The Dirty Dozen

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Animal House

Animal House (1978)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller

Starring: John Belushi, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf

 

Animal House is, without question, one of the most influential and best comedies of all time. An entire subgenre of comedy that dominates the cinema to this day was largely born from the DNA of this seminal classic. Animal House is the first film from the National Lampoon, the humor magazine that would go on to expand into a media empire throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and it is the distillation of the brand of humor that that magazine would come to represent over its first decade of existence. The film’s creators were already stars in the niche world of underground comedy, but Animal House launched the careers of Harold Ramis and John Landis who would go on to make some of the most iconic comedies in the history of film in the next decade. It also marks the first feature film performance by the great John Belushi. All that being said, I never watch Animal House anymore, and I don’t think I have sat down to watch the whole movie in nearly two decades.

It isn’t that I ever disliked Animal House. It was a staple of a mine and my friends’ movie rotation during high school, along with other classic teen movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Say Anything. Back then I could quote the movie from memory, and I aspired to party as hard and be as cool as Bluto (Belushi) and the Deltas. I also appreciated the movie for its historical importance. I was (and am) a big fan of raunchy comedies, and I knew that without Animal House, there would be no P.C.U., Dirty Work, or Road Trip. The Deltas sticking it to the system at Faber College through partying and pranking is a familiar trope in comedy now, and Animal House may not have completely invented the format, but it certainly crystallized and advanced it. As perfect a comedy as it may be, however, Animal House loses its punch the further away from adolescence one becomes. I will never not laugh at Bluto’s impression of a zit, or at Neidermayer’s (Metcalf) over the top sadism, but I don’t ever feel the need to watch the whole movie anymore.

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That’s probably because, as a movie centered on adolescent hijinks, Animal House is designed to primarily appeal to a certain demographic of the general public. More than its sophomoric sense of humor, however, it’s the period setting of Animal House that I really have trouble relating to anymore. Though it came out in the late 1970s, the movie is set in 1962, when college men were expected to wear blazers and pledging a fraternity was the pinnacle of social networking. The period setting doesn’t at all hinder the humor in Animal House, which is commendable. So often, humor can be topical or not translate from one generation to the next, but Animal House could really be transposed to just about any era, largely keep the same jokes, and it would be a successful comedy. There’s just something about the film that doesn’t really resonate with me the way that it used to. I can recognize its importance in the genre, but actually sitting down and watching the film for this post was a bit of a chore. I laughed like I always have, but over the years my desire to watch a full length feature that is so focused on physical comedy and gross-out humor has diminished greatly.

For me, Animal House and films of its ilk work best in little pieces. The film is somewhat elliptical, with many scenes simply existing to highlight one joke, and I think some of the film’s best moments are just as funny when taken out of the context of the larger film. My very favorite scene in the film is the scene in which Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) convince Flounder (Stephen Furst) to put Neidermayer’s horse in Dean Wormer’s (John Vernon) office. After locking the horse in the office, the three are having a laugh when D-Day hands Flounder a pistol and tells him to “finish the job.” Though he doesn’t know the gun was loaded with blanks, Flounder can’t bring himself to kill the horse, so he fires into the air. Of course, the horse drops dead of a heart attack anyway, and the reaction shot of D-Day and Bluto is priceless. Later in the film, a worker is briefly shown measuring the door to the office and measuring the space between the dead horses upturned legs before revving up a chainsaw. It’s honestly a fairly one-note joke, but the absurdity of the situation has always stuck with me and the idea of sawing a dead horse in half to get it out of an office never fails to crack me up, no matter how many times I see the scene.

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Animal House is full of scenes just like that one. Hilariously absurd situations and non sequiturs that don’t advance the film’s plot but provide some of the most memorable jokes and the biggest laughs. Think about Bluto casually spying on the sorority girls’ topless pillow fight and then winking at the camera, or about the record scratch moment when the Deltas walk in to the Dexter Lake Club. These are the scenes that make the film the classic that it is, so when I think back about Animal House I almost think of it more as a sketch comedy than as a feature film. Its roots in the short form satire of the National Lampoon are obvious. Undeniably, the film is a comedy classic, and as I mentioned, was hugely influential in shaping the direction of mainstream comedy filmmaking, but as a film it leaves something to be desired. Landis and Belushi would team up again in 1980 to bring Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Brothers” characters to the big screen, in a film that works much better on the whole, for me. With Animal House, however, the whole does not always equal the sum of its parts.