Wednesday, July 24, 2013

CRACKER? The Devil's Brigade (1968)

                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"
                “The Devil’s Brigade” is a big improvement over “The Dirty Dozen”.  Just kidding.  Now that the suspense of that analysis is out of the way, the film is actually pretty entertaining.  Its predictability is comforting.  One year after TDD came out, you can’t expect this movie to turn the subgenre on its head.  What you can expect is a cheesy copycat with an unstellar cast and cringe-inducing dialogue.  The acting in TDB is nothing special.  William Holden does not put a lot of effort into the role.  He was difficult to work with.  During the stream wading scene, he cursed Italian civilians who were watching and fired blanks at them.  The incident increased his drinking.  The producers had to bring in a doctor and a doll to get him across the finish line.  The rest of the cast is mostly B-List.  Andrew Prine is terrible as Ransom.  Jaeckel has some fun as Omar the acrobat and provides comic relief in a role radically different than in “The Dirty Dozen” (what range the dude had!).  Akins shows why he won all those Emmies for Sheriff Lobo.  The dialogue does not do the actors any favors.  Frederick yells “Give ‘em Hell!” for the final assault.  The highlight is this pearl of snapitude among peas:

Bronc:  [referring to Henri] One of them's a frog, boys. Why don't you say something, froggy.
Henri:   Merde.
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- 

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.


  1. Did the FSSF wear distinctive headgear? The movie shows them wearing red or maroon berets, but I know of no record of it IRL. After the unit was disbanded, some of the Canadian soldiers may have been transferred to a Canadian airborne unit, and may have been issued red berets (traditional for paratroopers) at that time.

  2. the war movie buffJuly 24, 2013 at 8:15 PM

    They did not wear red berets. That's Hollywood It was a reference to the Green Berets.

  3. I had wondered how much of the movie was based on fact. I knew the original unit existed but I thought that more of the story had been invented. I have to admit I am not a fan of Andrew McLaglen, although the Wild Geese thrilled me as a teenager.

    1. I have seen a few war movies where I was shocked to find there was some truth to the story. This is one of the more shocking.

      I need to watch "The Wild Geese".

  4. Forgot to mention that I really like your recent History or Hollywood section.

    1. I am working on more. It's fun but requires a lot of effort including usually reading a book that parallels the movie. I need to go back and catch some of the movies I have already reviewed. I am currently working on "Zulu". The sad thing is sometimes movies I thought were accurate actually aren't.

  5. I believe this is a fair review of the movie, well done.
    My Great Uncle (my paternal Grandfather's brother) was a Canadian member of the FSSF. This brief Youtube video shows him telling some stories during a unit reunion in 2008:

  6. Thank you for your fairness and thorough research. As a Canadian I have a weakness for movies that show my country's contribution to the war effort. The Black Devils was one of the best. Unfortunate that this film's plot borrowed so heavily from Dirty Dozen. It was not necessary. I read a book on the black devils last year and the American contingent were honorable men and all volunteers. They were not the dregs they are portrayed as.

  7. You are welcome. I wonder if it was the same book I read.

  8. I also thank you for providing factual background for this movie.

    To me the film seemed ambivalent about the value of the special forces group, focusing extensively on their training as critical battles of the War are being fought off-screen. Then, after the group's primary mission disappears its leaders are desperate to find ways to prove the value of their units. In the end they manage to capture a strong German position but it is unclear whether the unit's special skills will be used in the future.

    I suppose this sort of question probably arose frequently during the war. Projects to train new kinds of special forces are surely attractive to a military, particularly to those ambitious or patriotic officers who see a chance to stand out or strike a blow against the enemy. But such forces may require extra resources to equip and extra time to train. Worst of all, they may be unnecessary or ineffective. I've heard of wartime technology projects that didn't pan out; I haven't heard similar stories about
    troop training projects but I'm sure they must exist.

    So I am pleased to hear that the Special Service Force proved to be a very useful and distinguished unit, though it apparently paid for that distinction with a high casualty rate.

    The movie is enjoyable enough but its failure to convey that amazing history is a mark against it.


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