Dirty Dozen, The (United States, 1967)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

More than 30 years after its initial release, The Dirty Dozen remains one of the most popular war films ever to grace the silver screen - a reputation that not even three bad made-for-TV sequels in the late '80s could tarnish. A quintessential "guys' movie", The Dirty Dozen is best remembered for its tightly choreographed action sequences and testosterone-boosted storyline, but it was also one of the first movies to show the darker side of war - that the best soldiers are often society's outcasts, the sociopaths and misanthropes who kill and rape. War is not civilized, and there's no place for order or manners amidst the carnage of a battlefield.

The Dirty Dozen has always been highly regarded by both war movie fans and action fans alike. The movie's deeper thematic material is left in the subtext, allowing those who prefer to ignore it to do so comfortably. Over the years, The Dirty Dozen has spawned numerous copycat productions - everything from the aforementioned sequels to a British science fiction TV series by the name of Blake's 7. And the passage of decades has only strengthened the film's reputation - so much so that in 1993's Sleepless In Seattle, when Tom Hanks is called upon to name the ultimate guys' movie, he invokes The Dirty Dozen.

Every era has its own top action stars. Today, it's Stallone and Schwarzenegger (although both are getting a little long in the tooth). A generation ago, it was Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin. Looking for a bankable name and formidable presence to headline The Dirty Dozen, producer Kenneth Hyman called upon Marvin (although only after being turned down by John Wayne) to take the lead role of Major John Reisman, the man who would form, train, and lead one of the most unusual commando forces in the history of U.S. combat troops. Marvin, who was at the height of his career in 1967 (having just come off a Best Actor Oscar win a year earlier for Cat Ballou), accepted the part eagerly. And, after his name was attached to the project, the other participants fell in line.

The time period is 1944. D-Day is approaching. In addition to the overall invasion plan, the United States military has come up with an auxiliary mission designed to interrupt the German chain-of-command: raid a secluded mansion where high ranking German officers often come with their mistresses, and kill everyone there. To accomplish this suicide operation, the army has decided to use criminals who are either awaiting the execution of a death sentence or who have been condemned to spend at least 20 years in prison. If the "volunteers" survive and distinguish themselves, their sentences will be commuted.

The officer in charge of the operation, General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) has chosen Major John Reisman (Marvin) to train the men and lead them on the mission. Reisman is selected for a specific reason: he is a known discipline problem, and, if he fails, the army will be rid of him. Disgruntled but obedient, Reisman meets his group of 12 angry men - a sullen, antisocial lot, many of whom are convicted murderers and rapists. They include a stoic Pole (Joseph Wladislaw, played by Charles Bronson), a religious fanatic (Archer Maggott, played by Telly Savalas), a pugnacious rebel (Victor Franko, played by John Cassavetes), and a black man (Robert Jefferson, played by Jim Brown) who is the obvious target of racial derision from his fellow prisoners. After convincing them that he is in charge, Reisman starts his version of boot camp in an atmosphere thick with tension. But, as the men learn to work together, a growing sense of camaraderie begins to develop, and, when Reisman stands up to a pompous colonel (Robert Ryan) on behalf of his troop, they accept him as their leader.

Based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson, the script has no specific historical antecedent, although it has been a common practice in wars to place criminals in the front lines with the promise of a full pardon if they survive. Much has been written about whether something along the lines of The Dirty Dozen actually occurred during World War II, but there is little evidence one way or another. In essence, therefore, the film should be treated as entirely fictional. It does not claim to be based on a true story, which is fortunate, because, when it comes to details, the production often gets things wrong.

Although it is not often thought of as such, The Dirty Dozen became the first major mainstream film to acknowledge that brutality and atrocities occurred on both sides in World War II. In essence, the film is about a group of thugs attacking and killing dozens of Germans (some of whom were innocent civilians) in cold blood. Despite the heroic musical score and unrelenting machismo evident throughout the film, the climactic event is more of a massacre than a battle. Arriving on screens in the midst of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, it's easy to see how this aspect of the story would appeal to some viewers. In depicting Allied soldiers as something less than model citizens, The Dirty Dozen broke a barrier, blurring the lines between the "good guys" and the "bad guys".

