Wednesday, January 25, 2012

“Killin' generals could get to be a habit with me.”

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.


  1. Phips3:40 pm

    Great review. Nice throwback.

    This movie is one of my favorites..I absolutely love it.
    The characters and actors are brilliant.

    Lee Marvin is fantastic and I love Charlie Bronson, of course.

    This and The Great Escape should be on every movie fanatic's must see list.

  2. One of my all time favorite war movies. Director Robert Aldrich is an unheralded genius.

  3. I also remember the scene in, I want to say Sleepless in Seattle, where Tom Hanks' character and another man are making fun of how women cry over movies and they pretend to cry over Jim Brown's big action scene from The Dirty Dozen.

    Norris probably kicked himself for turning down the first Expendables movie (the Mickey Rourke character was obviously intended to be played by Norris). He gets a chance to join the fun in the sequel. I'm also guessing that Schwarzenegger and Willis will still only cameo, but at least do more than talk in this one. I'm looking forward to it.

  4. Sounds like a pretty cool film, I'll have to try and check it out. Great review.

  5. @Phips

    This film is one of my favorites as well, and I agree with you on your comment that this and The Great Escape should be on everyone's must see list.

    Lee Marvin is one of the all-time great tough guys, both old-school and new-school. He has that "I'm not taking any nonsense from anyone" look in his eye, but her can also do comedy, as his genius performance in Cat Ballou proves - he won an Oscar for best supporting actor.


    Aldrich is a solid director, he made the original Flight of the Phoenix and also directed The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds, another anti-authoritarian film.


    I know that Stallone contacted several actors for various roles in the film; Van Damme was offered a part and turned it down, as did Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal, but I wasn't aware Norris was offered a role. But you are right that the Rourke character is an older, mentor type. Interestingly, Rourke was only available for a few days's worth of shooting as he was making Iron Man 2 at the same time and if you look closely, he has the same hair in both.

    I also remember that scene in Sleepless in Seattle and I always laugh at that part.


    I do hope you are able to view it, it is a great movie.

    Thank you all for taking the time the kind words and comments, I really appreciate it.

  6. @Pistol Pete - I remember reading some comments from Stallone where he mentioned Norris, Van Damme and Wesley Snipes had either turned him down (Norris, Van Damme) or were not available (Snipes was in prison for tax evasion.) I hadn't heard about Russell. That's interesting.

    A small part of the fun for me in watching The Expendables was picking out the roles those guys would have been in. As I mentioned, I figured Norris would have been the mentor, Van Damme would have been the "assistant bad guy" who knew martial arts (the role was pretty small in the released film, but probably would have been bigger if Van Damme had played it) and Snipes would have been the character played by Terry Crews (the one with the massive gun). I wonder who Russell would have played. Maybe the main bad guy instead of Eric Roberts?

    Anyway, both Norris and Van Damme changed their minds and are in the sequel. Snipes is still in prison.

  7. @Chip

    I was aware of Snipes' tax troubles and I read that Russell was originally offered Bruce Willis' role but he turned it down as he wasn't interested in ensemble work.

    I would liked to have seen Carl Weathers involved as well, I originally envisioned Weathers in the Terry Crews role.

  8. I didn't know Robert Ryan was in this!

    You know, there is another war themed film that features a sizable portion of major stars: 'Force 10 from Navarone', starring Harrison Ford, Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers and Richard Kiel!

  9. @edgarchaput

    You are correct, Force 10 was the sequel to The Guns of Navarone, with Robert Shaw and Edward Fox (from The Day of the Jackal) in the roles previously filled by Gregory Peck and David Niven.

    While Harrison Ford, Carl Weathers, Richard Kiel, Franco Nero and Barbara Bach are in it, it somehow didn't ring my inner tuning fork quite like The Dirty Dozen did.

    Thanks for the comments, I appreciate them.


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