The success of “The Dirty Dozen” spawned a subgenre of misfit unit movies. “The Devil’s Brigade” was the first of these. It is based on the nonfiction book by historian Robert Adleman and unit member Col. George Walton. It is the story of the 1st Special Service Force. The director was Andrew McLaglan (“Shenandoah”) and it was filmed in Utah and Italy. Stunts were coordinated by Hal Needham.
Maj. Robert Frederick (William Holden) meets with Lord Mountbatten and criticizes a plan to create a unit of commandoes to fight in snowy Norway. Naturally Mountbatten immediately appoints Frederick as the commander of the unit. Better to have him pissing from inside the tent, right? The unit will train at Camp William Henry Harrison which needs a little work, but at least they don’t have to build it from scratch like the Dirty Dozen. Fredrick’s exec Maj. Bricker (Vince Edwards) is a “hustler, chiseler, and scrounger” who likes to hang out with rattlesnakes to toughen himself up. He should fit in.
The misfits arrive by train. They are the garbage being put out at the curb by the Army. We get to know some of them: the dago card shark, the circus performer Omar (Richard F’in Jaekel), a cowboy, the Bluto wannabe Rocky (Claude Akins), and the college boy Ransom (Andrew Prine). They get to know each other by immediately breaking into a brawl upon arrival. This ends when the sound of bagpipes heralds the arrival of the other half of the unit – an elite Canadian unit led by Maj. Crown (Cliff Robertson). How could these opposites blend into a top notch brigade? The key is competition and lenient discipline, according to Frederick. He pits the Americans and the Canadians in training where the competitive nature of the Americans overcomes their incompetence, lack of fitness (at one point Frederick amazingly compliments Crown for his men’s stamina!), and their abhorrence of discipline. Frederick encourages the Americans to give the “Canucks” a hard time, knowing that Crown has expressly forbidden his boys to react. The barracks is a fun place, if you’re American. This is personified in the relationship of Rocky and the Canadian Sgt. Peacock. They are going to either kill each other or fall in love. Guess which.
The training montage includes hand-to-hand combat and skiing (they are still tasked for Norway). The training does not include bonding (in fact it discourages it). That will have to take place in where else but a bar. When some lumberjacks (I kid you not) push around the Canadians, the Americans wade in because only they can make fun of the Canadians’ kilts! Bonding by bloodshed via fisticuffs. Just like what’s taught at West Point. When they return to camp, Frederick slaps them on the wrists and now they are ready for the Germans.
Norway is out (so why did we have to watch Claude Akins try to ski?!) and the unit is to be disbanded. This movie sucked. Wait, Gen. Clark needs some cannon fodder in Italy. They are put under the grumpy Gen. Hunter (Carroll O’Connor) who needs proof they can fight. Since there is no war game for them to cheat at, he’ll settle for a simple recon mission. Recon hell, Frederick decides to take the entire German garrison of the targeted town.
|Edwards, Robertson, Holden|
They wade into town via a stream with Frederick, Crown, and Bricker in the lead just in case the Germans want to take out the entire command structure in one blow. With very few shots fired, few casualties, and a whole lot of moxie, they capture every German soldier including their effete commander. Piece of cake. The ice cream on top is Ransom redeeming himself by knifing a German. You go, college boy! With their bona fides proved, it’s on to the big set piece. They are tasked to take the untakeable Mount La Difensa. [See conclusion below]
|"You Canadians go first, we'll follow"|
Bronc: [referring to Henri] One of them's a frog, boys. Why don't you say something, froggy.
Rocky: What the hell does that mean?
Peacock: [to Rocky] To most people, it's an insult. But to you, I'd say it's a compliment.
The movie is competently made. There is some good cinematography, especially in the mountain climbing sequence. The score fits and does not dominate. Some of it sounds straight out of “Combat!” The settings are a strength of the movie. Using the town of Santa Elia Fiume Rapido in Italy was a nice touch. Mount Jordan in Utah stands in admirably for Mount La Difensa. Three hundred Utah National Guardsmen were used in that scene. The action is well-done and the deaths are mostly not silly. There are some poignant demises and it was not easy to predict who would not survive.
The best thing about “The Devil’s Brigade” is it brings recognition to a great military unit – the 1st Special Service Force. It fits in that subgenre I love so much, the Unit on a Mission War Movie. This is not to be confused with the Small Unit Dynamics Movie (ex. “Platoon”) although there is some overlap. A UM movie makes the unit the main character. It often lionizes an actual historical unit (ex. “Glory”) by taking it from formation and training to the big mission. Usually a few characters are developed, but dynamics within the unit are not a primary focus like in a SUD movie.
The final scene is a corker. The payoff is almost worth the effort. Omar leads the scaling of the cliffs at the rear of the defensive position on a plateau while an artillery barrage distracts the Germans. The violence is energetic, but not very graphic. We follow each of the developed characters and some of them don’t make it. Ransom continues his warrior evolution and reaches the Rambo level. Rocky tries to carry the wounded Peacock to an aid station, but he dies and we (Rocky plus the audience) shed tears. The victory is simplistically easy and quick which should have been ominous to Crown when he went to accept the German commander’s surrender. Rat German bastards!
