This week’s pick goes behind the lines of World War II France with the 1967 release of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen. The film stars the legendary Lee Marvin as Major John Reisman, an American OSS (pre C.I.A.) operative chosen by Allied command to recruit, train, and drop twelve convicted American military prisoners into France before the Normandy invasion to wipe out a chateau full of German brass. Aldrich adapts E.M. Nathanson’s novel to bring one of the 1960s most successful war movies to the screen.
The cast is a who’s who of some of Hollywood’s best talent. Ernest Borgnine (Maj. Gen. Worden), Charles Bronson (Joseph Wladislaw), Jim Brown (Robert T. Jefferson), John Cassavetes (Victor R. Franko), Richard Jaeckel (Sgt. Clyde Bowren), George Kennedy (Maj. Max Armbruster), Ralph Meeker (Capt. Stuart Kinder), Robert Ryan (Col. Everett Dasher Breed), Telly Savalas (Archer J. Maggott), Donald Sutherland (Vernon L. Pinkley), Clint Walker (Samson Posey), and Robert Webber (Brig. Gen. Denton).
Major Reisman is selected for this mission due to his illustrious reputation for behind the lines action, but he is also well known for exceeding his orders and showing borderline insubordination for his superiors. Both General Worden and Denton tell Reisman that the twelve men have a temporary stay of their sentences for the mission.
Reisman knows fully well that it’s a suicide mission and asks the Generals to reconsider and that the only way for these men to go along with such a deal, is to pardon them for their crimes and that they be returned to active duty at their former ranks. It’s a tough sell, but Gen. Worden agrees and Reisman has just a few short months to train these convicts and turn them into an elite commando unit.
Most of the twelve men are serving long prison sentences, but five (Franko, Jefferson, Maggott, Posey and Wladislaw) are to be hung for murder. Reisman sells the promise of amnesty to these five, because they are the ones with the most to lose. Reisman tells them all that they are dependent of one another and that if any try to escape, fail to add up, or quit, they will all be sent back to prison.
The film seemed somewhat far fetched for audiences in 1967, but Nathanson’s research uncovered a small team of demolition experts known as the “filthy thirteen” who were known for their tactics behind the lines. Nathanson took the concept of this unit and replaced them with convicts instead. Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Sutherland, and Savalas all shine on screen as these remarkable characters.
The film has a few lull points here and there, but it is never short of action. When the men are finally dropped into France on the night of the invasion, is when the film really begins to pay off. One of my personal favorite scenes is when the men are split up into separate groups who have specific orders to follow when infiltrating the chateau. Sgt. Bowren leads the men behind a ridge as the camera pans up, the Nazi anthem begins to play as the men see the real life chateau that had only existed as a small model to them. Pvt. Bravos. (Al Manci) turns to Posey and says “Its just like the Major said it would be.” Posey replies “Yeah that’s some spread aint it?”
The second most notable scene is where Jim Brown, showing off his amazing speed as a former pro football player, runs a gauntlet while lobbing hand grenades down a series of gasoline soaked ventilation hoods into a bomb shelter where the Chateau guests are hiding during the attack. The final forty or so minutes of the film are fantastic as the men achieve their mission and most fail to achieve their freedom.
The Dirty Dozen opened to the American public on June 15, 1967 and was praised and also condemned by many critics who found it to be a sadistic anti-Nazi slaughter mission, and one of the sickest films that Hollywood ever produced. A young Roger Ebert who had just begun writing for the Chicago Sun Times wrote in his review:
“I’m glad the Chicago Police Censor Board forgot about the part of the local censorship law where it says films shall not depict the burning of the human body. If you have to censor, stick to censoring sex, I say…but leave in the mutilation, leave in the sadism and by all means leave in the human beings burning to death. It’s not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on.”
Other publications such as Variety hailed it as an “Exciting Second World War II pre-D-Day drama”. They were particularly fond of Marvin, Cassavetes, and Bronson’s performances. Over time, The Dirty Dozen became a cult favorite and an inspiration to future movie makers such as Quentin Tarantino who used certain themes of the film in Inglorious Basterds (2009). The Dirty Dozen was even nominated for several Academy Awards and won for Best Sound Editing in 1968.
The Dirty Dozen is a unique World War II film that has stood the test of time and still gains fans the world over. Aldrich used similar themes in his 1970 production of Too Late the Hero which was a behind the lines mission against the Japanese. The Dirty Dozen spawned two more made for TV films in the 1980s which failed to achieve any critical success. The Dirty Dozen: The Second Mission (1985) was Lee Marvin’s second to last film before his unfortunate death in 1986.
The Dirty Dozen is available on two-disc DVD and Special Edition Blu-Ray through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.