.  What say you, Caroline?
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  “Sergeant York” is admirably accurate.  That’s what you get when you have an American icon and his persnickety peers watching over your shoulder.  Plus the producers had to be aware of a backlash from the isolationists if they laid it on too thick.  If you stick to the facts, you are on safe ground.  The screenplay was based on York’s diaries and he was hands on in his and Gracie’s depiction.  However, he did bow to some Hollywood tweaks.
                The movie is strongest in the authenticity area.  The country store, the York home, the church, and the border bar are all rendered with an attention to period details.  The portrayals of the common folk are also strong.  Warner Brothers provided a great company of hillbilly-looking character actors.  Older viewers will recognize many of them (or so I was told).  The accents ring true.  Cooper is in a league with Meryl Streep here.  The faces are truly rural American.  Wycherly hardly has to speak to communicate.
                As a biopic, you certainly get the gist of the York story and if he was happy with it, who are we to complain.  With that said, allow me to complain.  First, the things the movie does not tamper with.  York was wild and alcoholic in his early life.  He did get in bar fights and was actually arrested several times (not shown in the movie).  He did become born-again before U.S. entry.  He did claim exemption as a conscientious objector and was aided by Pastor Pile.  He did refuse to kill until talking with his commander and pondering on a furlough.  Most importantly, the Medal of Honor incident is substantially depicted as it was.  The post war epilogue is fine.  He did refuse endorsements and was given a farm.  Lastly, all but the Pusher character are real people who demanded they be accurately portrayed.
                There are a few Hollywood touches.  York was the third of eleven children and after his father’s death he helped raise the younger eight.  The movie has only room for two.  This is understandable as is the decision to simplify his conversion story.  There was no lightning bolt.  York gradually moved to redemption and it was capped off by a revival meeting.  There also was no rifle range revelation.  Speaking of rifles, the movie has York using a 1903 Springfield and a German Luger.  In fact, he was armed with a 1917 Enfield and a Colt .45.  It was Hawks who came up with affectation of licking his sight before aiming.  A nice touch.  And to be overly picky, the German officer did not use a bugler to call in more Germans to surrender, but used a whistle.
                There’s a weird moment when York returns to America and is staying at the Waldorf Astoria.  He flicks the light switch several times as though astounded by electrical lighting.  Are we to believe that he encountered no lights at Camp Gordon or in France?  None of this is egregious.  The very end approaches that status, however.  The postcard-worthy farm house and farm are a great exaggeration.  There was no farm house and the farm was heavily mortgaged which caused the York’s financial problems for years.  If I was York I would have vetoed this cruel joke.
CRITIQUE:  “Sergeant York” could not have been much better considering when it was made.  It is definitely in the top rank of black and white war films.  It is technically masterful.  The sets are obviously painstakingly prepared.  The no man’s land set was constructed by 300 workers and entailed the use of five tons of dynamite and the defoliating of 400 trees.  The indoor sets are particularly commendatory.  Look around the rooms for the little details on the walls.  The lighting is often mentioned by critics.  The score by Max Steiner makes use of patriotic songs, folk tunes, and hymns.  We hear “Give Me That Old Time Religion” several times in the background.  This could have been cringe-inducing, but the music is not used to ham up the emotions.  It just matches the already clear theme of the scene.  The cinematography is fine.  Nothing artsy. 
