The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Dir. Robert Aldrich
Written by: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller (from the novel by E.M. Nathanson)
Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassevetes
I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Dirty Dozen. It’s a classic war picture that’s been sitting on my shelf for probably the last 15 years. I have no idea what spurred me to pick this DVD up when I was a teen, but I remember watching and enjoying it a few times before it got shelved for good. It’s the kind of big studio blockbuster that was common during the 1960s, before a wave of more independently-minded, modernist filmmakers took American cinemas by storm. Although it feels a bit antiquated by today’s standards, The Dirty Dozen was a hit in its day, and it remains an influential film. Watching it for this post, I realized I had forgotten quite a bit about the beginning of the film, remembering only the climactic assault on the German chateau. On the whole, the film was a lot funnier and more entertaining than I had remembered, and it was a pretty pleasant rewatch.
The film concerns itself with 12 convicts who are either sentenced to death or to lengthy prison terms who are selected by the Army to carry out an incredibly dangerous top secret mission behind enemy lines. In exchange for their completion of this mission, which is to infiltrate a German officers’ chateau in France and kill as many Nazis as possible, disrupting the chain of command in preparation for the D-Day invasion, the convicts will have their sentences commuted, records erased, and will be reinstated into the Army at their former ranks. The man charged with training this ragtag group of murderers and thieves is Major John Reisman (Marvin), a career military man who has grown disenchanted with the institutions that he has come to represent. The film’s first two thirds consist primarily of training montages which help to introduce the audience to the members of the Dirty Dozen and to their unique personalities. Notable here are Privates Victor Franko (Cassavetes), Archer Maggot (Telly Savalas), R.T. Jefferson (Jim Brown), and Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), all of whom are sentenced to death, and all of whom represent the scope of personality types embodied by the Dirty Dozen. Their training complete, the Dirty Dozen set off for France and their mission. The assault on the chateau is a success, and though only one member of the team survives the mission, the rest are remembered as heroes who lost their lives in the line of duty.
I love movies in which a team is assembled to perform a mission or job. These types of “professional” films, such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, or Ocean’s 11 often combine genres and feature broad casts of disparate actors who each bring a different focus to their role. In this respect, The Dirty Dozen doesn’t disappoint, with almost every member of the team providing a memorable moment or signature line. Cassavetes and Savalas shine as the anti-authoritarian and unpredictable members of the team, with Savalas’s Maggot nearly compromising the mission when he snaps and begins shooting everything in sight after breaking into the chateau. Bronson’s Wladislaw is the strong, silent member of the team, and is the only one to be confirmed to have escaped alive after the mission. Jim Brown puts a face to the plight of Black soldiers in the military with his performance as the oft-disrespected Jefferson. His death scene after bombing the German officers’ basement bunker, ensuring the success of the mission, is a memorable one, and a moment that brings to mind his punishing running style as one of the original stars of the NFL. Even the lesser members of the Dirty Dozen, such as Donald Sutherland’s Private Vernon Pinkley, are given their moments to shine. Pinkley’s impersonation of a General inspecting the troops of a rival Colonel is one of the film’s signature moments of comic relief. The film’s chief strength comes from balancing these various performances and making sure that each character gets his signature moment.
Of course, even the most balanced ensemble film needs a lead, and Lee Marvin is clearly the star of The Dirty Dozen, although it nearly wasn’t so. John Wayne was the original choice to play Major Reisman, and I’m glad that he backed out of the film over concerns with the character’s morality, because I don’t think that he would have been able to convey some of the nuance that Marvin does in the film. Marvin’s performance in this film would catapult him into a higher echelon of stardom, although it would also continue his career down the path of playing similar roles. His Major Reisman is a tough, no-nonsense leader, but he is also shown to have a sensitive side through his obvious devotion to his team of castoffs. Marvin, who served in the military during World War II, along with many members of the cast, exudes authority and calm command. He cuts the sort of figure that demands respect and he’s an instantly recognizable presence in any film. A hard boiled legend, Marvin’s career was largely built on his rigid physical presence and booming voice, and he utilizes both here to great effect. Pigeonholing Marvin as a character actor, however, would be doing his career a great disservice, and in The Dirty Dozen he subtly displays the chops that earned him an Oscar just two years prior. He’s equally as effective in the scenes in which he has to display the bluster befitting of a military officer as in the quieter scenes in which he attempts to connect with the members of his team. Clearly, Reisman sees these men as misunderstood characters who have been failed by the institutions of the military and who can still be of service to the rest of the team and to their country, and Marvin expresses this care through the unusually gentle way that he guides them through their training, molding them into a capable unit. Marvin’s performance provides a grounding counterbalance to the more expressive performances from the members of the Dirty Dozen, and a stable center around which the rest of the cast can orbit.
In addition to having a strong and diverse cast, The Dirty Dozen also features some pretty shocking content and potentially progressive politics for a film of the time. Although the film’s violence seems very tame by today’s standards, it was uproarious at the time of its release. It certainly wasn’t the first film that asked its audience to sympathize with violent criminals, but The Dirty Dozen does little to normalize their criminal behavior, or to offer much redemption for the worst of its characters. The frank vileness of Savalas’s Maggot must have been a shock to audiences in the late 1960s, with the characters unrepentant racism, crudeness, and violence (both physical and sexual in nature), on full display. Maggot is a bad apple, and remains such until the end, having to be shot by Jefferson when he snaps and nearly botches the whole mission. A psychologist would likely label Maggot some sort of nihilist, and his nihilism is largely evident throughout the film. The Dirty Dozen is a film that sets itself and its characters against every institution that might stand in their way. Though it’s a war picture, I think that the film is clearly anti-military in its politics, showing the larger institutions of the military and the government to be cruel, outdated, and farcical. This is a film that, through its championing of Major Reisman and the Dirty Dozen, favors the individual over the institution. The Dirty Dozen are honor-bound to fight for one another, but there’s little indication that they feel the need to serve a larger master. This anti-authoritarian stance must have been exceedingly rare at the time, particularly in a mainstream war film.
Through several decades-later sequels, including a short-lived television show, The Dirty Dozen has become a brand, representative of a style of late-1960s era filmmaking. It certainly isn’t the first film in which a ragtag group of misfits is assembled and turned into an elite team, but it has become one of the most recognizable and influential. I’ve been guilty myself of shortchanging the film, of assuming its generic faithfulness and its paint by numbers premise. The performances from the film’s ensemble cast are worth the price of admission, but diving a little deeper into the curiousness of the film’s politics and its attitude towards military customs and institutions reveals a film that is worth more than just a cursory glance or a nostalgic revisit. The Dirty Dozen isn’t my favorite film by any means, but watching it again revealed a depth that I hadn’t previously ascribed to it. One of the best experiences in working on this project has been the times that a film that I had perhaps undervalued takes me by surprise. It doesn’t happen too often, although my reactions to all but my very favorite and most familiar films in my collection are frequently altered by the time spent away from them and the ways that I’ve changed as a person in that interim, but when I’m truly able to see a film I thought I knew in a different light I’m reminded why I set out on this lengthy project in the first place.