Train them! Excite them! Arm them!… Then turn them loose on the Nazis!
When Roger Ebert sat down to review this film in 1967, he couldn’t get past one scene that comes near the end. I’ve seen so much senseless violence in movies (and so has he) that I would have barely reacted had I not read Ebert’s review. But his gut reaction is true and it’s a murderous sequence that takes away some of the fun that you’re after all likely to have when watching the whole movie. The last half hour is one long massacre that is certainly well staged and not as visually bloody as, say, Sam Peckinpah would have made it… but it is a jarring comparison to what comes before it.
In 1944, Allied forces are preparing D Day. One way of causing mayhem among the German military leadership in France would be to kill as many high-ranking officers as possible in one blow. A daring suicide plan is put together and a man is chosen to carry out the mission. Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is ordered to turn a small number of felons into a commando unit able enough to penetrate a chateau in Brittany. Should anyone survive they can expect to have their sentences commuted. Reisman is disgusted with the whole idea, but decides to train these men in his own way. Any felon who views the experience as a chance to escape will be severely punished, and Reisman immediately sets an example with the rebellious Franko (John Cassavetes) who has a death sentence hanging over him… but on the other hand the major realizes that the only way to make these rugged, dangerous men work as one is to allow them some leeway and motivate them in various ways.
Few links to real life
The story was allegedly based on the “Filthy Thirteen”, a group of U.S. soldiers who demolished targets behind enemy lines in World War II. Although there were rumors regarding these men’s past, they were not criminals. Robert Aldrich’s film is an adventure with few links to real life. The camaraderie among the felons is portrayed with some amount of credibility, but there are moments when the playfulness becomes a little too much to take (especially when it’s accompanied by a music score that is far too clownish in nature). In short, these guys are getting a little too cute after a while. Still, a sense of humor is part of the reason why this movie became such a massive box-office hit in its day and remains popular. The filmmakers cleverly build our sympathy for the dirty dozen and their uproarious attitude toward the army and its overly bureaucratic leadership, especially as represented by Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan), who believes that success grows out of… cleanliness. Marvin is terrific in one of his greatest roles as the major who detests his superiors as much as his men do, but still knows how to bring them victory; Ernest Borgnine is equally amusing as a general who gets to witness the dirty dozen in action up close – and gets a kick out of it.
The final showdown at the chateau is an exciting and explosive affair. However, the fact that the Nazi officers and their wives receive a similar treatment to Jewish death camp prisoners is horrifying in a way that betrays the director’s earlier, lighter touch.
The Dirty Dozen 1967-U.S. 150 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Kenneth Hyman. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller. Novel: E.M. Nathanson. Cast: Lee Marvin (John Reisman), Ernest Borgnine (Worden), Jim Brown (Robert T. Jefferson), John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson… Donald Sutherland, George Kennedy, Telly Savalas, Richard Jaeckel, Trini Lopez.
Trivia: John Wayne and Jack Palance were allegedly considered for roles. Followed by three TV sequels, starting with The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission (1985), and a TV series in 1988.
Oscar: Best Sound Effects.