The Dirty Dozen: Lee Marvin leads a dozen cutthroats into battle against Nazis in this hard-hitting WWII Actioner

The Dirty Dozen(1967), directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Earnest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, is a violent action film set in the backdrop of WWII, and the first of the countercultural war movies which critiques the military top brass.

“One: down to the road block, we’ve just begun.

Two: the guards are through.

Three: the Major’s men are on a spree.

Four: Major and Wladislaw go through the door.

Five: Pinkley stays out in the drive.

Six: the Major gives the rope a fix.

Seven: Wladislaw throws the hook to heaven.

Eight: Jiménez has got a date.

Nine: the other guys go up the line.

Ten: Sawyer and Gilpin are in the pen.

Eleven: Posey guards points five and seven.

Twelve: Wladislaw and the Major go down to delve.

Thirteen: Franko goes up without being seen.

Fourteen: Zero-hour, Jiménez cuts the cable, Franko cuts the phone.

Fifteen: Franko goes in where the others have been.

Sixteen: We all come out like it’s Halloween…”

This is Major Reisman’s sixteen-point plan for the successful completion of the mission for his 12-member gang of saboteurs, nicknamed The Dirty Dozen, in Robert Aldrich’s eponymous 1967 film. The Dirty Dozen’s mission is to destroy a château in France. This particular château has no military value as such, but as it is used by many of the Nazi big chiefs for conferences and recreation and such. Destroying it and killing everyone inside will disrupt the Nazi chain of command just before D-Day, thus throwing their military plans into disarray. The above plan is created by Reisman in the form of a repeating rhyme which the twelve men verbally recite in a rhyming chant to help them remember their roles while approaching the mission target. As it is obvious, Reisman is not your usual Major, the dozen neither your regular heroic ‘Men on a mission’, and the mission itself is rather bizarre and even stupid. By Mid 1960s, The template for the  World War II action picture was well established: the Allied high command assembles a team of saboteurs; they are dropped behind enemy lines to accomplish a mission on whose success the allied war effort is depended upon; After a series of adventures in the enemy territory, the team successfully completes the mission. But it’s also a fact that by the mid 60s, the counterculture was in full swing; Anti-authority feelings were hitting their peak; the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war etc. were bringing radical changes in the American society. Director, Robert Aldrich, conformed to the existing zeitgeist by making this the first of the countercultural WWII Action films. To this end, Aldrich twists this familiar formula by making his heroes not very clean-cut (literally) and. instead of the valiant military heroes who are usually sent out on missions like these, we have the dirtiest convicts the Armed Forces has got to offer; military prisoners condemned to death for murder, theft, rape and such assorted crimes.. For additional moral ambiguity, The man tasked with this operation is OSS Major Reisman (Lee Marvin): an insubordinate Army officer, who’s more intent on fighting his superiors than the Germans. and who’s facing a court-martial. He’s given one last chance for a reprieve: select twelve Army prisoners from a maximum-security detention center, train them for a top-secret mission behind the German lines, and then lead them into battle. If they succeed in the mission, they’ll be released. Usually, in these ‘Men on a mission’ movies, the team of saboteurs are tasked with destroying enemy’s bridges or cannons or some such pivotal military hardware. Here, it’s nothing like that. And for additional irony, the operation is titled “Project Amnesty”.

Aldrich wanted Major Reisman to be the “most cynical, suspicious, sophisticated, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, mean, miserable, son of a bitch that anybody has ever seen in a movie.”; and in Lee Marvin, he’s got the perfect actor for the job. It’s impossible to believe that John Wayne was the first choice for the role; he’s the epitome of authority and adherence to authority; Wayne turned down the role because he was turned off by the draft he saw, where Reisman has an affair with the wife of an officer on the front line. Thus it fell to Marvin, who was hitting the peak of his career, post his Oscar win for “Cat Ballou” and other successful films like “The Killers” and “The Professionals”. Marvin wasn’t too enthusiastic about taking the role either and considered it to be a “dummy money maker”. Even though Reisman and his squad don’t get along, they’re forced to become allies against a common enemy; not the Germans, but the American General Staff, who are Reisman’s and the dirty dozen’s real opponents for the first two thirds of the movie. The Germans are not even glimpsed until the last act of this film. For the first two thirds of the picture, Reisman and his dozen battles the military high command- represented in its most ‘by the book’ pedantry by Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). Breed has always been a thorn in Reisman’s flesh; one of Reisman’s main condition for taking up the mission was that Breed will not be involved with it in any way. Though Breed is kept away from “The Dirty Dozen” mission, he still throws his clout around, attempting to shut down the mission at every stage. Obviously, the army top brass who conceived such a ridiculous idea in the first place are the real bad guys of the movie, and it makes it very clear in no uncertain terms that the good guys are the unshaven criminals, and the bad guys are the clean-cut, well-dressed Generals who come across as stupid and vain.

