...we expect action-adventure flicks to embroider reality. This one does so without stretching credibility to the breaking point and provides a good time in the process.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"The Dirty Dozen":
Call this one the son of "The Great Escape" and the stepchild of "The Magnificent Seven." MGM's 1967 release "The Dirty Dozen" uses an all-star ensemble cast to produce one of the most-popular action-adventure war films of all time, and after nearly forty years, it looks better than ever.

The movie is about two-and-a-half hours long, and I hadn't seen it in quite some time. So, I settled in with a bag of Kettle Chips and a Weinhard's Vanilla Cream for an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.

Credit three people mainly with the film's success: E.M. Nathanson for his novel on which the movie is based (screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller), Nathanson saying that while it was fiction, he was inspired by legends of such things actually taking place; director Robert Aldrich, an old hand at action thrillers with movies like "Kiss Me Deadly," "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "Emperor of the North," and "The Longest Yard" to his credit; and Lee Marvin, a former Marine riding high as an Oscar winner for "Cat Ballou" two years earlier and "Point Blank" the same year.

The story is pretty simple and straightforward, but the twists along the way and our involvement with the characters carry it much further. Marvin plays Major John Reisman, a remarkably cynical army officer, short on discipline, who does not gladly suffer fools. In 1944, just prior to D-Day, his superiors assign him to oversee "Project Amnesty," a military strategy in which he is "to select twelve general prisoners convicted and sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment for murder, rape, robbery, and for other crimes of violence and so forth, and train and qualify these prisoners in as much of the business of behind-the-lines operations as they can absorb for a brief but unspecified time. You will then deliver them secretly into the European mainland just prior to the invasion, and attack and destroy the target specified."

The target? A rest-and-recreation conference center for senior German officers on leave. Reisman and his men are to parachute in and kill as many of the officers as possible. The army will grant amnesty to those men who survive. How does Reisman regard the scheme? He thinks lunatics must have designed the project.

Later, an army psychologist (Ralph Meeker) interviewing the twelve chosen men describes the group as "just about the most twisted, antisocial bunch of psychopathic deformities I have ever run into." "Well," responds Reisman, having adjusted to the situation, "I can't think of a better way to fight a war."

Not only is Marvin's Reisman a demanding SOB with a tender heart beneath his cold exterior, the rest of his command group are just as endearing, and they're performed by a stellar cast. Charles Bronson plays Joseph T. Waldislaw, a former officer himself, who now hates officers in general, and especially generals. Bronson essentially recreates his character from "The Great Escape." Ex-footballer Jim Brown plays Robert T. Jefferson, a victim of race hatred. John Cassavetes plays Victor R. Franko, a former small-time Chicago gangster and big-time hard-ass troublemaker. Pop singer Trini Lopez, in his screen debut, plays Pedro Jiminez, a guitar player and singer, no surprise. Telly Savalas plays Archer J. Maggott, a seriously psychopathic, Southern, Bible-thumping racist who believes everything he does is God's will. Donald Sutherland plays Vernon L. Pinkley, a goofy sort, who practically steals the show when he impersonates a general. Clint Walker (early television's Cheyenne Bodie) plays Samson Posey, a gentle giant who does not like people pushing him around. And there are Tom Busby as Milo Vladek, Ben Carruthers as Glenn Gilpen, Colin Maitland as Seth Sawyer, Stuart Cooper as Roscoe Lever, and Al Mancini as Tassos Bravos. The group get their "Dirty Dozen" nickname when one morning they refuse to shave in cold water, and Reisman decides in that case they won't shave or shower again.

In addition to the men of Reinsman's little band of misfits, there are even more supporting players than you can shake a baton at. Ernest Borgnine plays Major General Worden, the officer who assigns Reisman his new duty and oversees the project. Richard Jaeckel plays Sgt. Clyde Bowren, the strict but kindhearted MP in charge of the prisoners. George Kennedy (could it be a military movie without George Kennedy?) plays Major Max Armbruster, one of Reisner's friends and sympathizers. Robert Webber plays Brig. General Denton, a man dead set against the project from the start and even more dead set against Reisman leading it. And Robert Ryan plays Col. Everett Breed, a stiff-necked, by-the-book idiot who causes more trouble than he's worth but provides a perfect foil for Reisman.

Sure, the characters are stereotypes and the proceedings are clichéd, but isn't that the way we want our action movies? The filmmakers initially offered John Wayne the Reisman part but he turned it down, which if he hadn't might have made the movie even more stereotyped than it already is. In any case, the part went fortuitously to Marvin, and it's hard to think he could have been bettered.

The movie tries to be as hard and realistic as possible, but the clichés, the off-the-wall whimsy, and the far-fetched theatrics keep it securely out of "Saving Private Ryan" territory. Then, too, we have to remember the time MGM released the film, 1967, and that studios had to conform to the conventions of the day. Therefore, you won't find a single soldier--murderer, rapist, robber, or thug--utter a single profanity.

The first quarter of the movie concerns the introduction of the men; the second quarter describes their subsequent training; the third quarter involves their participation in a series of war games; and the final quarter details the raid itself, which is almost anticlimactic.

"The Dirty Dozen" hasn't quite the humor or the pathos of "The Great Escape" (nor that great theme music), but it is still eminently watchable in an exaggerated sort of way, and it passes a quick 149 minutes.

"The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission":
Eighteen years went by before MGM decided to make a sequel to their longtime hit. So in 1985 they talked Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Jaeckel into reprising their old roles as Maj. Reisman, Gen. Worden, and Sgt. Bowren. Apparently, the rest of the actors (whose characters survived in the original movie) read the script for the new film and declined to participate.