How historically accurate is TDB? Not very considering the source material and the presence of Frederick as an advisor. See my “History or Hollywood” list below.
Cracker? No, but it is an entertaining movie and is fun to watch.
grade = B-
Cracker? No, but it is an entertaining movie and is fun to watch.
grade = B-
HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD: The Devil’s Brigade
1. The unit was originally created to conduct commando raids in Norway.
2. Col. Frederick was against the Norway idea, but was forced to take command of the unit.
3. The American half of the unit was comprised of men who were taken from stockades.
4. The Americans and the Canadians took an instant disliking for each other and competed in training.
5. Col. Frederick was lenient about his men’s off base activities.
6. Frederick brought in a hand-to-hand expert to train the men.
7. The Americans and the Canadians bonded after a bar room brawl with some lumberjacks.
8. The unit was almost disbanded until Gen. Clark decided to use it in Italy.
9. The first action was the capture of an Italian town.
10. The unit climbed a cliff to take Mount La Difensa.
11. Maj. Crown was killed by Germans pretending to surrender.
1. The unit was originally created to conduct commando raids in Norway. HISTORY The unit was the brainchild of an eccentric British genius named Pyke who also developed a special armored snow vehicle for its use. It was to be paradropped into Norway to conduct commando operations
2. Col. Frederick was against the Norway idea, but was forced to take command of the unit. HISTYWOOD Frederick was put in charge and from within he sidetracked the Norway / snow vehicle idea because he doubted its practicability.
3. The American half of the unit was comprised of men who were taken from stockades. HISTYWOOD The unit was filled by “advertising” for” lumberjacks, game wardens, prospectors, and explorers.” Some post commanders “volunteered” men from their stockades and other trouble makers. I found no evidence that the fact there were misfits in the unit effected training or performance.
4. The Americans and the Canadians took an instant disliking for each other and competed throughout training. HOLLYWOOD The movie undoubtedly exaggerated this for dramatic and comedic purposes. All of the enlisted in the movie and their squabbles are fictional.
5. Col. Frederick was lenient about his men’s off base activities. HISTORY The movie gets that part of his command philosophy right. It also shows him leading attacks which he was famous for. Holden does not catch his charisma and recklessness, however. He would go on one man recon missions and was wounded nine times. His men loved him. On the second night on Mount La Difensa, he had whiskey delivered to his men.
6. Frederick brought in a hand-to-hand expert to train the men. HISTORY “Pat” O’Neill taught them his mix of jujitsu, karate, and other martial arts. It is highly unlikely he participated in any attacks.
7. The Americans and the Canadians bonded after a bar room brawl with some lumberjacks. HISTORY The incident occurred when some miners were clowning the Canadian uniforms (especially the kilts) and the Americans waded into them.
8. The unit was almost disbanded until Gen. Clark decided to use it in Italy. HOLLYWOOD When the Norway mission was scrubbed, it was Eisenhower who saved the unit to be used for future missions that needed an elite unit.
9. The first action was the capture of an Italian town. HOLLYWOOD The unit did not have to pull off a stunt to prove itself. It actually first saw action in the reconquest of Kiska Island! There was no fighting since the Japanese had already evacuated. After this Clark requested the brigade for Italy.
10. The unit climbed a cliff to take Mount La Difensa. HISTORY The three thousand foot high plateau had withstood twelve days of assaults. The movie assault is fairly accurate except it was done in a freezing rain and in darkness (at first). The climbing was pretty accurate. There was a diversionary artillery barrage. The attack lasted two hours with the Germans retreating to a nearby hill and then hitting the brigade with artillery fire which continued through the second day. Supplies had to be packed up the mount by the men not involved in the assault. (An action reported by Ernie Pyle.) Then a brutal, screaming assault captured two local hills with no prisoners being taken.
11. Maj. Crown was killed by Germans pretending to surrender. HOLLYWOOD The man Crown was based on, Maj. McQueen, broke a leg on a parachute drop and was not in the battle. There was an incident where a Canadian Capt. Rothlin was killed by Germans pretending to surrender.
WHAT NEXT? The Devil’s Brigade was used as a shock unit for capturing more hills including Monte Majo in a scaling attack similar to Mount La Difensa. It was then sent to the Anzio beachhead where the small unit held ¼ of the perimeter. They were very aggressive in patrolling and got the nickname “Black Devils” from a German’s diary. They led the breakout from Anzio and were the first unit into Rome. Frederick was promoted and replaced by Col. Edwin Walker (who later commanded in Korea and then became an ultraconservative John Bircher who was shot at by Lee Harvey Oswald). The Force was transferred to Operation Anvil where it took two islands off the coast of Southern France with no problems. It then pushed along the Riviera with no serious combat. The unit was disbanded in Dec., 1944. Looking back, after Mont Mojo, the unit was misused on missions that could have been accomplished by less elite units. It suffered 39% casualties.