                The acting is a strength.  Cooper is at his best and said it was his favorite role (ironically, he was reluctant to play it).  He is a master of underacting.  He deserved the Oscar, although Welles’ fans might dispute that.  Brennan and Wycherly were nominated for Supporting Oscars.  The rest of the cast is perfect for their roles.  Such great faces, especially Wycherly.  (Watch for her portrait in York’s Waldorf Astoria room – there were no roaches in that room!)
                The screenplay is a marvel of achieved themes.  The film can be viewed as two parts.  The first part takes York from disdain for religion to Bible-thumping .  In general, the dynamic is between the religious people (exemplified by Mrs. York and the Pastor) and the hell-raisers (York and his compadres).  The second half has him make the shift from fundamentalist belief in the Old Testament to love of country, duty, and honor.  His evolution from pacifism to interventionism mirrored York’s actual feelings in the 1930s.  He began the decade, as did many Americans, disillusioned with the results of WWI and the machinations of the bankers and weapons makers to get us involved.  However, partly through conversations with Lasky and his experiences with the movie, he switched to pushing for U.S. entry and even went on publicity campaigns for the movie.  His involvement in the Fight for Freedom organization was the opposite of Lindbergh with America First.  In this respect, the movie York and the real York stand in for the American public.  The post script adds the third theme of reward for serving your country well.  Oh, and throw in "killing for your country is not a sin".  So go to it, guys.
               The combat scene lasts less than fifteen minutes, but is quite good.  I show it to my American History classes to prep them for their letter from the trenches which requires them to go over the top into no man's land.  (The other clips I use are from "Paths of Glory" and "The Lost Battalion".)  I have to admit that my students laugh at some of the deaths which include a rare 360 degree twirl while signalling a touchdown (which is shown from a different angle seconds later - why waste acting like that?).  See it in the clip below.  The action is well done and it helps that it closely parallels the actual event. It is superior to the Medal of Honor scene in "To Hell and Back".    
                The film is in many ways typical of the war films made during that era.  However, it does have an two interesting diversions.  First, the American officers are portrayed in a positive light.  They are not martinets, uncaring, or incompetent.  York’s CO and his second speak to him almost as an equal and are sympathetic to his dilemma.  The movie is refreshingly lacking in military cliches.  More significantly, this was the first movie about WWI that did not have a strong pacifist vibe.  This was clearly due to the motivation of the producers to encourage U.S. intervention and was a distinct gamble when you consider the predominately pacifist feelings of the public not long before the movie was released.  Pearl Harbor could not have come at a better time for this movie.  You could make a case that “Sergeant York” is the rare significant war film that is not anti-war.  Compare it to “All Quiet…” and “Paths of Glory” to see what I mean. 
CONCLUSION:   Does “Sergeant York” belong in the top twenty?  It depends on how you define “greatest”.  If you read it as “most important”, then you can make a case for it.  It’s effect went beyond simple entertainment.  It is a very entertaining film, but it also tells an important tale of a warrior that deserved the coverage (similar to Audie Murphy’s “To Hell and Back”).  More significantly, it played a role in American intervention in WWII.  The most popular film of 1941 encouraged Americans to see the positive aspects of involvement in the world conflict.  The attack on Pearl Harbor seemed to confirm that theme.
               To see clearly the evolution of war movies, compare "Sergeant York" (1941) and "To Hell and Back" (1955) to their modern equivalent "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989).  We've come a long way, for the better. 
 
