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The Dirty Dozen Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Dirty Dozen Review
    “Killing generals could get to be a habit with me ...”

    It is always great to see older titles getting released on hi-def, particularly cult faves such as Robert Aldrich's gregarious action-drama The Dirty Dozen. Presented here on Blu-ray with the same well-stocked package that accompanied its SD special edition a couple of years back, the anti-establishment war machine rolls onward yet again. A perennial TV offering, it is now difficult to imagine the uproar this film caused upon its original theatrical run, its glaring stand-off against the authority that was, at the time - 1967 - beginning to gain a foothold with its campaign in Southeast Asia and lose favour for it back home. The following year is hailed as the “Breakthrough” for American Cinema - with things such as Night Of The Living Dead, Barbarella, Once Upon A Time In The West (with its not-too-dissimilar ethic to The Dirty Dozen of mutual machismo and an expansive moral grey area) and 2001: A Space Odyssey smashing taboos and genre conventions with gusto - but '67 saw Bonnie And Clyde go bloody and The Dozen get Dirty with equally bird-flipping aplomb.

    Taking the Second World War by the scruff of the fatigues and the seat of the ammo-belt and literally hurling it to the wind, Aldrich, a fiercely political filmmaker who managed to veil his contrary intentions with clever metaphor and allegory, assigned himself the task of recruiting the meanest, surliest bunch of outsiders and drunkards that Hollywood had to offer - oh, and the mighty Clint Walker, too - for his own celluloid mission behind Tinseltown's lines. Amassing a motley crew that included the granite-hewn Charles Bronson, the violently unpredictable John Cassavetes, the likeably idiotic Donald Sutherland and a sweatily unhinged Telly Savalas amongst other iconic-visaged, ne-er-do-wells, he went beyond the pail when he seconded the iron-clad hard-drinking, hard-fighting Lee Marvin as the main man who would essay their commanding officer. Originally, it had been intended that John Wayne portray the belligerent maverick and you can only guess where Aldrich's camouflaged left-wing cynicism would have ended up if The Green Berets hadn't whisked The Duke away just in time. The plot seems to have to been written with such real-life characters in mind and, adapted from E.M. Nathanson's novel by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, fits right in with Aldrich's main cinematic theme - that of rough-house buddies bonding in the face of adversity. He would do it again with Flight Of The Phoenix and The Longest Yard (aka Mean Machine). Twelve convicted US servicemen - murderers, rapists, brawlers and swindlers to a man - are plucked from the stockade and given a one-shot chance at a reprieve. Well ... more a Stay of Execution, actually, if the gleaming-eyed Top Brass BS-merchants of Ernest Borgnine and Robert Webber have their way, because any who survive the supposedly suicidal mission will return to serve out their sentence - either life-long hard labour or execution. Marvin's renegade Major Reisman must train these rogues and mould them into a crack commando unit with the do-or-die task of breaking into a highly secure Nazi stronghold in occupied France on the eve of D-Day and wiping out as many German officers as they can. They are not expected to come back alive. In fact, if any of them do, Webber's sly pencil-pushing, medal-collecting rubber-neck will probably shoot them himself.

    With such a sneering and antagonistic plot, the film was sure to be a success. And indeed it was. Ensemble casts will always prove to be a big drawer, although nowadays most productions can't afford to shoehorn-in so many celebrities and, even if they did, the on-set ego-wars would threaten to derail the project before the cameras even began to roll. The Dirty Dozen was probably no different in that respect. Bronson and Marvin were apparently at loggerheads so often that the European Theatre of Conflict probably seemed like a play-time schoolyard scuffle by comparison. Marvin's notorious drinking meant that he would arrive on-set several sheets to the wind on many occasions, often holding up the shoot in the process and barely able to repeat his own name. Yet, by all accounts, as soon as he was manhandled into his costume and shoved in the right direction he would snap to attention and perform his duties with his customary gruff charisma and nail every scene required of him ... before collapsing again. But the film belongs defiantly to Marvin. He may be bouncing off a veritable surrounding force of celebrated personalities but he fends off every attack and maintains a commanding presence over the production that goes way beyond his character's call of duty. With dark glinting eyes and close-cropped silver hair, his tall frame and long, lean face belie the voice that emanates from his stern, narrow mouth. When Marvin speaks, his voice sounds much softer than the man looks, which is at once disarming and slightly intimidating - if you can imagine such a thing. When he first meets the Dozen and play-acts his nice, amicable “I can get you out of here if you play ball” routine, this is especially clever, wrong-footing them, and us, at the same time. His goading of Clint Walker's impossibly massive gentle giant Posey into some form of retaliation during knife-training is equally effective - that slightly sore-throat and blocked nose voice whining irritatingly as his confident trickster keeps on pushing and pushing. “I don't like to be pushed ...” mutters the frightened Posey. Yeah, just like you didn't like to murder those men with your bare hands, either. Reisman is an enigmatic character. He talks and talks, he's in virtually every scene and we see him roll his eyes and look to the heavens in exasperation when his crew keep on getting out of hand in shoulder-shrugging, comical manner. We certainly believe that he grows to care for his troops, too. Yet, even after all this, we're still no closer to understanding what makes him tick. The others - yes. They are merely fleshed-out stereotypes who have been plucked from the bag marked Loveable Rogues. But Marvin's approach keeps the Major an unassailable force of nature - nice as pie one minute, but a wild, boot-stomping blitzkrieg the next. Just ask the poor army jailbird who chooses not to march when Reisman orders him to.

    It is no surprise that Marvin has made a virtual career out of such irascible characters ... even Cat Ballou, if you look at from a certain point of view. His laconic style acts as the perfect foil to a dark temper, and his turn-on-a-dime propensity for on-screen violence is second to none. The year before The Dirty Dozen came out he had even participated in another dangerous, one-way mission behind enemy lines in Richard Brooks' excellent latter-day western, The Professionals, alongside Burt Lancaster and the always-gorgeous Claudia Cardinale. It many ways it was a dry-run for this, although it boasts a damn sight more action.

    The main gaggle of miscreants naturally stand out from the rest. Cassavetes is excellent as the wisecracking, twitchy neurotic Franko - even in this crowd of rebellious rucks he is the one most determined to mutiny, even if the “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” nature of the business means that any escape he makes condemns his eleven fellows, as well. Happy in his outsider status, his is perhaps the biggest arc that we see take place. He may have refused to march back at the start, but by the end, he would gladly jump through hoops of fire for his commanding officer and, more pertinently, for the other guys too. Then we have Bronson's Wladislaw who may be a bruiser, but still reveals a canny and playful nature during his off-the-cuff psychology test. Once an officer, himself, he despises the breed now ... yet of all the crew he is perhaps the most loyal despite his crime-sheet and arrogant nature. And the fact that he can speak German will be a pretty major asset at the end of the day. Savalas is terrific as the multiple rapist Maggot, a deviant who actually believes that he is doing God's good work. Often segregated from the others - particularly when the Major arranges for his boys to have some R & R with the local girls as a reward - his character is the most troubling. With his devout intensions to carry on his wrathful and deluded mission, no-one would stop you putting a bullet between his eyes, yet Savalas packs him with enough charisma to sink a party-boat which is one of the bluntest reasons why the film courts controversy. We can't help but like having him around. But Aldrich wisely refuses to opt for quite the same softening-up process for Maggot and is, therefore, careful not to belittle the obvious psychopathic tendencies of the man for the sake of a more conventional outcome. Donald Sutherland's lanky hick, Pinckley, is all but a wide-eyed walking sight-gag. His turn as a bedraggled, incognito general inspecting Robert Ryan's apparently oblivious troops would fool absolutely no-one, but he bubbles with gawky charm, nevertheless. He and Savalas would both go on to serve alongside Clint Eastwood's equally self-motivated anti-soldier in Kelly's Heroes. Jim Brown pitches in with what would soon become termed as the “token black man” on the team, yet The Dirty Dozen makes a point of actually addressing this straight-ahead with Maggot's racist antagonism striking a chord even as story just about gets underway. And the afore-mentioned Clint Walker - looking positively muscle-bound - renders his introverted goliath (with the apt first name of Samson) the most sensitive of the twelve with a quietly winning performance. Sounding like a shy Gregory Peck, he is a thoughtful colossus who looks like he could win the war all by his lonesome.

    And then there is the ever-reliable Richard Jaeckel providing sterling support for Marvin as Reisman's redoubtable second-in-command, Sgt. Bowren. Never the top dog in anything and forever immortalised as being that “familiar face” in things such as Grizzly, The Devil's Brigade, Chisum and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, Jaeckel always does a fine job, though, and here he tempers sympathies for the conscript-convicts with stone-faced heroism. Come the finale, virtually everyone gets to do their bit and the film is a veritable template for organising big-group casts. Only a couple of the Dozen appear to be hangers-on and slotted in just to make the numbers add up to twelve, but this conceit is easily overlooked with an incident-packed storyline that, at least, keeps them in the frame, even if they have little to say.

