I’ve long believed that Robert Aldrich’s action adventure is one of the more enjoyable war films made during the 1960s, despite not being particularly realistic, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine that I usually end up watching whenever it’s on TV. Whether you think it reaches the bar set by classics like The Great Escape, The Guns Of Navarone, The Longest Day and Where Eagles Dare is a question of personal taste, of course, but there’s a convincing argument to be made for it being the most influential of the lot, given that box office success triggered a spate of copycat releases. Brian G. Hutton’s Kelly’s Heroes shares a similar comic tone to the second act of The Dirty Dozen, while Enzo Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds were both clearly influenced by its later action scenes, which are underscored by a nasty line in sadistic violence (a point that caused prominent critics of the time to denounce Aldrich’s film, though it passes for a ’12’ today). Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket shares a similar structure, while David Ayer, director of the forthcoming Suicide Squad, has stated that his blockbuster is basically The Dirty Dozen with superheroes instead of soldiers. It’s not a bad legacy, all told, though conveniently I’ve not mentioned any of the numerous piss-poor war films that were similarly packaged and stuffed with recognisable faces throughout the 1970s; that’s a blot on the copybook, though of course it’s not Aldrich’s fault.
The story is as well known as it is simple: prior to D-Day, Lee Marvin’s uppity Major Reisman is tasked with assembling and preparing a group of the US Army’s worst convicts – most of whom are on death row or facing 30 years in prison – for a mission they probably won’t survive. He trains them and sets them loose on a French château that’s hosting a number of high-ranking Nazi officials, with each Allied soldier knowing that if he makes it home he’ll be set free. It’s presented in a simple three act structure (recruitment, boot camp and assault), with the second act the longest by some distance, and the extended middle section means there’s very little action in the first two hours. Half of the principal cast members were established names; in addition to Marvin the likes of Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas (playing a particularly unlikable misogynist/religious nutjob), John Cassavetes and American footballer Jim Brown all appear. The rest were lesser-known British, American and Canadian actors, Donald Sutherland being the most notable today. A few of the actors – Bronson, Cassavetes, Sutherland – are well suited to their roles as characters with a distinct dislike of authority, and by focusing on this ragtag bunch of antiheroes who don’t respond well to orders The Dirty Dozen was clearly an attempt to surf the countercultural wave of the late 1960s. At times the way in which the bad behaviour of the soldiers is overplayed is frustrating, especially given that the majority of the men are little more than immature scamps, and only Savalas’s character Maggot presents any kind of real threat. Indeed reports suggest that this cartoonish, relentlessly anti-authoritarian element of the screenplay angered Marvin – one of several cast members who were soldiers before pursuing careers in Hollywood – during production. It’s a film that peaks quite late, and with a running time of 150 minutes I can’t really fault anyone for losing interest before the action shifts to the château. Still, it kicks off well enough during the final act, though I have to admit that the cacophony of gunfire, alarms and grenade explosions becomes harder to listen to as the years pass by, and getting to it seems like a greater chore each time it’s on.
Directed by: Robert Aldrich.
Written by: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller. Based on The Dirty Dozen by E.M. Nathanson.
Starring: Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Robert Webber, Al Mancini.
Cinematography: Edward Scaife.
Editing: Michael Luciano.
Music: Frank de Vol.
Running Time: 150 minutes.