"The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission" became the first in a series of sequels made in the late 1980s, most of them only with Borgnine. As Marvin would pass away a year later, the temptation for him to do another one passed with him. This sequel is nothing short of awful

A Nazi general wants to save Germany by assassinating Adolf Hitler. The Allies don't want this to happen because they feel Hitler is so incompetent that with him in command the War will soon be over. As a result, the army calls upon Reisner and a new "dirty dozen" of convicted rejects to stop the assassination by parachuting into German-occupied France and killing the Nazi general planning the hit on the Fuehrer.

Not only is the sequel a virtual repeat of the original, Marvin and Borgnine by this time were getting much too old for their roles. Although no more than a few months are supposed to go by between the action of the first film and this one, the two actors appear a good twenty years older. Worse, like the rest of the actors in this dead-end affair, both Marvin and Borgnine appear to be reading their scripts from a signboard propped up behind the camera. It is only Jaeckel who displays any sign of life, but his role is so small we hardly notice him.

And things only get worse. What before was a colorful bunch of varied prisoners is now a collection of dull, zombielike nonentities who even look alike. The script is no longer simply clichéd and stereotyped, it's sluggish and boring. The director, Andrew McLaglen, who had done much better work for the big screen in things like "McLintock," "Shenandoah," "The Way West," and "The Devil's Brigade" seems to have taken on the film simply for a paycheck, showing no energy or enthusiasm for this sluggish affair.

Annoyingly, you can also tell when the television broadcast inserted every commercial break, and the action (what little there is) comes to a crashing halt each time, the movie limping awkwardly from one episode to the next.

Once in occupied France, events become not just melodramatic but downright absurd. Think about this: Reisman and his band disguise themselves as Nazi soldiers to infiltrate the countryside, but one of the men Reisman chooses to bring along with them is black! Political correctness overshadows common sense. Moreover, the TV producers replace the good humor of the original movie with a sullen depression, depriving the whole movie of any vitality whatsoever.

Needless to say, my ratings at the bottom of the page apply to the original movie only. "Next Mission" gets a 3/10.

Warner Bros. transferred the primary movie to disc in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic picture size of 1.78:1, fully filling up a 16x9 widescreen television. The Internet Movie Database lists the movie's aspect ratio at 2.20:1, which, according to Richard W. Haines, author of "Technicolor Movies," was its roadshow size, blown up and cropped from the original 1.85:1 camera negative.

While there is some small degree of grain in the print, especially in the stock footage, it tends to contribute to the film's overall naturalistic atmosphere. The colors are as beautiful, deep and rich as we have come to expect of high-bit-rate transfers; and the object definition is about as good as it gets in a standard-definition format. For a film four decades old, or for any film of any age for that matter, "The Dirty Dozen" is a pleasure on the eyes.

The TV sequel, "Next Mission," is in a standard 1.33:1 screen ratio, the image soft and comparatively blurred. The less said about it, the better.

Warner Bros. remastered the sound of the main feature in Dolby Digital 5.1 to excellent effect. The film won an Oscar for sound effects, and they come through loud and clear. The sonics are very dynamic, with a wide front-channel stereo spread and a satisfyingly deep bass. Specific rear-channel locality is limited, as we might expect, and there is a touch of hardness to the midrange and highs, but it is hardly distracting.

The sound in the sequel is reproduced in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural. Like the sequel's picture quality, it is mediocre at best.

Disc one of this Special Edition two-disc set contains the feature film, along with an audio commentary by cast members Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper, and Colin Maitland; the producer Kenneth Hyman; original novelist E.M. Nathanson; film historian David J. Schow; and military advisor to movies Captain Dale Dye. It's Dye who starts things off by providing both a historical perspective as well as a film perspective on the movie. If you choose, you can also watch a three-minute introduction to the film by co-star Ernest Borgnine and a vintage featurette, a promotional really, "Operation Dirty Dozen." Things wrap up with thirty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; a fullscreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two contains the TV sequel, "The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission," and here you will find English as the only spoken language, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Along with the sequel there are two newly made and fairly lengthy documentaries. The first is on the making of the original movie, "Armed and Deadly: The Making of The Dirty Dozen," thirty minutes, with various of the filmmakers and cast members reminiscing--people like Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, and Clint Walker. The second documentary is "The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines," a forty-seven minute segment about the real-life airborne division that inspired author E.M. Nathanson to write his fictional "Dirty Dozen." Finally, there is a twenty-nine minute vintage recruitment documentary, "Marine Corps Combat Leadership Skills," with the late Lee Marvin narrating.

Parting Thoughts:
It's hard to beat a really good action adventure, and the original "Dirty Dozen" is among the best of its kind. It hasn't the essential realism of, say, "The Guns of Navarone," but thanks to the firm grasp that director Robert Aldrich and star Lee Marvin brought to the picture, "The Dirty Dozen" is almost irresistible. Sure, it overstates the heroics and emphasizes military maneuvers that probably never could have happened the way they are depicted, but we expect action-adventure flicks to embroider reality. This one does so without stretching credibility to the breaking point and provides a good time in the process.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "The Dirty Dozen" for four Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes), Best Film Editing (Michael Luciano), and Best Sound and Best Sound Effects (John Poyner). As I said before, the film won for Sound Effects, so keep your volume control handy. I understand that the Academy might have nominated Robert Aldrich for Best Director, too, had there not been some controversy surrounding the final raid. I'll leave it to you to listen to Borgnine's introduction and the movie's audio commentary to decide if they robbed Aldrich or not.


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