 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

CRACKER? Saints and Soldiers


                “Saints and Soldiers” is “based on true events” centering on the Malmedy Massacre in the Battle of the Bulge.  It was a very low budget film (less than $1 million), but did well at film festivals winning numerous awards.  The cast is as low rent as you can get.  It was released in 2003.  It is the rare war movie that has overt religious overtones.
                The movie opens with the exhumation of bodies at Malmedy and then flashes back three weeks to the massacre.  The massacre breaks out when one of the Americans tries to escape and is shot.  Another G.I. grabs a gun and shoots a captor and the Germans open fire with machine guns.  (This is uncomfortably close to the way the S.S. defendants excused their actions at their trial.)  Some of the men successfully run away, but over 80 of the around 120 are killed and some of the wounded are executed with a bullet to the head. 
                The movie follows the quartet of Deacon (Corbin Allred), Gunderson (Peter Ashe Holden), Kendrick (Larry Bagby), and Gould (Alexander Niver).  Deacon is shell-shocked from an incident where he accidentally killed a family.  He is religious and often reads a book that turns out to be the Book of Mormon.  He gets into some interesting discussions with the atheist medic Gould.  Gould is from Brooklyn (of course, since this is a small unit movie).
Winley unhappily infantry
                The trek back to American lines is fraught with peril, naturally.  They spend some time in the floor space of a home when Germans arrive.  They hook up with a British pilot named Winley (Kirby Heyborne) who has valuable information that is needed back at headquarters.  They head out to “Saving Private Ryan” style music.  The soldier talk is realistic and helps with character development.  Kendrick and Winley dislike each other so we have the required dysfunctionality. 
Deacon to Gould:  "convert or die"
                They stay at the home of a French family.  Winley impatiently leaves in a snow storm. Germans arrive again.  When they attempt to rape the woman, Deacon shoots one, but the other escapes (but Deacon never misses, so what’s up?).  They can’t track him (in the snow?), but Winley arrives with the German in tow.  Deacon recognizes him as a fellow Mormon named Rudy from a pre-war mission.  What a small world!  Good thing Deacon sometimes misses.  Deacon sets Rudy loose in exchange for directions because it’s the Christian (I mean Mormon) thing to do.
Deacon returns fire
                Suddenly Germans open fire and Gunderson is killed.  A fire-fight ensues with SPR type graphics.  The grenade explosions are especially cool.  After frantic evading, they run into Rudy who shows them a jeep they can use.  They drive through no man’s land with both sides trying to kill them.  The jeep crashes and Deacon stays behind to give covering fire.  Gould and Winley make it, but Deacon does not.  Winley’s information, as we all know, allows the Allies to win the Battle of the Bulge.  Gould takes Deacon’s Book of Mormon.
                The no name cast acts well.  The movie also makes good use of numerous reenactors and authentic weapons.  The action scenes are surprisingly good considering the low budget.  They are obviously influenced by SPR.  The cinematography is fine.  The setting is snowy (it was filmed in Utah) which adds to the atmosphere, but is inaccurate as to the Malmedy Masssacre which was not snowy.
a contemplative Gould
                The religious theme of the movie will not be for everyone, but I did not find it overbearing.  Although the movie was produced by a Mormon company and the ending seems to be aimed at recruiting converts, you have to listen carefully to catch that Deacon is a Mormon.  Most viewers will assume he is simply a Christian and that the book is a Bible.  Gould represents the atheist view gamely.
              As far as accuracy, the movie is pretty commendable.  The main characters are fictional, but some of the events are authentic.  There was an incident when a small group hid in a basement while Germans dined overhead.  there also was an account of an American who missed a German soldier and then later when he was captured, it turned out they were if the same faith.  The Malmedy Massacre is fairly close to the real thing.
                The movie does not belong in the 100 Best War Movies list, but it is well worth watching and you have to admire what they were able to produce for less than $1 million.
 
grade =  B-
 
 
 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

#21 - The Dirty Dozen


BACK-STORY:  “The Dirty Dozen” created the template for an entire genre of motley crew, suicide mission movies.  It’s influence has been substantial.  The movie was released in 1967 and was part of the wave of more realistically gritty war movies like “Patton”.  Director Robert Aldrich adapted it from the bestselling novel by E.M. Nathanson, but made substantial changes.  The film was made in England and took seven months to complete.  Production included the construction of a chateau that was 240 ft wide and 50 ft high, surrounded with 5,400 sq. yds. of heather, 400 ferns, 450 shrubs, 30 spruce trees and 6 weeping willows.  It turned out to be so substantially built that it could not be easily blown up so they had to construct a flimsier section for the climactic scene.
                The cast was all-starish.  The studio wanted John Wayne for the Reisman role,  but Aldrich wisely insisted on Marvin (Wayne made “The Green Berets” instead).  Jim Brown was still playing football, but when the owner of the Browns gave him an ultimatum – football or moviemaking – he announced his premature retirement.  A huge mistake admitted by the owner later.  Trini Lopez was cast because he was a hot pop singer at that time (“Lemon Tree”).  When he decided his singing career was more important than the completion of the movie, his character suffers a premature death.  The dozen actors were supposed to be divided between the stars and the “who the hell is that” group (known as the Back Six).  However, one of the Back Six broke out to become a rising star.  When Clint Walker refused to do the impersonating the general scene, the unknown Donald Sutherland was tabbed and parleyed it into higher billing and a role in a little film called “MASH”.  Many of the cast were WWII veterans:  Marvin (Marines – wounded on Saipan), Savalas (Army), Bronson (Army), Borgnine (Navy), and Walker (Merchant Marine).
                The movie was a huge hit with audiences and with some critics.  It was nominated for four Oscars;  Best Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes), Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects (won).
OPENING:  Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is treated to a military execution.  The prisoner was condemned by a court-martial and is hanged.  The scene is short, but impactful.  This will not be an old-school WWII movie.

