This movie is often on TV and when it is, there is little I can do to resist watching it! Director Robert Aldrich's 1967 war film features a huge ensemble cast with many familiar faces from the past, including Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, and actor/writer/director John Cassavetes, who himself was a hugely important figure in American independent film.
A filthy, unwashed, unshaven dozen.
The plot revolves around a group of military misfits and criminals who are given a chance to redeem themselves on the battlefield by being trained for a suicide mission into occupied France in the Second World War. If they participate, and survive, then they will either be paroled or their death sentences commuted to life in prison. The mission is to parachute into France and infiltrate a highly secured French chateau where some important Germans with some important documents have fortified themselves. The film mainly centers around the training, the galvanizing, and building of relationships between the men and their commander, Major Reisman, played brilliantly by tough-lovin' cinema legend Lee Marvin. Initially, their main opposition is between each other. Their egos and arrogance means constant friction, often racially motivated, between the men. But they are galvanized as a team when their top secret mission is threatened to be canceled due to a suspicious Colonel who has a bone to pick with Reisman. Overcoming this, and displaying amazing teamwork and craftiness during some rehearsal war games, means the team is allowed to go ahead with their mission overseas.
Lee Marvin (right), as Major Reisman.
John Cassavetes (behind the wheel of the jeep) took acting gigs to finance the films he wrote and directed.
Now this is one of the great war films, full of everything you could want. Some great training sequences, some amazingly unsavoury characters who become quite endearing, some comedy, some trickery, and some great action sequences. Yes, it's from 1967, but they don't make war films like they used to! The action doesn't feel dated, and it's really nice to see sequences where all the special effects are all done real, on camera, as well as sequences that involve hundreds of extras. Despite this, the strengths of the film lie in the performances of the varied cast. We have rapists, murderers, deserters, thieves, and liars who must overcome their own personal struggles and egos. And we have Major Reisman who has to get them all to get along just long enough to complete their training and the subsequent mission.
The gang gets down to business.
If you where hoping that Inglourious Basterds was going to be more about the Basterds, like I did, then take a look at this. There are some priceless sequences, like my favorite, the sequence where the Dirty Dozen shows up at an Allied base commanded by Reisman's rival, Col. Breed. Breed was expecting Reisman to show up with a General to inspect his troops, so Reisman has to quickly come up with someone out of his gang of convicts to promenade as a General. The sarcasm in Donald Sutherland's performance is brilliant, and this scene just makes the whole movie for me.
When I watch this, I can't help but feel that it has more substance than recent war films. There is less sentimentalism, less romanticization, less of a preoccupation with "WAR IS HELL." The Dirty Dozen isn't a film about the war, it's a film about soldiers, set during the war. We know the parameters, we know the context of the war, but we follow a cast of characters more than the actual war. Films today romanticize the 1940s, and are so swept up in educating younger generations by showing us the graphic experience that war can be. They tell us to be horrified by the terror and brutality that war can be, but it is shown in glorious effects laden set-pieces shown in bleak and crisp picture quality and surround sound. It has become a mixed message. As horrifying as it was, the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan, was regaled as a masterpiece, an amazing achievement in action cinema, and has been emulated time after time in other films as well as numerous video games. War may be hell, but it can look flippin cool! Older films are less preoccupied with the action. Limited resources and technology meant that stories had to be more creative and focus on interesting stories and relationships between soldiers. Films like The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Bridge Over The River Kwai dealt with unique situations and circumstances were men were tested morally, and psychological, as well as physically. They had to focus in on an aspect of the war instead of just focusing on a vast topic like the Europe Theatre, the Pacific Theatre, Pearl Harbour, or the Russian Front. I know I sound like an old man, but I really think that we've lost something with readily available special and visual effects. War movies have moved from a more drama-oriented genre to the action genre, and I feel that their strengths really lie in the personal and interpersonal drama that goes on when one is put in an extraordinary situation.