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Robert Aldrich became an early darling of the French critics, tried to make movies in England and Italy and came back to America to make a surprising smash hit, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But he really hit the jackpot three films later with The Dirty Dozen, a brutal escapist war action film that landed in the year of Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank -- the year mainstream America discovered graphic violence.
The Dirty Dozen is long, all-male and ruthlessly reminiscent of a no-holds-barred football game. With man's-man director Aldrich at the helm, it is like a football game, with a dozen well chosen starter players as the first lineup. Aldrich brings the best out of this pack of contrasting talent, using the imposing Lee Marvin to set the standard for "bruiser cool." With 145 minutes of screen time to divvy up there's room to give major roles to a score of supporting players. The Dirty Dozen is a Memorial Day movie perennial trotted out for long-weekend testosterone cable TV marathons. Surely Robert Aldrich, who intended a savage indictment of the brutality of war, would be embarrassed to know that he really made a rousing enlistment booster.
Yes, it comes from a previously published novel, but The Dirty Dozen is structured like football. There's recruiting (almost a half-hour of introductions and interviews with the inmate-soldier aspirants), training, R&R, a pre-season trial match and then the final competition. The "Big Game" uses a master playbook ("Three: The Major's men are on a spree!"), capped by a broken-field star-player run and a raucous exit from the field to the sports hospital to recover.
Aldrich had been a director for about ten years and tried almost everything ... women's pictures, epics and genre pictures with an angry political attitude. His only really big successes were an outrageously violent buddy-buddy western (Vera Cruz) and a freaky horror movie (Baby Jane?). Audiences rejected the excellent Flight of the Phoenix, perhaps as a reaction to its gritty pessimism -- it became known as the picture where James Stewart shot a camel.
The Dirty Dozen would be all things to the 1967 audience. It's a feel-good action movie seasoned with anachronistic mid-sixties ideas. Jim Brown's aggressive and unapologetic black soldier represented Black Power plain and simple: His only crime was defending himself against racist attackers who wanted to castrate him. Aldrich gives him a key role in The Dirty Dozen, perhaps the first time that a black actor got to play a macho hero in an American film. This undoubtedly uncovered a huge untapped crossover audience tired of watching black heroes like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte turn the other cheek or make conciliatory speeches about race.
The other issue is Vietnam. By 1967 the nation was just becoming aware of the truth about that war, mainly that it was not the clean and noble effort being sold by the Johnson administration. The Dirty Dozen's high level of brutality pushed the idea that War is basically murder and killing on a giant scale, and that its heroes are often mass murderers: War brings out the savage in everyone.
Major Reisman's raid is basically a terrorist (meaningless word) murder mission that traps thirty helpless victims in a basement and incinerates them with gasoline and grenades. Nobody separates men from women; even the Jim Brown character smiles with satisfaction while pouring on the fuel, giving the black audience the vicarious thrill of "getting back at whitey." 2 Archer Maggot teases a German woman and then gleefully stabs her to death, creating a strange conflict of purposes: Because we know Maggot feels that way about all women and is just indulging his psycho desires, we can't rationalize our thrill at seeing her murdered. The old "easy out" -- that she's a German sleeping with enemy officers and therefore legitimately deserves to die -- no longer applies.
In other words, although The Dirty Dozen is an escapist "fun" battle movie, everybody who sees it "gets" the message that War is a rotten business that makes it possible for all of its participants to discover their very worst natures.
If one wanted to put together a big-scale ensemble movie like The Dirty Dozen with today's crop of actors, how could it be done? Getting the Reisman role is easy, as there's always a George Clooney-type top star that fits the bill. Then again, Marvin's brand of insolent cool is perfect for the film, and hard to find; we'd never quite seen an officer like Reisman before. Forget John Wayne, who was asked first ... the movie would have been completely transformed with him in the lead.
But these days there is no longer the resource of affordable supporting actors (Telly Savalas) and TV stars (Clint Walker) that can carry roles because we "already know them." The brilliant casting gives us TV names along with a few stars that haven't quite made the top tier, like the unhappy Charles Bronson. Then Aldrich pulls in some wild cards for variety. Singer Trini Lopez was being saved for a standout scene, but quit the movie and had his character eliminated early. It appears that Donald Sutherland was an intuitive casting choice; he was just meant to be a colorful "also fought" until Clint Walker balked at doing the "imitation general" scene. Sutherland ran with he opportunity and won an instant career.