Reisman armed with the "official weapon of the Dirty Dozen"
SUMMARY:  Reisman is called to a meeting with Gen. Worden (Ernest Borgnine).  It is established that Reisman is a loose cannon, insubordinate, wise-ass.  Perfect role model for the anti-authority, anti-establishment Sixties’ generation.  He is “volunteered” for Operation Amnesty.  It’s a mission designed by a “lunatic” that involves taking a dozen convicts on a suicide mission to kill as many German staff officers as possible in a French chateau.  Military intelligence, as they say.  Piece of cake.
                Reisman goes to meet the twelve in their cells.  We get a little background on some.  They are a heterogeneous group, of course.  Franko (John Cassavetes) is a malcontent petty hood.  Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) is a stoical Pole.  Jefferson (Brown) is an uppity black.  Posey (Clint Walker) is a hillbilly who doesn’t like to be pushed.  Maggot (Telly Savalas) is a psychopathic, Bible-thumping, woman-hater.  (Just like the U.S. Army as depicted in some Vietnam War movies.)  Reisman explains the deal.  If you live, you get a commutation.  If anyone screws up in training, everyone goes back to jail.
                They build a compound in the countryside as a bonding exercise.  Please overlook the fact that getting this group of individualistic, rule-breakers to construct buildings with no discernible skill is quite unrealistic.  The construction does allow for some slapstick-type humor which gives Sutherland a chance to emerge.  Next comes the training.  Franko pockets some wire-cutters (there is a shocking lack of tool security by the guards) and attempts to escape.  He is stopped by Wladislaw and Jefferson in a show of white/black teamwork.  Later, Franko leads a rebellion against their spartan conditions which unites the dozen and results in revocation of grooming privileges.  They are now the “dirty dozen”, get it?
                A visit to the parachute training school run by Reisman’s nemesis Col. Breed (Robert Ryan) allows for more humor as Pinckley (Sutherland) impersonates a general inspecting Breed’s troops.  Pinckley:  “Where are you from, son?”  Soldier:  “Madison City, Missouri, sir.”  Pinckley:  “Never heard of it.”  (Watch the expression on the soldier’s face.  Priceless).  Breed sics two goons wearing decidedly unmilitary hair cuts on Wladislaw in the latrine.  He is rescued by Jefferson and Posey.  Bonding accomplished.  That’s all from parachute training school.
"Can you believe we're in this movie?"
                Back at camp, Trini Lopez sings a song about a “Bramble Bush” (apparently he was big on songs about flora) because the audience demanded it.  (See Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”.)  The song became a hit, by the way.  Reisman brings in some hookers as a reward for all their hard work at sublimating their bestial instincts.  Hopefully eight women being shared by eleven men fueled by alcohol (Maggot is wisely left on guard duty) won’t ruin six weeks of character development.
                Gen. Worden agrees that the dozen will get the green light for their mission if they can prove themselves at the upcoming war games.  They have to seize Col. Breed’s headquarters.  Spoiler alert:  they cheat.  They change arm bands to infiltrate enemy lines.  They hijack an ambulance allowing Jefferson to have one of the great lines in war movie history.  When the ambulance driver complains about him wearing the opposition’s arm band he deadpans:  “That’s right – we’re traitors.”  The capture of Breed is a highlight of the movie and brings the training section to an exhilarating close.
                Having passed the test, it’s go time.  At a last supper set up to resemble the Da Vinci painting (and predating the MASH scene), the team goes over the mission.  Maggot plays the part of Judas in a nifty bit of foreshadowing.  Reisman has famously broken the plan into a mnemonic device.  Here is the entire list for those of you who have not seen the movie twenty times.
1.        Down to the road block, we've just begun
2.        The guards are through
3.        The Major's men are on a spree
4.        Major and Wladislaw go through the door
5.        Pinkley stays out in the drive
6.        The Major gives the rope a fix
7.        Wladislaw throws the hook to heaven
8.        Jimenez has got a date
9.        The other guys go up the line
10.     Sawyer and Lever are in the pen
11.     Posey guards points five and seven
12.     Wladislaw and the Major go down to delve
13.     Franko goes up without being seen
14.     Zero-hour - Jimenez cuts the cable, Franko cuts the phone
15.     Franko goes in where the others have been
16.     We all come out like it's Halloween
Wladislaw does some silencing
                They drop behind enemy lines and now there are eleven since Jimenez breaks his neck in a lemon tree.  Those who guessed that they would all survive, sorry.  That is one impressive chateau.  Reisman and Wladislaw enter disguised as German officers.  Meanwhile, the others hop to their tasks. Some of them are positioned outside the chateau.  Wouldn’t you think that might be a good role for the clearly unstable Maggot?  Instead, Reisman’s plan calls for him to sneak into the upstairs where he proceeds to stab a strumpet and open fire on Jefferson.  What a Judas!  Let the premature killing of Germans begin.  Or let the grease guns start greasing.
A guy named Maggot loose in a Nazi brothel
                Who will survive among our intrepid psychopaths?  We care, but not about how many of German women will be killed.  The German officers and their gals have taken refuge in the secure bunker leaving their lackeys to be grease gun fodder.  They take some of the dozen with them, especially the Back Six.  Not specifying, but here is the sequence:  2.  killed by German machine gun fire 3. killed by friendly fire  4.  blown up by his two grenades that created six explosions taking out the chateau’s antenna   5.  killed by German sniper  6.  killed after slaughtering German reinforcements  7.  presumed dead with #6  (although not shown – probably in his contract)  8 & 9.  killed while foolishly thinking they will make the sequel by escaping in a motor boat …  10.  If you don’t know how Jefferson dies, you are not a male between the ages of 50-70.  And by the way, he didn’t make it this time either.  Damn it!  11.  killed while exalting over his survival. 
                The climax involves some gasoline and hand grenades that turn the cozy bunker into an inferno and provide the requisite Hollywood explosions.  The survivors drive off into the night to link up with the D-Day invasion forces.
CLOSING:  The three survivors are in a hospital room awaiting their trial for war crimes.  Just kidding.  We won the war, so any killing of civilians was condoned.