Though the team that Reisman assembles for the mission consists of the most vicious and rebellious of the lot, some of them are given sympathetic backstories. Aldrich packs the cast with some of the best ensemble players of the times, like Charles Bronson- already a veteran of all-star cast adventure movies like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape”. Bronson plays Wladislaw, once a front-line infantryman who shot his platoon’s medic when the medic got scared under fire and started running, as Wladislaw puts it : “He took off with all the medical supplies only way to stop him was to shoot him“. Then there’s Jim Brown playing Jefferson, who has been convicted for murder, his defense is he was defending himself from vicious, racists who were abusing him. The most important of the “Dirty Dozen” is Franko, a small-time Chicago hoodlum who’s facing the gallows for robbery and subsequent murder of a British civilian. It’s clear from the start that Franko is a loner who thinks he’s big stuff, but Reisman manages to prove that he’s really all talk. More than once, he considers and even attempts escape from the remote training camp that the Dozen are forced to build. Wladislaw and Jefferson find themselves allied in order to get Franko on their side, because they have faith in Reisman and aren’t willing to let Franko’s rebellion become infectious. Also in fine support is Clint Walker as the big Navajo, Posey, who punched a man too hard for shoving him. He really didn’t mean to kill him; he just doesn’t like being pushed. Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a half-witted prisoner who’s serving 30 years. Finally, there’s Telly Savalas, lending a hand as the psychotic, racist, religious fanatic Maggot, who believes his job is to punish the other 11 men for their “wickedness”. Without a doubt, Maggot is somewhat unhinged and potentially dangerous. Under normal circumstances, there’s no way someone like him would be involved in a mission like this, but as Reisman tells the army psychiatrist, he didn’t get to choose the men, he’s only ordered to train them and take them on the mission. So, all of them are going including Maggot.

The first act of the film is devoted to Reisman’s attempts at taming this wild dozen. He intimidates them, fights them, talks them down, provokes them and pushes them beyond where they are willing to go in order to hone the wild dozen into a united fighting unit. Though he manages to get through to each one of them individually, by using specific tricks that’s appealing to each one of them respectively, he realizes that each man is an island, and the 12 have not yet become a united fighting unit; and try as hard he may, they’re just not becoming one. Finally, by sheer luck. a very trivial incident manages to unite them all: the denial of hot water to the dozen for shaving. The ever-belligerent Franko is the first one to object to this unfair treatment, and he he gets the rest of the eleven to back him. From that point on they stand united in not shaving, thus allowing their beards to grow and literally become a dirty dozen. And this unity get transformed into their military training as well, and eventually, Reisman has his fully functioning commando unit ready for the suicide mission behind enemy lines. But, Breed again raises red flags, and gives sufficient cause for shutting down the mission. To prove the efficiency of his team, Reisman is forced to involve in a ‘mock’ mission in which he and his men will take over Breed’s headquarters and hold him prisoner. So, contrary to the structure of the WWII actioner, where, in the first act we have the assembling and training of the team, and in the second act we have them dropped in enemy territory, through which they will be seen proceeding towards their objective, here, the entire second act is devoted to this ‘secondary’ mission within Allied territory, where the team has to wage a war against their own army. The Dirty Dozen succeeds in this mission, and hence are granted the go-ahead to embark on their real mission against the Germans.

The third act of the film revolves fully around the mission: the dozen are parachuted behind enemy lines. They stealthily advance towards the magnificent chateau, and executes their pre-conceived 16-point plan step by step. Reisman and Wladislaw dressed as German soldiers enter the château and sets up operations from inside, while the rest concentrates on the maneuvers outside. Everything goes according to plan, until the psychotic, Maggot snaps and starts shooting at his own team. He is quickly disposed off by Jefferson- extracting some payback for being an object of Maggot’s racist bullying since the recruiting started. Soon, the chateau is turned into a battleground of rapid machine-gun fire and exploding grenades. One by one, the members of the Dozen lay down their lives. In the end, the mission is a success, but only Wladislaw survives among the dozen, along with Reisman and his aide Sergeant Bowren. The film ends with General Wordon(Earnest Borgnine) pardoning the surviving member, Wladislaw , and communicating to the families of the rest that they died “in the line of duty.” It is interesting to note that, though the film has the reputation of being very violent, the violence doesn’t begin until the 130th minute of this 150 minutes film. But the violence in the last 20 minutes is cruel, repulsive and savage, especially since it’s perpetuated by the Americans, who are supposed to be the good guys in the war. Once the fighting begins, the Germans in the château escapes to the safety of the underground bunker. Once all the Germans, including women, are assembled inside the bunker, Reisman and Wladislaw lock the doors, and then, through the overhead ventilator shafts, pours gasoline soaked grenades into the bunker, and with the help of Jefferson, blows the château to bits, thus, killing everyone inside. It’s a particularly horrible sight, seeing the men and women locked inside the bunker struggling to get out and then being burnt alive. Aldrich wanted the scene to be a metaphor for the napalm bombings that were taking place in Vietnam at the time. It’s his way of conveying that war is a dirty business in which the heroes are as savage as the villains.

