The Dirty Dozen (1967) Blu Ray & DVD & Digital Download (Warner)
Lee Marvin plays Major Reisman, an American army officer posted on British soil during WWII. He is brought in front of Generals Worden (Ernest Borgnine) and Denton (Robert Webber) who, in light of his dubious conduct in service, decide to hand him an inordinately difficult assignment: to train 12 court-martialled soldiers (most of whom are awaiting the noose) for a mission involving infiltrating a chateau in Rennes, France, and assassinating a number of high-ranking German officers who occupy the building. In exchange, their sentences will be reviewed.
With the help of Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), Reisman uses his unorthodox approach to discipline to whip the unruly ragtag bunch into shape. However, his efforts face challenges as he butts heads with one particularly defiant subordinate by the name of Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) and an uptight superior officer named Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) whom he crosses paths with.
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The Dirty Dozen was a huge box office success 1967, taking $45 million on a $5.4 million budget. It spawned countless ripoffs and variants, as well as three made-for-TV movies and a series during the 1980s. It has also endured as something of a “guy movie” favourite over the decades.
While rather dated, The Dirty Dozen is still fine entertainment thanks in no small part to the fantastic cast and witty script. The laconic and deceptively charming Lee Marvin is, of course, the main star here, quipping his way effortlessly through the most demanding of situations and dealing out ass-kickings to the toughest nuts in the group with a faint but obliging smile. However, the dozen themselves all have distinctive and sharply-drawn personalities, and are brought to life superbly by a then up-and-coming cast. Standouts include John Cassavetes as Franko, who appears to be simultaneously smug but in eternal pain from the chip he carries on his shoulder against authority, and Telly Savalas, all beady-eyed and meekly creepy as a psychotic Deep South religious fanatic who sees himself as being on some kind of god-given mission against harlot women.
The film manages a few satirical points about the straight-laced upper echelons of the army being out of touch with war’s true nature: ugly, messy and chaotic, with few real rules beyond “kill or be killed”. As such, there’s a surprising amount of comedy throughout, with one classic example featuring Reisman showing up Colonel Breed by asking Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) to pretend to be a general inspecting a lineup of his men. His instructions to Vernon? “Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid!”
Unfortunately the film’s length is a major issue: two and a half hours, with one and three quarters revolving around the training and lead-up to the mission. While there is a fair amount of humour and character development, there really isn’t enough story substance to warrant such a length of time. Thankfully the mission itself is handled with enough aplomb by director Robert Aldrich to make it worth the long wait. Aided by Michael Luciano’s pin-sharp editing, he films the proceedings with an emphasis on tight shots, often from a POV or low angle to crank up the intensity. He works in a number of cleverly suspenseful situations revolving around the team’s shaky knowledge of German (unlike a lot of other films, the Nazis don’t speak English onscreen here), a mishap involving a misstep on a rickety roof, and one member of the team giving in to their rather nasty urges. The slow-burning infiltration eventually gives way to all-out mayhem. A lot of the soldier deaths are rather dated looking now (extras throw their arms in the air, spin around and drop - with rarely any sign of visible blood - after being shot), but the unpleasant side of the war business does come through successfully as characters we have got to know throughout the film die one-by-one, and many of the victims end their lives in an unarmed, panicking state.
The Dirty Dozen isn’t one of Aldrich’s best films (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and even Twilight’s Last Gleaming, his underrated 1977 nail-biter, are amongst the finer examples), but it is definitely worth seeing. If it seems a little unoriginal and predictable now, it’s worth remembering that it’s because so many similar films have been made since - one of the most recent, unfortunately, being the naff DC adaptation Suicide Squad (2016).
Runtime: 150 mins
Dir: Robert Aldrich
Script: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller, from a novel by E.M. Nathanson
Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, Robert Webber
This transfer generally looks fine and clean, with the warm yellow-brown Eastmancolor process shown in a satisfyingly nostalgic light. The shadows in the interiors are picked out atmospherically, and the sumptuous castle interiors are awash with pristine detail. However, some shots are rather soft and blurry, implying that they were taken from an inferior negative.
The actors’ lines are a little indistinct in the mix at times. However, the sound effects and music are superbly restored, and feel very “in the room with the viewer”.
