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The Dirty Dozen

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Dirty Dozen

Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson
Director: Robert Aldrich
Rated: PG
RunTime: 150 Minutes
Release Date: June 1967
Genres: Action, War

*Also starring: George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, Trini Lopez

Review by Dragan Antulov
3½ stars out of 4

Today most people would hardly rush to associate war with anything noble or chivalrous, and even splendid little wars, won without a single casualty, leave bitter taste in mouth. But, some thirty years ago it wasn't so; the movie audiences, with their war experiences shaped by the global and relatively clear-cut Good vs. Evil conflict like WW2, didn't see anything wrong with war, as long as their "good" side was winning. Such perceptions were strengthened by the series of WW2 action spectacles made in 1960s. They usually featured small group of dedicated and chivalrous Allied servicemen carrying out important and spectacular actions behind enemy lines. It is rather ironic that the film that began to undermine perception of war chivalry actually belonged to this category. Directed in 1967 by Robert Aldrich, THE DIRTY DOZEN later proved to be the most remembered and most influential of all those war spectacles. Its reputation, on the other hand, was diminished by the series of uninspired television sequels made in 1980s, including rather silly television series shot in former Yugoslavia.

The plot, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson, is set in Spring of 1944. Allied forces in England are preparing for the D Day, and American top brass is planning to paralyse German command-and- control system by the behind-the-lines raid on French chateau that is always full of top German officers. The chateau is, however, fortified and heavily guarded and only the most expendable men could be used for this nearly suicidal mission. Major Reisman (played by Lee Marvin) is an officer short on discipline, but with reputation of man who gets job done. He is given the task of selecting group of twelve soldiers, court-martialed and convicted for murder, rape and similar offences and offering them full pardon in exchange for their participation in the mission. Since the alternative is decades behind bars, or, in some cases, even the death penalty, they all accept the offer. But that is the easy part for Reisman; being notoriously short on discipline they prove almost impossible to train. Despite that, Reisman is patient and his group, nicknamed "The Dirty Dozen", soon begins to function as an effective military unit. Reisman's superiors, on the other hand, are having second thoughts and the unit must convince them of their abilities before being sent to combat.

THE DIRTY DOZEN is an important film, because it was the first one to acknowledge one fact, often ignored by the militarists and other war apologists - one of the character traits essential for being a good soldier is the lack of any moral inhibitions towards killing another human being. Aldrich presents that fact by portraying the Dirty Dozen as a bunch of sociopaths, raving murderers, rapists, religious fanatics and idiots; their characters are totally undesirable in any civilised society, and in civilian life they would all probably end up in jails, death rows or lunatic asylums. But in the context of war, those character traits prove quite useful and are actually encouraged by their less hypocritical superiors. Aldrich shows that ironic fact with a hard contrast between the Dirty Dozen, unshaved, dirty soldiers that resemble barbarians and their more "civilised" counterparts - first US paratroopers led by uptight Colonel Breed (played by Robert Ryan), then finally German soldiers, all in neat uniforms and probably much nicer human beings than any of Reisman's group. In the end, during the final battle, we actually see Dirty Dozen as group of remorseless, stone-cold killers that brutally massacre whole bunch of harmless old men, including their wives and girlfriends; in time of peace, such action, that painfully resembles Columbine High School shooting, would bring universal condemnation; in time of war it would actually bring decorations, promotions and heroic attributes.

All this irony is, of course, very cleverly disguised in the form of extremely entertaining action picture. The action element, on the other hand, comes relatively late in the film, but we are instead introduced to the multitude of extremely colourful and interesting characters. And those introductions are perhaps even better than the final actions; we see whole bunch of very capable character actors in some of the most memorable roles of their entire careers. John Cassavettes is excellent as mean and mutinous petty gangster Franco; Telly Savallas shows evil charisma as murderous religious fanatic; young Donald Sutherland is good as unit's idiot. But the best performance comes from Lee Marvin, as tough, cynical officer who sees the world as it is; he doesn't need his MP Sergeant Clyde Bowren (played by Richard Jaeckel) to remind him that all those sweet-talking convicts happen to be rather mean characters. Detailed character development led to two and half hours of length, leaving no time for any unnecessary romantic subplots. This is good, since THE DIRTY DOZEN happens to be one of the ultimate Guy Movies; women are reduced to recreational objects or more exotic examples of "collateral damage". Because of that, THE DIRTY DOZEN should have its reputation untarnished by the remake, impossible in today's atmosphere of "political correctness".

Aldrich's film, despite being classic, still has some flaws. The final showdown in the end, despite being spectacular, seems somewhat artificial compared, at least compared with the similar battle in the last part of Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The ending is rather abrupt, cutting out the survivors' journey to safety. But, in the end, THE DIRTY DOZEN is still a very good piece of Hollywood art that tells some rather unpleasant truths in the form of popular entertainment.

(Historical note: According to the article I had read many years ago, the novel was actually based on real life story. US military convicts were offered pardon in exchange for similar suicide mission in Nazi occupied France. They agreed, but after the drop they turned their tails and spent the rest of war in neutral Spain. In real life, use of pardoned convicts as soldiers is rather common phenomena, as experiences in former Yugoslavia indicate. In WW2 Red Army and Wehrmacht employed such practice. The operation that actually resembles this movie the most was conducted by Germans. In May of 1944, frustrated with unsuccessful attempts to chase down and destroy the core formations of Yugoslav Partisans, German High Command planned the daring parachute raid on the headquarters of Partisan leader Tito and trained entire battalion of convicts for that very purpose. In the end of the day, Tito, although initially surprised, managed to get away and the convict paratroopers, decimated in a hellatious battle, took only Tito's freshly tailored Field Marshall uniform as their only trophy.)

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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