R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Dirty Dozen

When Akira Kurosawa brought Seven Samurai to screens in 1954, a new dynamic was added to the Action Movie genre. The “team-up” style picture has been a fixture of cinema since its inception in Kurosawa’s classic. Everything from Heist Films such as Ocean’s Eleven to classic Westerns like The Wild Bunch have used the formula of bringing a group of heroes together to reach a common goal. Most of these films have each role in the group filled by a character that is a specialist in some regard or another. There is an elaborate training or planning session and then a gigantic finale as the job is done.

One of the most famous and highly regarded of these types of films is Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen. The story of The Dozen actually begins a few years earlier with the novel the film is based on. The story by E.M. Nathanson was widely sought after when he began writing it in 1963. So confident in the property was Director Robert Aldrich that he attempted to purchase the rights while the book was still in outline form. Unfortunately for the Director of such films as the original Flight of the Phoenix and the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, studio Metro Goldwyn-Mayer has already acquired the film rights. When the book hit in 1965, it was a big smash and the film adaptation was primed to begin filming.

When looking for someone to helm the film, MGM looked no further than Robert Aldrich. The Director had shown he was capable of handling big action scenes in Westerns such as Vera Cruz and Apache as well as being able to craft great character work from his actors like he did in Baby Jane. Aldrich would need all of his skills to make a film of this size with this many compelling characters.

A damning characteristic of many WWII films of this period would be an emphasis on overcrowding a film with a great cast instead of great content. Studios would often use their cast as a crutch to get audiences in theaters, but such films would usually suffer critically due to the film having a less than compelling story and not enough screen time for their actors to get any character development. Films such as Battle of the Bulge and The Longest Day had big name stars, but do little with them other than parade them on screen, which made them more of a distraction than an positive element of the film. To overcome this weakness of the genre, Aldrich was going to have to make his film with a similar feel to films like The Magnificent Seven or The Guns of Navarone which tightened their scope, but had strong characters and focused more on action.

The first role to be cast for the film was the picture’s most important. For the part of the group’s leader, Maj. John Reisman, tough guy icon John Wayne was sought after, but he declined. Wayne decided instead to film the Vietnam Epic The Green Berets in which he starred and directed. Instead the role went to actual WWII veteran Lee Marvin. Marvin had come up in the industry typically playing villains, but his turn in 1965’s Cat Ballou in two different roles had won him the Oscar for Best Actor and his part as Henry ‘Rico’ Fardan, the leader of The Professionals, made him a bankable star. Marvin would lead a cast that would include other WWII veterans Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson , Ernest Borgnine, and Clint Walker.

The Dirty Dozen Starring Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. Directed by David Aldrich.

The film begins with an ominous opening. In his opening scene, Marvin’s Major Reisman is called to a military prison where he witnesses the execution of a death row inmate. The scene is followed by Reisman meeting with top Army brass. The major is given a top secret mission in which he must lead a team to a German chateau where members of the German High Command throws huge galas with German officials. The Allied Forces are planning the D-Day invasion at this time and eliminating the members of the Nazi Party at this villa will sway the invasion in their favor before the first boat even reaches the beach. The problem facing those planning the mission is that it will definitely be one in which most that go, will not come home. To find that many expendable assets, the Army has decided that Reisman’s team will be made of felons and death row inmates. Success in the mission will mean full pardons. Failure will mean death. The Army feels that either they will be rid of a number of enemies on the battlefield or a baker’s dozen of troublemakers, Reisman included.

This team of convicts is made up of Joseph T. Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), Robert T. Jefferson (Jim Brown), Victor P. Franko (John Cassavetes), Pedro Jiminez (Trini López), Archer J. Maggott (Telly Savalas), Vernon L. Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), Samson Posey (Clint Walker), Milo Vladek (Tom Busby), Glenn Gilpin (Ben Carruthers), Roscoe Lever (Stuart Cooper), Seth K. Sawyer (Colin Maitland), and Tassos R. Bravos (Colin Maitland). While the personalities of many of the men are very similar in this group of cutthroats and murderers, some stand out. Bronson’s Joseph Wladislaw is the strong silent type, wanting only to do his time and get out of the Army. John Cassavetes’ Franko is the rebel of the group, trying to stand up to Reisman’s authority as often as possible. Getting Franko to fall in line is the key to getting the group to accept Reisman as their leader. Maggott is a religious fanatic who threatens the rest of the group at many turns. Jim Brown’s Jefferson is a man who must deal with the racial discrimination thrown at him by the rest of the men incarcerated with him.