John Cassavetes is the film's standout and its Oscar nominee. He's a great example of a volatile actor that only a tough guy like Aldrich could keep in line. Aldrich probably loved the challenge after having to be diplomatically tough with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in two movies. With his male "starting lineup" he could use the full repertoire of Old Boy Network "motivation" tricks.
Aldrich fills other roles with veterans from his earlier movies like Ralph Meeker, Richard Jaeckel and Ernest Borgnine. The only disappointments are Robert Ryan, who is saddled with a "regular Army clown" cliché that requires him only to sneer and scowl; and Ben (Benito) Carruthers, a talented Cassavetes discovery (Shadows, Lilith, Goldstein, A High Wind in Jamaica, Fearless Frank) who never received the big breaks.
Aldrich had worked in England before and got good value for his money. With only a barrack or two as the main setting, the big money went into the giant chateau for the bombastic conclusion. The movie won an Oscar for best sound effects, perhaps because the 70mm prints enabled the mixing of a king-sized stereophonic soundtrack; but Savant tires of the incessant identical grease gun noises at the film's end .... they start to sound like sewing machines. 1
Warners' 2-disc Special Edition of The Dirty Dozen is another fine enhanced remastering of an earlier flat letterboxed disc. Colors are saturated and the print very clean; this one may have undergone some digital cleanup. The beefy 5.1 audio highlights Frank DeVol's score, which we're told was augmented with MGM library cues.
This time around the film gets a ton of extras, nicely compiled by New Wave. A heavily edited commentary rounds up surviving actors Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper and Colin Maitland, producer Kenneth Hyman, novelist E.M. Nathanson and film historian David J. Schow. That's enough variety to fill out the lengthy movie, but the track starts with a lot of innocuous material from Capt. Dale Dye, a "Military Advisor to the Movies" whose main qualification seems to be a gritty voice. Also on disc one is an introduction from friendly Ernest Borgnine, a trailer and the previous extra Operation Dirty Dozen which shows the actors "having fun" and being cool in swinging London.
Disc two has a vintage recruitment film narrated by Lee Marvin, Marine Corps Combat Leadership Skills, and a rather slippery new featurette on author E.M. Nathanson's source idea for a 'dirty dozen' squad, The Filthy Thirteen. But the best extra is New Wave's making-of interview doc Armed and Deadly. It balances input from all the sources to give us the interesting stories behind the production and plenty of extra anecdotal material, like why Charles Bronson was such a grumpy loner. Savant learned quite a bit about the picture, including choice nuggets that he's reported above. Even better, the docu puts the proper emphasis on director Robert Aldrich that was sorely lacking in the extras for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Long-time Aldrich historians James Ursini and Alain Silver (heard on many film noir DVD commentaries) are particularly good here.
Lastly comes the inclusion of a completely disposable 1985 TV movie, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. It's terrible in every aspect. Poor Lee Marvin appears to have filmed it to dig his way out of hock after his major legal troubles (Savant's educated guess). Leading some casting agent's roundup of pantywaist pretty boys into comic book combat is just the kind of late-career humiliation Marvin didn't need. He appeared in a cheap Cannon film around the same time, playing a similar 'mission leader' role. I recommend viewers to just forget this feature is here. It's depressing to watch the physically diminished Marvin doing his best to keep up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Dirty Dozen rates:
1. According to Aldrich researchers and experts Alain Silver and James Ursini (What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films New York: Limelight Editions, 1995), The Dirty Dozen was the first non-anamorphic feature to be enlarged to 70mm. Big-scale prints may have been slightly cropped.
2. Contrast Jim Brown with black cavalryman Archie Savage in Aldrich's 1954 Vera Cruz. Savage's Ballard is an obvious nod to the Civil Rights Movement. Aldrich has him become a martyr, betrayed and gunned down by his own leader. Jim Brown's Robert Jefferson character is having none of that ...