Review: The Dirty Dozen
Formerly at Epinions.com, written in 2007, and somewhat inspired by a Uni essay I totally aced a few years earlier. Not kidding, got a high distinction for it.
An anti-authority Army Major (Lee Marvin), is assigned by no-nonsense General Ernest Borgnine, the task of choosing and training twelve military prisoners-murderers, rapists and nutcases on either heavy jail or death sentences- for a top-secret WWII assignment to destroy a chateau in France supposedly hosting a lot of top enemy bigwigs. These uncouth and unseemly felons (who are promised quashed sentences should any distinguish themselves in combat and live to tell the tale), include; an antagonistic New York hood (John Cassavetes, in one of his best turns), a stoic Pole who can speak German (Charles Bronson, definitely one of his better efforts), a sneering religious zealot murderer (Telly Savalas, unforgettable), a gawky moron (Donald Sutherland, young and hilarious), a surprisingly sweet-natured Native American giant who is violent when provoked (Clint Walker), a hostile African American (Jim Brown, the first of his many film appearances), and others. Aiding Marvin in shaping up this motley crew is Richard Jaeckel, and Ralph Meeker, who as the military shrink has a helluva time getting single-minded Bronson to participation in a word association. George Kennedy, never more youthful or nerdy on screen, is Marvin’s friend, mild-mannered Maj. Armbruster. Robert Webber turns up as an unimpressed, by-the-book Army bigwig, and Robert Ryan is Marvin’s antagonist, the rigid and utterly humourless Col. Dasher-Breed.
There’s a lot more going on in this Robert Aldrich classic than it being just a ‘guy movie’, and some critics have underestimated it, even those who actually liked it. For instance, even Roger Ebert didn’t quite get it, his mostly negative yet three-star review from 1967 (he was on the anti-violence bandwagon, not for the last time, despite giving the abysmal “Last House on the Left” three and a half stars!) was as woefully misguided as was his later assertion that “The Elephant Man” was just about a freak we were supposed to feel pity for (no, Roger, it was about man’s inhumanity towards man!).
Aldrich is an especially underrated director who dealt with strong themes, this film being a perfect example. The film is a deeply cynical one concerning the war machine- the top brass are seen as somewhat rigid and treat Marvin and his crew as a means to an end, the military own these men. But I think there is more being said here than even that. I believe the film is taking a definite- if cynical- anti-war stance, remembering that the film was made in the late 60s. By having a war effort carried out by some of the worst examples of human specimen possible, Aldrich seems to be saying that if you want to believe in war, well, here it is- ugly, brutal and inhumane. Thusly, it best fought by psychopaths, killers and the generally unbalanced. True, these twelve are exaggerations of that idea, but hey, it is a movie after all. To bring back the notion of the war machine, it is so-named because any trace of humanity is driven out of you in the training process. You are trained to be a machine, process orders and unblinkingly carry them out.
But the film wouldn’t be a success if it didn’t also work on the most basic level as well: pure, masculine entertainment. If you like your tough guys, big guns, jeeps, and explosions up to wazoo, then this film is probably already part of your personal collection, and if not, it should be. The funny thing is, as enjoyable as the final action segment is, the training sequences (which form the longest part of the film) are the film’s strongest. This is probably because it is hear that the characterisation and humour in the Nunnally Johnson/Lukas Heller script and excellent performances come through strongest.
Marvin is pitch-perfect as a definite hard-case tough guy, but one who quite probably has severe misgivings about what it is that he does, especially in regards to the apathetic attitudes of his superiors. Watch the scene in which he sees a man hanged and you tell me that this is a man that likes army and the military (whether he agrees with the necessity of it- let alone whether I do- is another matter entirely). Charles Bronson, a limited actor, gives one of his best performances as one of the quietest, but perhaps the most heroic and ‘honourable’ among the Dozen, much as he was the humble hired gun in another classic ‘guy movie’ “The Magnificent Seven”, or the equally excellent “Great Escape”, wherein his Polish tunneller continued to work to help free his fellow prisoners, despite his claustrophobia (though I reckon he was also fearful of the outside after being held captive for so long). John Cassavetes is the perfect antagonistic mid-level, brawling hoodlum who constantly tests the tough, uncompromising Marvin and attempts to lead a rebellion against his rigid ways. Telly Savalas, sans lollipop, creates one of the most disgusting, skin-crawling loonies I’ve ever seen, his character is aptly named Maggott, and he’s always on the verge of doing something to sabotage the mission.
My favourite of the Dozen, however, is the geeky-looking Donald Sutherland, whose dim-witted character actually doesn’t seem smart enough to even be capable of committing a crime to get in the can in the first place. He has the film’s funniest moment, when he is told by Marvin to impersonate a general to get them out of a sticky situation, and make Ryan’s Dasher-Breed look foolish (not hard) in the process. Although their roles are comparatively minor, Borgnine, Meeker, Jaeckel, Webber, and especially Kennedy and Ryan are nothing less than solid. Borgnine, one of my favourite actors, doesn’t get much to do, but his reaction shots during the celebrated war games sequence are very funny and show that his character isn’t as much of a stiff as say, Col. Dasher-Breed.
If there is a flaw to be found, I suppose it is in the other members of the Dozen whom I haven’t even mentioned in the plot synopsis. Of them, only Trini Lopez’s music-lover made any impression on me whatsoever, and even that wasn’t a good impression (Sutherland might have seemed an unlikely con and not much of a soldier, but this guy? Gimme a break, even I could take him, and I’m a paraplegic for cryin’ out loud!). But if you must know, I think the rest of the 12 are played by Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland and Al Mancini. Yeah, a fine gallery of well-known, movie stars and A-grade actors there. Oh, well, at least the others are more than memorable.
A great ‘guy movie’ full of action, humour, fine actors, and yes, even some food for thought.