The first half of the film is the training sequence in which Reisman must convince the men to accept their mission and him as their leader. Early on is rough going for the major as the men are not accustom to following orders and are sorely lacking in discipline. Eventually the team begins to congeal as a group with Reisman at the head. The climax of the training happens when the men must face off against a highly trained team of regular Army in an elaborate War Games set up. Cheating as much as possible and using every possible trick they can think of, The Dozen take the enemy headquarters lead by the pompous Col. Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). Reisman solidifies his position as leader in this sequence as he stands up to Ryan’s Col. Breed in defense of his men’s tactics. The men are a complete unit when they are sent into battle.

The final assault on the chateau encompassing the film’s last half is as exciting as any like it ever filmed. Reminiscent of the final sequence of The Guns of Navarone or many of the Bond franchise, the group is merciless as it has to slaughter those within the villa, including innocent civilians. A major turning point comes when Maggott attempts to finally do the rest of the group in and begins shooting at his own teammates. This of course brings the infiltration of the chateau to a halt and the group has to improvise before the film’s explosive conclusion.

For gritty, macho action look no further than The Dirty Dozen. Robert Aldrich crafted a film with enough testosterone for three movies, with the early training sequences providing some brutality laced with some light comedy. The final assault is a taut sequence with an ample amount of suspense and action. Aldrich does everything he could to make this movie a classic of the genre. The chateau built for this film was actually built brick for brick. When it came time to actually blow up the building, it was so solid that it could not be destroyed without killing all the crew. A portion of the chateau had to be rebuilt with cork and plastic.

Aldrich was actually told to cut a sequence toward the end where Jim Brown’s Jefferson drops grenades into a bomb shelter. He told doing so would put him in line for a Best Director Oscar, but he decided it would compromise the picture’s realism. The sequence is now one of the most remembered in the film.

As for the acting Lee Marvin, plays his tough guy image to it’s fullest. Reisman has to be brutal with his tactics to gain the men’s respect. Marvin’s comic timing also makes the character more than just a one-dimensional tough guy. This may be the role Marvin is most known for when all is said and done.

Of The Dozen, many personalities are able to shine. Bronson is able to make his character very likable by using his normally subdued screen persona. Telly Savalas is absolutely nuts in this movie. His Maggott is very funny at times, but his mental instability is never in question. Little touches by Savalas and the Direction help make Maggot a great character. For instance, when the men have their last session to plan, Maggott sits in the seat where Judas sat in the painting The Last Supper, which is a subtle, yet clever device. The biggest character arc for any prisoner is John Cassavetes’ Franko. Franko is an outspoken rebel at the film’s onset, but slowly warm to Reisman and the other men. It is Franko that is representative of the entire group’s psyche and their feelings toward the mission. Also, really breaking out in the film is Donald Sutherland as Pinkley. Pinkley’s goofy, hippee-ish nature got Sutherland noticed in Hollywood and really boosted his budding career.

Aldrich would use this formula of lovable losers again in the 1974 sports classic The Longest Yard. In that film, a rag tag bunch of convicts must take on prison guards in a football game with Burt Reynolds leading the convicts. Both of these films represent Aldrich’s best work.

Few War Films will ever be as popular as The Dirty Dozen. Its combination of comedy, action and suspense has made it a cherished film in the eyes of action fans. While the film may not be historically accurate or depict a real event, the film takes itself seriously enough that its entertainment value clearly outweighs lumbering Epics such as Pearl Harbor or The Longest Day. The Dirty Dozen was a breakthrough in showing the horrors of war where the innocent are not always spared, and how even the most unlikely of men is capable of heroism when faced with this truth.

Picture Credits:Allposters.com, Amazon.com