By Philip Schweier
The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a manly type of film, chockfull of military bravado and guns and explosions and all the things that make action movies worthwhile. But as a war film, it is, as one commenter on the DVD explained, of the latter breed of WW II films. That is to say, that movies of the 1940s focused heroics, but in the 1950s they turned toward more introspective, downplaying the heroism in favor of a more realistic approach. By the time The Dirty Dozen was made, war films were out to portray war as the ugly, brutal nightmare that it is.
The film is ably directed by Robert Aldrich, and stars Lee Marvin as Maj. John Reisman. Reisman’s service record is a bit spotty, so Gen. Worden (Ernest Borgnine) orders him to lead a brigade of condemned prisoners on a suicide mission behind enemy lines. The film itself can be broken down into three acts.
The first act is assembling the team, as Reisman gathers an even dozen convicted murders, rapists and army rejects for his mission. The players include a number of current and future stars such as John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Donald Sutherland. Once committed, the men must merge into a unit, which happens when the group’s defacto spokesman, Franko (Cassavetes) proclaims they refuse to shave and bathe using cold water. At this point, Reisman’s sergeant, Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel) refers to them as the Dirty Dozen, a name they live up to for several days.
Dirty though may be, the men are now a combined unit, but their training is far from over. One hurdle is jump training, which they must complete at a facility run by Reisman’s nemesis, Col. Breed (Robert Ryan). This portion of the film leads to one of the more memorable scenes as Reisman recruits team idiot Pinkley (Sutherland) to play a general traveling incognito, leading the other 11 to giggle repeatedly, “Pinkley’s gonna be a general.”
Unfortunately, the incident draws the ire of Breed, prompting him to pay an unexpected visit to the Dozen’s training camp seeking answers beyond his level of “need to know.” He’s almost able to shut down the operation, until Gen. Worden’s adjutant, Maj. Armbruster (George Kennedy) suggests the men prove themselves in some upcoming war games.
Prove themselves they do, and we’re off into the third act of the film, the mission itself. The assignment is to attack a chateau in France being used by the Germans as an R&R facility, and for high-level meetings. It has no strategic value, but sending in a squad of commandoes to kill every German officer in sight would only severely disrupt the Nazi chain of command.
The film is two and half hours long, and while it offers plenty of action and entertainment, the attack on the chateau is the only segment which conveys the violence of war. By this time, the audience has become invested in the lives of these men, some of whom are prisoners only through extraordinary circumstances. We’ve come to sympathize with them, and hope they make it.
One particularly brutal sequence features a number of German officers and their women trapped in an underground bunker. The team pours gasoline through the air vents and intends to use grenades to set off the ammunition stockpile. It’s cruel and violent, but that was Aldrich’s point – war is ugly, and good men did terrible things.
The film was a huge moneymaker for MGM on its release, and is a staple of cable TV. So much so that a sequel was made for television in 1985; Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel reprised their roles, but a new team of prisoners is assembled and presented with a separate mission.
My problem with many film sequels is that they often merely rehash the same plot, hoping the audience won’t notice. Such is not the case here. This time, the Allies have received word of a plot by Nazi Gen. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) to assassinate Hitler. Tempting it may be, the Allies aren’t too sure they want Der Fuhrer removed from office. Under a more competent commander in chief, the Germans might actually start winning, and extend the war indefinitely. Once again, Reisman is “volunteered” to recruit convicts for what is sure to be a suicide mission.
However, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission does borrow heavily from its predecessor in the form of dialogue, mostly between its returning stars. It’s almost as if they feel obliged to refresh the memories of the audience as to what the basic plot is about. After all, it’s been 18 years.
Yes, 18 years, and Lee Marvin spend his screen time looking dog-ass tired as he lectures his troops (Larry Wilcox, Ken Wahl, Gavin O’Herlihy, et al) repeatedly on the mission objective. For a made-for-TV movie of its day, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it spawned two more sequels starring Telly Savalas (Marvin passed away two years later) in 1987 and 1988.
To its credit, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission features Wolf Kahler, a favorite actor of mine whom I wish would get better, more high-profile roles. Also, the men of the Dozen also might have the opportunity to grow on the audience if given the opportunity, but there’s little that can be done about that in a 95-minute made-for-TV movie.
Other than that, the movie has two key flaws that I see: 1.) the aforementioned Lee Marvin phoning in his performance; 2.) it features what some TV pundits refer to as “happy violence.” Guns are fired, men fall down, but there’s seldom any blood.
Diehard fans might be inclined to take a look at the made-for-TV sequels, but be forewarned: they pale in comparison with the original.