The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985)
The first of the three made-for-TV sequels is included as an extra here. It’s the only one to feature Lee Marvin, who sadly passed away in 1987. This one is set near the end of WWII and again features Reisman (Marvin) being coerced by General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) to assemble a new “Dirty Dozen”, this time to assassinate German General Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) who, himself, is plotting to assassinate the ailing Adolf Hitler (Michael Sheard), thus potentially prolonging the war. Got that?
It’s a rather lackadaisical and silly sequel that rehashes scenes and even whole lines of dialogue from its predecessor, but with a noticeable air of tiredness. The original’s plot was somewhat unrealistic, but was constructed well enough to offset the fact. However, this one’s incredibly far-fetched: it’s mind-bogglingly difficult to fathom the assertion that the allied forces would have wanted to prevent Hitler from being assassinated, and the script here doesn’t do a good job of convincing us otherwise. The actors playing Germans also speak English on screen this time - which makes a mockery of a scene where a Nazi officer encounters them in a cellar, and only the one Dirty Dozen member with a German background can understand him.
Still, the action and stuntwork is decent, while the production values are relatively high for a made-for-TV film from this period. It’s a rather mediocre film, but it passes 95 minutes without too much pain.
Introduction by Ernest Borgnine
A brief intro by the gravelly-voiced star (not shot specifically for this release; he passed away in 2012). He makes the most of his three minutes on screen, revealing trivia such as the fact that, had director Robert Aldrich cut one controversial scene from the climax, he would have been in with a chance of winning the 1968 Academy Award for Best Director.
Audio Commentary by E.M. Nathanson, David J. Schow & Capt. Dale Dye with Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Kenneth Hyman, Stuart Cooper & Colin Maitland
Dale Dye, who regularly trains actors to play military personnel convincingly, points out the inaccuracies (of which there are many). David Schow delves into the production notes and describes various changes that were made between book, script and the final film. We learn tidbits such as the fact that hulking actor Clint Walker ordered whole chickens when eating out at restaurants during the shoot, that the character of Maggot was a composite of two from the original book, and that Bronson and Marvin were frequently at loggerheads. We learn a hell of a lot from this top-notch commentary. Highly recommended for those who have a further two and a half hours to spare.
Armed and Deadly: The Making of The Dirty Dozen
A number of cast and crew members reminisce about the production, in particular about the contributions of the various actors. We learn that Aldrich was amazingly canny in his casting: John Cassavetes was famous for his work in independent cinema, so the director harnessed his maverick attitude when casting Franko. Clint Walker’s character was the initial choice for the “dumb general” scene, but since he was cast as a Native American he didn’t want to send a negative message about the race he was representing, hence Sutherland replacing him in the end. Ironically, this scene brought the latter to the attention of Ingo Preminger, who made him into a star by casting him in M.A.S.H. It’s a revealing and entertaining doc.
Operation Dirty Dozen
A contemporary doc following Lee Marvin and company behind the scenes of the production. It’s nothing too substantial, but the incessant surf guitar soundtrack and glimpses of Swinging London (as experienced by the actors during their Sundays off) offer sufficient nostalgic curiosity.
The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines
E.M Nathanson based his novel The Dirty Dozen on a legendary unit of hardened U.S. Army paratroopers called The Filthy Thirteen, led by one Jake McNiece. We get plentiful interview footage with the author (who carried out his own research into the unit) plus former member McNiece and a number of his colleagues. We learn that the average lifespan of a paratrooper during WWII was just 1 1/2 jumps. Despite the rich potential of its real-life subject matter, it’s a rather dry and studiously worthy 47 minutes. It’s strictly for die-hard buffs of WWII history.
Marine Corps. Combat Leadership Skills
Lee Marvin’s final role was to present this U.S. Marine Corps. training video related to overcoming fear and leading men into combat. Needless to say, it takes a rather non-critical view of war that’s out of step with the main feature itself, but nonetheless it’s notable as a piece of memorabilia.
An enjoyable if rather dated and overlong mix of war critique and straightforward shoot ‘em up. The extras are plentiful, but some are strictly for military buffs.