The Dirty Dozen

dirty-dosen-rev The Dirty Dozen  (1967)    MGM/Action-Adventure    RT: 150 minutes    No MPAA rating (intense sequences of wartime violence, some language)    Director: Robert Aldrich    Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller    Music: Frank De Vol    Cinematography: Edward Scarfe    Release date: June 15, 1967 (US)    Cast: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, Richard Jaeckel, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Colin Maitland, Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Webber.    Box Office: $45.3 million (US)


 My passion for movies began early in life; in the womb, to be precise. My mother was pregnant with me when my father took her to see The Dirty Dozen and I’m told that I kicked whenever there was shooting. My theory is that I wanted to kick my way out so I could watch the movie too. I guess good taste starts in the womb too; The Dirty Dozen is a GREAT movie! Directed by Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix), it stars Lee Marvin (Point Blank) as an individualistic Army Major training and leading a commando squad on a suicide mission. The catch? The twelve men assigned to him are convicts either awaiting execution or serving lengthy sentences. Those who survive the mission will be granted pardons and returned to active duty at their former ranks. I’ll tell you now, that number is low.

the-dirty-dozen Major John Reisman (Marvin) is seen as a rebel by his superior officers which makes him the ideal choice to lead an unusual top-secret mission from which nobody is expected to return.  He’s to lead a dozen men in the infiltration of a chateau in Brittany during a party at which many high-ranking German officers will be present. They’re to kill as many of them as possible as it will disrupt the chain of command and weaken their ability to respond to the upcoming Allied invasion of Normandy- aka D-Day.

 His team, pre-selected by Major General Sam Worden (Borgnine, From Here to Eternity), consists of murders, rapists and psychopaths. Among them are Maggott (Savalas, Kelly’s Heroes), a racist, misogynistic, Bible-quoting psycho; Jefferson (Brown, Slaughter), a black soldier who hates white people; Franko (Cassavetes, Rosemary’s Baby), a slimy psychopath; Wladislaw (Bronson, Death Wish), a killer who can speak German and Posey (Walker, Cheyenne), a laconic sort with a violent temper when provoked. The other squad members are Pinkley (Sutherland, Kelly’s Heroes), Vladek (Canadian actor Busby), Gilpin (Carruthers, Riot), Sawyer (Maitland, The Bedford Incident), Lever (Cooper, Subterfuge), Bravos (Mancini, Miller’s Crossing) and Jiminez (singer Lopez).

 Reisman starts his men’s training by forcing them to build their own living quarters and not allowing them to put up doors or windows until they earn the right to be comfortable. His main objective is to teach them to work together as a unit; it’s the only way the mission will succeed. For six weeks, he trains them intensively. Then he has to prove to Worden and his chief of staff Brigadier General Denton (Webber, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) that his guys are capable of carrying out their mission. Upon proving themselves during practice maneuvers, they get the go-ahead to begin “Operation Amnesty”.

 Once the mission starts, The Dirty Dozen goes from great to awesome. This section of the film is violent and exciting. Some, however, have described it as sadistic, especially with the way many of the German officers are dispatched at once. I say it’s a war movie, anything goes. I have to be honest, I didn’t like The Dirty Dozen the first time I saw it (in ’96). It was because of the ending. I guess it’s not a plot spoiler to say that almost the entire “Dirty Dozen” (named such after Reisman takes away bathing and shaving privileges for incessant complaining about certain conditions) dies. I shared my opinion with a friend (the one who gave me the VHS for Christmas that year) who patiently explained that it was a suicide mission and as such, it was the only possible outcome. It made sense but I was still bummed. I put off rewatching The Dirty Dozen for a long time but I finally succumbed to temptation last week. I was in the mood for a classic WWII action-adventure from the 60s. I made the right choice.

 When it comes to ensemble casts, it’s hard to beat The Dirty Dozen. It has a line-up as impressive as The Magnificent Seven. Lee Marvin is an old school bad ass. They don’t make action stars like him anymore. He ranks right up there with Steve McQueen, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. There’s no shortage of tough guy actors in The Dirty Dozen. Besides Marvin, you get Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker and Ernest Borgnine. The cast also includes George Kennedy (Airport) as Reisman’s friend and main supporter Major Armbruster, Robert Ryan (The Wild Bunch) as Reisman’s chief rival Colonel Breed and Richard Jaeckel (The Devil’s Brigade) as head MP Sgt. Bowren.  They all do a great job.

 Besides being a great kick-ass action flick, The Dirty Dozen also has a fair amount of humor. In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Reisman orders Sutherland’s character to pose as a general in order to gain entry to Breed’s parachuting school. Reisman teaches him the art of inspecting troops by instructing him to “walk slow, act dumb and look stupid”. According to a friend that served (thank you!), it sounds about right. The bottom line is this; The Dirty Dozen is great fun! It’s a very well-made movie. It tells a cool story. It moves at a nice pace even with its two-and-a-half hour running time. It looks authentic to time and place. It’s exciting and funny. The cast has a great rapport. It never feels overcrowded with the actors vying for screen time. There’s a reason it’s an enduring classic. I now count The Dirty Dozen among my all-time favorite WWII flicks. 

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