    The film, whilst trend-setting, is not without its problems. Confined to a three-act structure - the initial meeting and getting-to-know-you, the team bonding super-session, and the actual mission itself - Aldrich seems unsure precisely what sort of war-picture he is making. There are plenty of caustic observations regarding the military, the justice system, the establishment and the politics of the day, but the lengthy middle section of the film is all-too often played for laughs. Naturally, one of the points of the film is to have us connect on some level with these “bad boys” and in this respect, The Dirty Dozen works remarkably well. But the training episodes tend to go on for a little too long and also come to actually undermine the renegade attitudes of the men, themselves. What were once intriguing traits with depth and subtext that could have been more fully exploited come the big battle become little more than embellishments to help us tell the Dozen apart once the mismatched squad begin to pull together for a common goal. The broad comedy that is heaped on with masquerades, in-fighting, practice missions and Reisman's poker-faced punch-bag shtick when being berated by his idiotic superiors flies in the face of the seriousness of the job he and his team will have to do. The perpetually grinning Borgnine, as the garrulous General Wordern, and his pack-of-nitpicking officials - who have all come up with this deadly scheme - become a satirical stab that brings the film perilously close to boo-hiss pantomime villainy. And Ryan's wretched Col. Breed - already painted as Reisman's arch-enemy - is just plain ridiculous. Ryan even fought impressively alongside Marvin in The Professionals but is, here, relegated to simple buffoon. Even the usually reliable George Kennedy as Reisman's only ally on the official side seems more like he is rehearsing for his years as long-suffering backup-man to Police Squad's Lt. Frank Drebin.

    But this is all just grist to the mill for a film that is weaving its subversive message across the sodden fields of Southern England- in Borehamwood not far from where Kubrick was working on 2001, in fact - where much of it set and all of it was filmed, and right under the noses of right-wing studio execs who probably promoted it as a gung-ho and jingoistic action flick. When the final act comes, it is with a fresher feel than the like of, say, The Guns Of Navarone, and the mood is darkened by the dangers the squad will encounter. For some reason we now forget that this bunch is composed of killers and thugs and just see them as the jovial, easygoing guys that the cast has so painstakingly fought to convince us that they really have been, all along. But, if anything, the film frustrates even more at this critical juncture. Aldrich stages his battle scenes quite ineptly - clumsy edits confuse the issue and each flurry of furious automatic fire seems oddly lacklustre. Although exciting, the suspense as to when the “big bangs” are going to go off seems to peter out and there is an element of just get on with it, will you about the pivotal “gasoline-and-grenades” denouement. Of course, this is the element that causes most of the concern - the killing of non-combatants and of the defenceless. Indeed, it is still shocking today, but this only serves to remind us just who this Dozen actually are - murderers and scumbags - although Aldritch was trying to make the point that, ultimately, war turns everybody into a killer. The deaths of the “good” guys are keenly felt, though ... and it is here that the film reveals its true colours and its cunning. We have been made to care about these desperate, bigoted wasters. Somehow, along the way, we have gotten to know them. Yes, even the appallingly slimy rapist-racist Maggot (although his particular brand of heroism is far from glorious) and it is upsetting to see them biting the bullet. They have been made into professional soldiers all right, but take these guys back to the streets and they will revert once again to their own basic instincts. Somewhere in this film there is a truly intelligent and profound message and the really maddening thing is that Aldrich almost delivers it. Had the film been made in the seventies - which its themes and book-ending dark sections confirm it as being in all but the year it was released - The Dirty Dozen would have possessed the vital nihilism that would have rendered it, unquestioningly, one of the all-time greats.

    As it stands, it remains immensely enjoyable and full of engaging and entertaining set-pieces, but is only mildly thought-provoking when only a few years later it would have really packed the subversive anti-war punch that its maker was aiming for.

    Aldrich would continue to make tough-guy pictures whose bravado and machismo was designed to partially hide some scathing political comments. The incredibly brutal western Ulzana's Raid (also starring Richard Jaeckel in a similar role) is a typical case in point - once again condemning, via allegory, America's involvement in Vietnam. And the Michael Cain-starring Too Late The Hero which would also rake some open wounds with its stark cynicism and bleak perspective. What is undeniable is that The Dirty Dozen was a watershed movie - it gave back the anti-heroes, that the Western had made respectable, some of their original bite and was unafraid to mock the establishment. It toyed with genre conventions and, in so doing, ironically created some new ones. It remains justifiably one of the darker, more subversive classic war films.

    “I don't want to hurt you, Major.”

    “You're not gonna hurt me ... I'm gonna hurt you.”

    Do we class the 1985 sequel Dirty Dozen 2: The Next Mission as part of a movie double-bill, or do we class it as an extra feature? Well, since Warner list the turkey as a bonus, then so shall we. For more details on the first of no less than three ridiculous cash-ins and a TV series (!), please check in the Extras department.