In the wake of The Dirty Dozen, it became a popular cinematic conceit to portray war in a more realistic and less glamorous fashion. Few of these films, however, used this approach with World War II; instead, Vietnam became the common target, with efforts like The Deer Hunter and Platoon. In many ways, however, 1998's Saving Private Ryan can be seen as an extension of what director Robert Aldrich started with The Dirty Dozen - showing that even in wars where the objectives are noble, the means by which they are achieved may be less than heroic.

Aldrich did not set out to make a "message movie." He liked the grittiness of the idea behind The Dirty Dozen and appreciated that it was a new approach to a World War II scenario, but, from the beginning, he intended to film a rousing adventure story. In his estimation, The Dirty Dozen is about camaraderie and how even the most unlikely men can, when placed in the right circumstances, act valiantly. This is, in fact, how audiences have received the movie over the years. The same story, as committed to the screen by an Oliver Stone, might come across as a blisteringly anti-war motion picture. In this case, however, it is an action adventure tale for the masses. There is substance to be found, but only for those who take the time to look for it.

The Dirty Dozen represented the high point of Aldrich's 30-year career as a filmmaker. Although two of his earlier movies, 1955's The Big Knife and 1956's Attack garnered more critical acclaim, none of his directorial efforts met with the public reaction of The Dirty Dozen, and none has had a more lasting impact on pop culture and cinema. Along with the two films he made immediately before The Dirty Dozen (1964's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and 1965's Flight of the Phoenix), his work here propelled Aldrich to "A-level" director status. He responded by helming the likes of The Longest Yard (The Dirty Dozen on a football field) and Twilight's Last Gleaming.

When The Dirty Dozen was made, many of the supporting actors were not as well known as they would become. Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and George Kennedy were recognized stars, and Charles Bronson had a solid resume behind him (although his biggest films were yet to come), but Jim Brown was at the beginning of his film career, John Cassavetes was a relative unknown, Telly Savalas had not yet become "Kojak", and Donald Sutherland was still wet behind the ears. The Dirty Dozen opened doors for many of its cast members. Nearly everyone, except perhaps the most obscure members of the troupe, found work easier to get after the film's successful run.

With so many actors vying for screen time, it's an impressive feat for anyone to catch the audience's attention. Given the prominence of his role, Marvin - who never gave less than 100% to any performance - expectedly does so. The actor's legendary screen presence allows him to command the viewer's attention any time he's on screen. Other standouts include an understated Charles Bronson and a feral John Cassavetes, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work as the most outspoken and toughest of Reisman's convicts.

A significant portion of The Dirty Dozen's budget went to the creation of the mansion that was used as the primary set during the film's final half-hour. The pyrotechnic show at the end is impressive because it's real - the building was constructed with the intention of being blown up, which is what happened. Even in an era before the special effects industry became an important element of the movie-making process, such a brute force approach seems extravagant - although it gets the job done. There's nothing artificial about the explosion.

Those who are sticklers for detail will find plenty to nit-pick about The Dirty Dozen. Its view of the military and of military procedures is slipshod, its handling of the wargames sequence is at times absurd, and its setup of the climax (where are all the guards?) is contrived. Nevertheless, it's a testimonial to Aldrich's skill as a director that these problems don't interfere with the viewer's overall enjoyment of the film. The Dirty Dozen flows nicely, keeping things moving and drawing the audience along in its rapid current. The movie may not be a masterpiece but recent history has shown it to be an important motion picture, and the passage of 33 years has not dated it, nor has it diminished The Dirty Dozen's enjoyability.

Dirty Dozen, The (United States, 1967)

Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1