The Dirty Dozen (1967)
I recently watched a trailer for The Expendables 2 and was happy to learn Chuck Norris had joined the all star cast, led by Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although Norris is better known these days for the satirical Chuck Norris Facts, he parlayed his tough guy image into a long and successful career in film and television. Which brings me back to the film; I am anticipating The Expendables 2 because it’s an old-school action film with old-school action stars. Plural. More than one. What I like about the first film is it harks back to a time when the “men on a mission” action/war film was on every teen boy’s movie list. There have been a few recently; Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as well as The Expendables (2010) and this year’s sequel, but I think it’s fair to say the genre (or sub-genre) had its heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s with a dab or two in the ‘80s. And I’m talking about well-known big pictures, such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), The Inglorious Bastards (1978), and The Big Red One (1980). All are good (Force 10 and Big Red are dubious, but have the “mission” factor) but my favourite of them all, the one that certainly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Basterds, is The Dirty Dozen (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich.
In the spring of 1944, Allied forces are preparing for the D-Day invasion. Major General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) assigns Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) an unusual and top-secret pre-invasion mission: train twelve soldiers convicted of felony offenses (either serving lengthy sentences or condemned to death) and as a unit infiltrate a château in north-western France to kill all senior German officers, who use the place as a retreat, the day before the invasion. Clearly this is a suicide mission and the men expendable, but if they survive the mission they will receive full pardons. After witnessing a hanging, Reisman meets the twelve: Franko (John Cassavetes), Jefferson (Jim Brown), Wladislaw, (Charles Bronson), Posey (Clint Walker), Maggott (Telly Savalas), Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), Jiminez (Trini Lopez). Bravos (Al Mancini), Vladek (Tom Busby), Gilpin (Ben Carruthers), Sawyer (Colin Maitland), and Lever (Stuart Cooper). Reisman, with Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), takes the men to their secret training ground.
The bulk of the film’s running time is dedicated to the Dozen building their own compound and training, which highlights the interpersonal conflicts between the men. Some see this as an opportunity for redemption, while others see it as a chance for escape. Slowly but surely they being to work together, but the men and the mission are put in jeopardy when Reisman crosses paths with Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan), his former commander. There is no love lost between these two; the domineering and Regular Army Breed relishes at every opportunity to knock the rugged individualist Reisman a few rungs down the ladder. When Reisman breaks a series of military regulations, Breed becomes involved and proves these two can’t play nice in the sandbox together, and it forces General Worden, at Breed’s urging, to have the men prove their worth as a fighting unit in divisional war game maneuvers in the English countryside.
The third act is a great action sequence detailing the attack on the chateau. What, did you think the boys wouldn’t show what they’re made of? Gunfights and explosions make up the soundtrack for the finale, and it wouldn’t be a great action film if the mission were easy. There are several complications that threaten the mission that need to be overcome and the words spoken at the beginning ring true; not everyone is going to make it.
All in all, The Dirty Dozen is an excellent war/action film with a stellar cast; John Cassavetes steals the show as Franko and even earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Lee Marvin is perfect as Reisman; hard to believe John Wayne was originally offered the role. Fortunately he turned it down and went to make The Green Berets instead. Bronson is no stranger to men on a mission films; he was also in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape and here he doesn’t disappoint. Even Jim Brown (who retired from the Cleveland Browns in the middle of filming) gives a good performance in only his second film. Sutherland was an actor resident in the UK at the time and the film promoted him into Hollywood, especially after his turn in M*A*S*H, and would play proto-hippie Oddball in the more relaxed men on a mission film, Kelly’s Heroes with Telly Savalas who, in The Dirty Dozen, is exceptionally sinister as the woman hating, religious fanatic Maggott.
What I admire about The Dirty Dozen is that it is one of the first to depict American solider as less than clean-cut, which is natural of the times the film was made; Vietnam was a few years in and anti-war sentiment was gaining popularity. This was also a time in Hollywood where genre conventions were going through a revision; war films and westerns were especially turned over and presented as darker and grittier where the heroes are not so clearly defined. People can do heroic things and not necessarily be considered a hero; and the presentation of the Dozen as murders, psychopaths and misfits is a clear contrast to the All-American, battle-happy Joes from Company B. In fact, John Wayne turned down the role because of the depiction of American soldiers as military criminals and death-row prisoners. While there is violence and might present some anti-authoritarian, anti-military, anti-establishment, anti-everything, the film is not as bleak as it sounds; Aldrich tempers the nihilism with enough cynical humour to suggest the whole thing is a game, an inside joke only those in the situation can possibly get.