Film Score: Frank De Vol Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes and Ernest Borgnine
Kelley’s Heroes and M*A*S*H were attempts to take some of the edge off of the Vietnam War then in progress and being paraded nightly across television screens. But it was Hollywood veteran Robert Aldrich who made the first entry into the genre with The Dirty Dozen, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson. It’s a terrific premise, with a clandestine special force made up of army convicts set to die, given one last chance to redeem themselves by going into battle behind the front lines on the evening before the D-Day assault in Normandy. The film sports an all-star cast, many of whom were little known at the time and later went on to distinguished careers. MGM offered the lead role of Major Reisman to John Wayne, but fortunately for Aldrich he turned it down to make The Green Berets instead. Aldrich had his heart set on Lee Marvin from the beginning and the lanky actor, who had alternated between television and motion pictures for most of his career, anchored the cast of this iconic film and became identified with the role for the rest of his life.
The story begins in a U.S. Army prison in England. Lee Marvin has been sent there to observe a hanging. When he reports back to the general, Ernest Borgnine, and his angry subordinate general, Robert Webber, his insolence becomes apparent. He is given an order to train twelve of the convicts for a special mission and has to sell the idea to twelve lucky “volunteers.” The group consists of, among others, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and John Cassavetes, who was nominated for an Oscar. Once they realize they will be getting out of prison--though they are likely to die during the mission--they gladly agree. The problem for Marvin is that they hate each other almost as much as they hate him, and getting them to work together is nearly impossible. He’s assisted by a sergeant, Richard Jaeckel, and when the men refuse to shave, Marvin takes away their soap and Jaeckel christens them “The Dirty Dozen.” During their training there are several episodes that test their mettle. The parachute training facility is run by Marvin’s sworn enemy, Robert Ryan, and Ryan tries to beat out of the men what their mission is. They, of course, believe that Marvin is responsible, but later when Ryan invades their camp while Marvin isn’t there, they bond even closer with him.
Things finally come to a head when Marvin is dragged before Borgnine by Ryan and threatened with losing the operation. With the help of fellow major George Kennedy, he makes a bet with Borgnine that he can take over Ryan’s headquarters during the war games coming up. The way they manage it is terrific, and cements the bond between the men and paves the way for their ultimate mission. And the mission itself is as suspenseful as they get. Aldrich has a terrific visual style that is apparent in almost every scene. Whether it is shooting from the ground or from directly overhead, there is always some interesting visual angle to go along with the story itself. And the story is a long one. Epic in scope, Aldrich is following on the tails of World War Two films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape in the film’s two hour and ten minute running time. Frank De Vol’s appropriately martial sounding score, while not exactly memorable, provides a perfect background for the action. The allegory for the Vietnam War is obvious. It was the first war where draftees, en mas, ran for cover by staying in college or the national guard or, in extreme case, fleeing to Canada, leaving the ranks of the Army primarily soldiered by low income men or minorities--in many cases both. But when it came time to perform they were as good--if not better because of their backgrounds--than career soldiers.
The other members of “the dozen” are less well known today. Clint Walker becomes pals with Bronson in the picture, while singer Trini López becomes the first to die on the mission. Frank Sinatra apparently pushed him to leave halfway through the production, believing that his singing career would go into decline if he stayed away from the U.S. too long, so his character was simply killed off. Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland and Al Mancini round out the rest of the dozen. At the time it was released, the film was criticized primarily for its portrayal of extreme violence, but Altman was adamant that the realism of war justified its inclusion. In fact, Aldrich was surreptitiously offered an Academy Award nomination if he would cut the final scene in which Jim Brown throws grenades into the air vents at the chateau. Ostensibly it was because of the violent nature of the scene. In reality it was because of the distaste of seeing a black man kill whites--even if they were Nazis. Fortunately, the film survived intact and has become one of the greatest war films ever produced in Hollywood. In addition to Cassavetes, the film was nominated for three other technical awards and won the Oscar for sound effects. It spawned a television sequel starring Lee Marvin, and two others with Telly Savalas leading the group. The Dirty Dozen has it all, sex, violence, action, drama and humor, and puts them all together in one of the most entertaining war films ever made.