RATINGS:

Acting =  B
Action =  8/10
Accuracy =  N/A
Realism =  D
Plot =  A

Overall =  B+

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Surprisingly, many did.  I guess we would classify them as “bad girls”.  Seriously, the cast is very manly.  There is humor.  The violence is not too bloody, although it was pretty intense for the 1960s.  The language is pretty tame.  It’s not really a date movie.  Guys will enjoy it, but might regret exposing their girl to so much virileness.   

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  You’re joking, right?  Not according to author E.M. Nathanson who claims he “heard" about the use of convicts for special missions.  So much for research.  Some judges and draft boards may have put petty criminals in uniform, but there is no record of condemned soldiers being given a second chance.  Later, someone dug up the story of the “Filthy Thirteen” to pacify people like me.  The “Filthy Thirteen” was a pathfinder unit that did not like to do things like salute officers, groom properly, or remain sober when not on a mission.  Basically the WWII version of a Vietnam War LRP unit.  Sadly, they were not convicts forced to go on suicide missions.  Boring!
the Popemobile
                There are few inaccuracies that the audience could care less about.  First, the Army did not hang any soldier during the war.  The only soldier executed was Pvt. Eddie Slovik for desertion and that was by firing squad.  Can’t really blame the movie for setting the stage with that opening scene, however.  We need to care that Maggot could get hung.  Second, it seems that not every American soldier was armed with a grease gun.  Go figure.  They are so wicked looking.  Didn’t we want to scare the Germans?  By the way, anyone with any knowledge of WWII weaponry can tell you that the grease gun was notoriously inaccurate.  Not in the hands of these guys.  Reisman is able to cut a rope inches below one of his charges.  Woe be it to any German within its range.  In the commentary track that I listened to, Dale Dye nearly had a conniption over its depiction.  Third, they had to face a German vehicle that looked like the Popemobile.  Who designed that prop?  It had some eye holes that were vulnerable to the accurate fire of grease guns.
CRITIQUE:  “The Dirty Dozen” has several strong aspects to it.  The acting is very good.  Marvin is the perfect Reisman.  He plays him with the right amount of bravado and steely insubordination.  The scene where he is briefed on the mission by Gen. Worden and his lackey establishes him as an intriguing character.  His wise-ass comments are cynically resonant.  Reisman is very much a 1960s war movie archetype.  He reminds me of Steiner from “Cross of Iron”.  The rest of the name actors are good.  Savalas is very creepy as Maggot.  It shows his range that his other famous role was Kojak.   Bronson is charismatic and likeable.  Brown does a remarkable job in his first major role.  He does not look like an amateur.  Richard Jaeckel gets a well-deserved turn as Reisman’s second in command.  Cassavettes steals the honors with his characterization of Franko.  You can tell he is trying to steal the camera’s attention away from the others.  It is obvious he created his own character beyond the script. He deserved the Academy Award nomination. 
                The film is technically sound.  The cinematography is workmanlike, but not outside the box.  There are no wow visuals in the film.  The score is perfect for a macho film like this.  It is not pompous or overly patriotic (although it does make use of some familiar martial music).  It does not dominate any of the scenes and is used to punctuate rather than pontificate.  The sound effects are outstanding.  I’m referring to the explosions, of course.
                One strange thing about the film is the lack of graphic bloodshed.  The deaths are not “signal touchdown as you twirl” style, but they are not splatteringly realistic either.  Interestingly, “Bonnie and Clyde” came out the same year.  One of them was revolutionary in depicting gunshot wounds.  Similar to this issue is the unsoldierly tame language.  Regular Gis, let alone thugs like these, must have snickered at the curses issuing from the dozens’ mouths.  “Dirty” does not refer to their vocabulary.  Some of their curses include:  creeps, pig face, crumb, slob, bum.  Apparently, “lovers” substituted for “assholes”.  This was the late sixties, for gosh darn sakes!  Take off the gloves.
                As far as the plot, you know going in that you will have to suspend disbelief.  Very little of what happens has any foothold in reality.  It was fun to listen to Dale Dye’s commentary which takes the movie to task on numerous issues.  Basically, the movie would not have been made if he had been the technical adviser.  And yet, he is a big fan.  The whole Maggot subplot is beyond ridiculous, but fun.  You could really say that about the whole movie.  In this respect it does not differ from “The Guns of Navarone” and other movies of this genre.  And truly, it is less ridiculous than its most recent descendant -  “Inglorious Basterds”.
                The movie has the theme of military planners can sometimes be lunatics,  but if you put an ass-kicking, rule-breaker in charge the plan will be successful.  Similar to "The Eagle Has Landed" in this respect.  Another theme is even incorrigible criminals can be molded into a team (if the choice is mold or be hanged).  One theme that is not apparent is that war is Hell.  This is the rare major war movie that is not clearly anti-war.  It basically glorifies in the warrior ethos.  Aldrich’s statement that he wanted people “to know that war is hell” is a crock of crap.  Most of the target audience did not leave the theater detesting war.  If they were teary eyed, it was because of Jefferson’s failed run (reminiscent of Von Ryan’s, by the way), not due to the slaughter of trapped German officers and their paramours.  That slaughter is a troubling aspect of the film.  The unit is not conflicted about this task.  In fact, the best word for their facial expressions is gleeful.  It’s a bit perplexing that few critics focused on this war crime.  To paraphrase, if you win the war, there is no such thing as a war crime.  (Ask the bombers of Dresden.)  That usually refers to avoiding a trial, not to depicting the “good guys” committing one with no consequences in a movie.
CONCLUSION:  “The Dirty Dozen” is one of the great guy movies in the war movie genre.  It is required viewing for men of my generation.  It created a template for numerous imitators and some of them are superior to the original.  I feel that “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Where Eagles Dare” are better and more entertaining and yet neither made the Greatest 100.  “The Dirty Dozen” obviously swayed the nostalgic-minded panel.  I’m not interested in nostalgia.  I am simply judging the movies on how good they are.  This one is good, but not great.
 
the trailer
 
TRAILER:  The trailer is very good.  It outlines the mission and identifies all the main characters.  I especially like how they quote from the actor's as to how they interpreted their characters.  A 

the execution scene
 
POSTER:  The poster is very busy.  I love the "Excite them!" part.  Until I saw the poster I had no idea that the night with the prostitutes is what fueled their slaughter of the Germans.  Those strumpets were actually quite patriotic.  C 
 
PRECURSOR?  Check out my earlier review of "The Secret Invasion" and decide whether Altman should have been sued for plagiarism.