Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.
The lovely people who make and compile The List ever year have made a deal with the Sundance Channel to start showing a film from The List every week. It’s a great idea—one that probably should have happened years ago. They opened the series with The Dirty Dozen, a film that has appeared in none of the volumes. Since the word is that the 10th edition will involve a good 50 new films, it’s a pretty safe bet that one of those new films will be this one.
So let’s talk for a minute about the career of the great Lee Marvin. If you want to talk cinematic tough guys, Marvin gets my vote as the man on the top of the pyramid. The guy’s entire career was carved out of mahogany and fastened into place with brass rivets. No one was a bigger movie badass than Lee Marvin, and while there are a number of films I could cite as proof (Point Blank comes to mind), The Dirty Dozen will handle this task nicely. I’m of the opinion that the bulk of great World War II films are prison films or prison-related films, and once again, this could be exhibit A.
It’s 1944 and the Allies are preparing to invade Europe. In preparation, a desperate plan is created. A group of a dozen military convicts is “recruited” to undertake a suicide mission. They will be airdropped into occupied France near a German retreat for officers. Once there, they will kill as many high-ranking officers as they can before attempting escape. The team, eventually nicknamed “The Dirty Dozen,” is led by Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), a man who has his own problems with authority.
Each of the convicts is facing either a death sentence or a multi-decade prison sentence, either with or without hard labor. None are offered a choice in accepting the mission, and it’s only through Reisman’s intervention that they are offered anything at all—those who make it back will be granted amnesty for whatever crimes they have committed.
So, since this is the very definition of an ensemble cast, let’s knock out the dozen in question. I should mention that about half of these guys are important specifically as the characters they are while the rest are more or less there to get us to the number 12. So here they are. The important guys are Franko (John Cassavetes), Jefferson (Jim Brown), Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), and Maggott (Telly Savalas, in what might be the best role of his career). The rest are Vladek (Tom Busby), Gilpin (Ben Carruthers), Posey (Clint Walker), Sawyer (Stuart Cooper), Lever (Stuart Cooper), Bravos (Al Mancini), and Jiminez (Trini Lopez). It’s not hard to figure out which of these guys will be the most important—we get specific scenes of Reisman interviewing them.
I’m not precisely sure exactly why The Dirty Dozen is so damn good, because it’s also so damn predictable. I mean, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The men are, because of their various crimes, are already morale problems and have problems with authority. They rebel immediately, but are forced to keep each other in line—if one steps out of line, they all go back to prison immediately. Slowly, the men bond together (with the exception of Maggott, who is a racist, misogynist, and religious fanatic). Eventually, they turn into a team and are able to prove themselves in a training exercise that has the additional benefit of showing up one of Reisman’s man rivals, Col. Breed (Robert Ryan). It’s pretty standard stuff, the kind of thing that you’d be surprised wasn’t here, really. And it doesn’t do any of this any differently than you might expect. It’s just done about as well here as it ever is.
The last 40 minutes of the film are the mission itself. The men parachute in, face a number of trials, reach the German officers’ club, and mayhem ensues. And this is most definitely not a feel-good. Reisman says going in that many of them won’t come back, and he wasn’t kidding. The final 40 minutes of this film are a damn bloodbath. If you like war movies, there’s enough war action in the third act to satisfy you for any two such films.
I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning a few other important people. First is General Worden (Ernest Borgnine), who seems to be more on the side of Reisman and his men than anyone else. Second is Major Armbruster (George Kennedy), who makes no secret of his loyalties to Reisman. Also worth mentioning is M.P. Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), who helps guard the 12 prisoners, dubs them with their epithet, and joins the team on the final mission.
It’s almost sad that Bowren goes along, because there’s a Christ-and-His-disciples feel to much of what is going on. The last meal before the mission takes place at a long table, for instance, and while I didn’t notice it at the time, I did when we flash back to it at the end—it looks like The Last Supper. There’s even a betrayal that happens on the mission. This can’t be purely coincidence, can it?
Regardless, The Dirty Dozen is as good a war film as you will find. It’s smart, it’s got plenty of fantastic action sequences, and it features Lee Marvin as he should be seen—carved out of granite and shitting ten-penny nails.
Why to watch The Dirty Dozen: It’s the war movie to end all war movies
Why not to watch: It ends the way most war movies should, which isn’t happily.