“The Dirty Dozen” is not a great film, and it’s not intended to be a great film. It could come across as crude, unrefined and exploitative, which it is in some ways. All Robert Aldrich films are in some ways pretty crude and down & dirty; not just the subject matter or the treatment of it, but the overall film itself. There’s a rough, unpolished quality to them, compared with the glossy, classy studio produced films of their times. He’s the guy who made “Kiss me Deadly”, “Vera Cruz” and “Whatever happened to Baby Jane”. Audiences who enjoys the glossy, gentle and light wartime heroics of “Guns of Navarone”, “The Great Escape” and “Where Eagles Dare” may not warm up to this film quickly, even though it appears to be cut from the same cloth as those films. Aldrich and his writers does not flinch in depicting the dark and dirty aspects of the story. Right from the first scene, where Major Reisman is forced to witness the hanging of a military prisoner for murder, it’s not a pretty sight. The entire section where Reisman recruits the prisoners is really dark, both visually and thematically; Reisman visits each one of them in their dark cell, listen to their story and taunts them into submission. The middle section is rather lighthearted, but then the finale is again very dark. In setting this mood, Aldrich is helped immensely by the actors he ahs chosen for their roles. It helps that a lot of them have actual military training, and have served in WWII.

First off is Lee Marvin, who plays the churlish, sardonic Major Reisman in his characteristic brisk, brusque style. He’s forever on the move and forever angry. Marvin was a US marine in the war and he brings his expertise with guns, knifes, and other assorted army gear to the character. You can see the difference when you compare how he holds a gun or knife with (civilian) actors in other films doing the same. There is a realism and comfort that he has with the military hardware that’s rarely seen in other actors. His terse dialogue delivery is spot on as always, as well as the gestures that go with it; and he’s given some truly pungent dialogues to go with his sardonic character. When Maggot instigates a fight with Jefferson by referring to him with a racist slur, Marvin’s Reisman quickly exits the room, locks the door from the outside, and tells the other soldiers about the commotion inside: “Oh, the gentleman from the South had a question about the dining arrangements. He and his comrades are discussing place settings now.” In the beginning, when he’s handed this crazy mission, Reisman blurts out: “Since we are over here to try to win the war, it shouldn’t be advertised that someone we work for is a raving lunatic“. In the film’s climax, when he’s asked what to do with French and German servants of the chateau, Reisman says: “You know what to do, free the French and shoot the Germans!“. Though Marvin enjoyed making this film, he felt that the movie has nothing to do with war. He was more enthusiastic about Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), which mirrored his own wartime experiences. Whatever the case, this film, along with John Boorman’s brilliant neo-noir, “Point Blank”- released in the same year, marked the height of Marvin’s career. He would never reach these heights again in his career. Other major member of the cast is Charles Bronson, who was, at the time, at the doors of stardom, and he would soon surpass Marvin as the ultimate tough guy actor. When they paired up again in the 1981 film, Death Hunt, Bronson will have top billing. Bronson had served in WWII in the US Army Air force, but beyond that, the history that’s given for his character in the film reflects his own. The character comes from a family of coal miners in Poland, Brosnan himself was a coal miner before he became an actor.

Of the rest of the cast, John Cassavetes  was nominated for best supporting Oscar for his terrific portrayal of Franko. The very next year he would play Mia Farrow’s ‘devilish’ husband in “Rosemary’s baby”, and after that he would emerge as a powerful patron of independent cinema, by directing movies like “Women under the influence”. On the basis of his performance in this film, Donald Sutherland will be selected by Robert Altman for his career-making role in M.A.S.H.; and it’s also while making this film that Jim Brown would quit his sports career to become a full time actor. Brown’s character of Jefferson was a path breaking one as far as African-American actors were considered. It was one of the first instances where a black character is seen wrecking so much destruction on the white folk. Earnest Borgnine as the lone reasonable member of the military top brass and Robert Ryan as Marvin’s nemesis in the army does what’s expected of them. “The Dirty Dozen” was a massive commercial success on its release, becoming MGM studio’s biggest moneymaker of the year. The film inspired imitations everywhere, the most famous one being the 1977 Italian war film, Inglorious Bastards, directed by Enzo G. Castellari; and of course, the title of Quentin Tarnation’s 2009 WWII film was inspired from that. The Devil’s Brigade(1968), starring William Holden, which was released in the wake of the success of this film was widely panned for being a shameless ripoff of this film. The irony in this is that, even though author E.M. Nathanson was inspired from some real life incidents, his original novel on which “The Dirty Dozen” is based is mostly fictional, while “The Devil’s Brigade” actually existed; its formal military designation was the First Special Service Force (FSSF), and alternatively known as the ‘Black Devils.’ Indeed, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.