Thursday, December 20, 2012

#21 - The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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.

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.


  1. I admit this movie probably does not deserve to be in the top 100, but it is a personal favorite of mine, despite the complete inaccuracy of the film. I suspect it is because I watched it when I was at an impressionable age and the feeling has stayed with me.

  2. You and every other male from our generation! Although I have to admit that when I showed it to my Military History class a few years ago after not having seen it in a long time, I was surprised that I was disappointed in it. I feel it does not hold up as well "The Great Escape" (another rite of passage movie). I would not use the word "inaccuracies". I prefer "unrealities". As far as the Greatest 100 (as I will call my list), I can see it making it.

  3. The movie definitely "created a template" for the paroled-prisoners-on-a-commando-mission subgenre. It was the #1 box office hit of 1967, and received its share of sincere flattery from Hollywood and even from comic book publishers. The TV series "Garrison's Gorillas" used the same premise. The movie "The Devil's Brigade" (1968) was supposedly based on the true story of the First Special Service Force, but it emphasized (maybe exaggerated) that the US troops were paroled misfits. DC Comics' "Our Fighting Forces" had a strip, "Hunter's Hellcats," about a Ranger-type unit made up of paroled convicts. For some reason, Marvel Comics did not get into the act until 1973, with "Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen," about court-martialed convicts who were paroled and...well, you know the drill by now.

  4. Excellent information! Thanks. I would add that "The Secret Invasion" (I added the link above in the review) was actually the first "paroled prisoners ..." movie. It predates TDD by three years! Obviously, it had little influence and was less a template and more a temporary paper plate (get it?)

  5. I still haven't seen this, so had to skip your summary but I have a feeling I will like it.
    Whether it is Top 100 material or not is certainly debatable but I've seen worse choices on the list. On ethe other hand - it is high up.

  6. If you have not seen it, that proves you are not an American male over age 50. Congratulations!

    I actually do not think you will like it.

    It definitely belongs in the Greatest 100, but you are right that it is way too high.

  7. The film is nothing special, there are hardly any likable characters, and the film gives us nothing to hate about the enemy. Just because there Nazis is not enough. The every idea that the military would use convicts, one who is clearly a psychopath, for a such a mission... is idiot, even for back then.

  8. "When they got up to talk, they always had to say, 'Yes, we're the unit that inspired 'The Dirty Dozen,' but we're not criminals,'" Killblane said.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. I loved this movie as a child. I remember it from then as an action movie where the good guys shot up the bad guys and would have got away with it if they hadn't made the mistake of bringing the murderous crazy man along with them. I could have watched the movie any number of times.

    When I saw the movie as an adult I was shocked by the anachronistic counterculture atmosphere that you very aptly identify, and of course the plot holes and implausibilities are much more visible. I don't enjoy the movie as much as I once did.

    I did find myself appreciating the character portrayals of the dirty dozen. Some of them are more or less good guys that had some bad luck but are willing to help the war effort; some are bad eggs who suspect that the whole thing is a scam but end up throwing in anyway; and one of them is a murderous crazy man who throws up warning flags like a high school color guard team (I'm not an expert in mental illness but I suspect that Savalas' performance seems more authentic than most Hollywood portrayals of insanity).

    Lee Marvin also puts in a great performance for a movie whose lack of realism apparently bothered him a lot.

    1. I can relate to what you say about your memories of it in childhood. But then again, the movie was aimed at 14 year old boys and macho men. It is a movie than rewards a second viewing, but each one after that has decreased value.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.