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The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Period movies tend to pick up residue from the time they were made and The Dirty Dozen is no exception.

Written by:
Nunnally Johnson
Lukas Heller
(from the novel by E.M. Nathanson)

Directed by:
Robert Aldrich

Starring:
Lee Marvin
Ernest Borgnine
Charles Bronson
Jim Brown
John Cassavetes
Richard Jaeckel
George Kennedy
Robert Ryan
Telly Savalas
Donald Sutherland
Clint Walker

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes)
Best Editing
Best Sound

Academy Awards:
Best Sound Effects

Quote:
"I think I could get used to killing generals."

It's set in 1944, just before D-Day, but you get inklings of 1967 throughout. The movie begins with a hanging at Marston-Tyne Military Prison, and there's a vague, 1960s-style sympathy for the executed. When Napoleon Jefferson (Jim Brown) first meets Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin), he calls him "Whitey," and dismisses the battle against Hitler with a Vietnam-era comment, "That's your war, man, not mine." Authority figures don't come off well, either. Colonel Everett Breed (Robert Ryan) is a diapered incompetent, and most generals are starched and unimaginative. Even the assignment — taking 12 prisoners behind enemy lines to execute German senior officers — is dismissed by Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) as having been hatched by "a raving lunatic," an assessment with which General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) secretly agrees. Meanwhile, all the protagonists are non-conformists. Reisman, though a Major, is described as being "very short on discipline," while his men, according to an army psychologist, are "the most twisted, antisocial bunch of psychopathic deformities I have ever run into." 1960s meets 1940s, baby.

This residue in no way hampered my enjoyment of the film. The Dirty Dozen is a smart action film and Lee Marvin is a smart action hero. There's nothing superfluous about him. At the initial meeting between Reisman and the generals, Reisman's objections are blunt but sharp, and, despite complaints, he is disciplined, just not unthinkingly so. His voice is a low, articulate rumble. There's something both sad and strong about him, and you understand why men would follow him into battle, which is, after all, the point: Getting the dirty dozen to follow Reisman's orders; turning a dozen malcontents into a team. Reisman lets the prisoners know the stakes, and, though establishing himself as the authority figure, he allows them to police themselves (the fistfight after Maggott (Telly Savalas) calls Jefferson a nigger; Jefferson and Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) preventing Franko (John Cassavettes) from escaping).

Marvin carries the film, and he's aided by one of the greatest collection of tough guys ever assembled.

—October 24, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard