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The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 war film directed by Robert Aldrich, released by MGM, and starring Lee Marvin. The picture was filmed in England and features an ensemble supporting cast including Ernest BorgnineCharles BronsonJim BrownJohn CassavetesTelly Savalas and Robert Webber. The film is based on E. M. Nathanson's novel of the same name that was potentially inspired by a real life group called the "Filthy Thirteen". In 2001, the American Film Institute placed the film number 65 on their 100 Years... 100 Thrills list.

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 [hide*1 Plot

Plot[edit]Edit

In England, in the spring of 1944, Allied forces are preparing for the D-Day invasion. Among them are Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin), an OSS officer; his commander, Regular Army Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine); and his former commander Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). Early in the film the personalities of the three men are shown to clash and the characters of the individualistic Reisman and the domineering Breed are established. Reisman is aided by his friend, the mild-mannered Major Max Armbruster (George Kennedy)

Major Reisman is assigned an unusual and top-secret pre-invasion mission: take a small unit of soldiers convicted of felonies and turn them into a commando squad to be sent on a special mission, an airborne infiltration and assault on a chateau near Rennes in Brittany. The chateau will be hosting a meeting of dozens of high-ranking German officers, the elimination of which will presumably hamper the German military's ability to respond to D-Day. Those felons who survive the mission will have their sentences commuted. It quickly becomes clear that both Reisman and his superiors regard the operation as a near-suicide mission and expect that few, if any of the felons will return.

Reisman is assigned twelve convicts, all either serving lengthy sentences or destined to be executed. Notable members include slow-witted Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland); Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown), an African American soldier convicted of killing a man in a racial brawl; Samson Posey (Clint Walker), a gentle giant who becomes enraged when pushed; Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) a taciturn coal miner recruited for his ability to speak German, convicted of shooting his squad's medic; A.J. Maggott (Telly Savalas), a misogynist and religious fanatic; and Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), a former member of the Chicago organized-crime Syndicate who has extreme problems with authority. Under the supervision of Reisman andmilitary police Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), the group begin training. After being forced to construct their own living quarters, the twelve individuals are trained in combat by Reisman and gradually learn how to operate as a group. For parachute training they are sent to the base operated by Colonel Breed. Under strict orders to keep their mission secret, Reisman's men run afoul of Breed and his troops, especially after Pinkley poses as a general and inspects Breed's troops. Angered at the usurpation of his authority, Breed attempts to discover Reisman's mission and then attempts to get the program shut down. Major Armbruster suggests a test of whether Reisman's men are ready: during practice maneuvers which Breed will be taking part in, the "Dirty Dozen" will attempt to capture the Colonel's headquarters. During the maneuvers, the men use various unorthodox tactics, including theft, impersonation, and rule-breaking, to infiltrate Breed's headquarters and hold him and his men at gunpoint. This proves to the General that Reisman's men are ready.

The night of the raid, the men are flown to France, and practise a rhyme they have learned which details their roles in the operation. There is a slight snag when upon landing in a tree one of the Dozen, Jiminez (Trini Lopez) breaks his neck and dies, but the others proceed with the mission. Wladislaw and Reisman infiltrate the meeting disguised as German officers while Jefferson and Maggott sneak onto the top floor of the building. The others set up in various locations around the chateau. The plan falls apart when Maggott sees one of the women who had accompanied the officers, abducts her at knifepoint, and orders her to scream. The German officers downstairs ignore her, thinking she is just having sex. Maggott stabs her and begins shooting, alerting the German officers. Jefferson kills Maggott, as Maggott began to realize he was going to die anyway. As the officers and their companions retreat to an underground bomb shelter, a general firefight ensues between the Dozen and the German troops. After Wladislaw and Reisman lock the Germans in the bomb shelter, the Dozen pry open the ventilation ducts to the shelter and drop unprimed grenades down, then pour gasoline inside. Jefferson throws a primed grenade down each shaft and sprints for their vehicle, but is shot down as the grenades explode. Reisman, Bowren, Wladislaw, and Franko, the last remaining survivors of the assault team, are making their escape on a German half-track when Franko, shouting triumphantly that he has survived, is shot by a stray round. Back in England only Reisman, Bowren and Wladislaw (the sole surviving felon) have managed to get out alive.

The film unfolds in three major acts.

Act one – Identification and "recruiting" the prisoners[edit]Edit

After witnessing a hanging in a military jail in London, Major Reisman is briefed on the mission at General Worden's headquarters. As the credits to the film are rolling he walks along the line of 12 prisoners and stares at each of them as Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel) reads out their sentences.

Name Portrayed by Sentence Fate
Franko, V. R. John Cassavetes Death by hanging Killed by multiple shots to the back/neck
Vladek, M. Tom Busby 30 years' hard labor Killed by a shot to the head
Jefferson, R. T. Jim Brown Death by hanging Killed by multiple shots to the leg and back
Pinkley, V. L. Donald Sutherland 30 years' imprisonment Killed by three shots to the back
Gilpin, S. Ben Carruthers 30 years' hard labor Blown up
Posey, S. Clint Walker Death by hanging Blown up
Wladislaw, T. Charles Bronson Death by hanging Wounded
Sawyer, S. K. Colin Maitland 20 years' hard labor Killed by two shots to the neck; body blown up in the boat
Lever, R. Stuart Cooper 20 years' imprisonment Killed by two shots to the neck; body blown up in the boat
Bravos, T. R. Al Mancini 20 years' hard labor Shot by three shots to the chest
Jiminez, J. P. Trini Lopez 20 years' hard labor Died of a Broken Neck
Maggott, A. J. Telly Savalas Death by hanging Killed by ten shots to the chest and back

On March 19, Reisman visits Franko, Wladislaw, Maggott, Posey and Jefferson in their cells. Some details of their crimes are revealed and he uses a different approach with each in an effort to gain their cooperation.

Act two – Training[edit]Edit

Depicts the unit building their own compound and training for the mission. It highlights the interpersonal conflicts between the men, some of whom see the mission as a chance for redemption and others as a chance for escape. The second act places the mission, and the characters, in jeopardy when a breach of military regulations on Reisman's part forces General Worden, at Breed's urging, to have the men – now dubbed the "Dirty Dozen" by Sergeant Bowren because of their refusal to shave or bathe as a protest against their living conditions – prove their worth as soldiers at 'divisional maneuvers', a wargame in "Devonshire".

Act three – The mission[edit]Edit

The final act, which was a mere footnote in the novel, is an action sequence detailing the attack on the chateau. The men recite the details of the attack in a chant in order to remember their roles:

  1. Down to the road block, we've just begun
  2. The guards are through
  3. The Major's men are on a spree
  4. Major and Wladislaw go through the door
  5. Pinkley stays out in the drive
  6. The Major gives the rope a fix
  7. Wladislaw throws the hook to heaven
  8. Jimenez has got a date
  9. The other guys go up the line
  10. Sawyer and Lever are in the pen
  11. Posey guards points five and seven
  12. Wladislaw and the Major go down to delve
  13. Franko goes up without being seen
  14. Zero-hour – Jimenez cuts the cable, Franko cuts the phone
  15. Franko goes in where the others have been
  16. We all come out like it's Halloween

Cast[edit]Edit

Production[edit]Edit

[1][2]Aldbury – scene of the wargame[3][4]Bradenham Manor – Wargames HQ

Although Robert Aldrich had tried to buy the rights to E.M. Nathanson's novel The Dirty Dozen while it was just an outline, MGM succeeded in May 1963. The novel was a best-seller upon publication in 1965.

Filming took place at the MGM British StudiosBorehamwood and the English prison camp location scenes were filmed at Ashridge in Hertfordshire. Wargame scenes were filmed at the village of Aldbury andBradenham Manor in Buckinghamshire featured as 'Wargames Headquarters'. Beechwood Park School in Markyate was also used as a location during the school's summer term, where the training camp and tower were built and shot in the grounds. The main house was also used, appearing in the film as a military hospital.[3]

The château was built especially for the production, by art director William Hutchinson. It was 240 ft wide and 50 ft high, surrounded with 5,400 sq. yds. of heather, 400 ferns, 450 shrubs, 30 spruce trees and 6 weeping willows. Construction of the faux château proved problematic. The script required its explosion, but it was so solid that 70 tons of explosives would have been required for the effect. Instead, a cork and plastic section was destroyed.

The film is remembered for being the one during which Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown announced his retirement from football at age 29. The owner of the Browns, Art Modell, demanded Brown choose between football and acting. With Brown's considerable accomplishments in the sport (he was already the NFL's all-time leading rusher, was predominantly ahead statistically of the second-leading rusher, and his team had won the 1964 NFL Championship), he chose acting. Despite his early retirement from football, Brown remains the league's eighth all-time leading rusher, the Cleveland Browns all-time leading rusher, and the only player in league history to have a career average 100 yards per game. In some form of tribute, Art Modell himself said in Spike Lee's Jim Brown: All American documentary, that he made a huge mistake in forcing Jim Brown to choose between football and Hollywood and if he had it to do over again, he would never have made such a demand. Modell fined Jim Brown the equivalent of over $100 per day, a fine which Brown said that "today wouldn't even buy the doughnuts for a team".

Casting[edit]Edit

The cast included many World War II US veterans, including (but not limited to) Robert Webber and Robert Ryan (US Marines), Telly Savalas (US Army) and Charles Bronson (Army Air Forces), Ernest Borgnine(Navy) and Clint Walker (Merchant Marine). Marvin served as a Private First Class in the US Marines in the Pacific War and provided technical assistance with uniforms and weapons to create realistic portrayals of combat, yet bitterly complained about the falsity of some scenes. He thought Reisman's wresting the bayonet from the enraged Posey to be particularly phony. Aldrich replied that the plot was preposterous, and that by the time the audience had left the cinema, they would have been so overwhelmed by action, explosions, and killing, that they would have forgotten the lapses.

John Wayne was the original choice for Reisman, but he turned down the role because he objected to the adultery present in the original script, which featured the character having a relationship with an Englishwoman whose husband was fighting on the Continent.[4] Jack Palance refused the "Archer Maggott" role when they wouldn't rewrite the script to make his character lose his racism; Telly Savalas took the role instead.[5]

Six of the Dozen were experienced American stars whilst the "Back Six" were actors resident in the UK, Englishman Colin MaitlandCanadians Donald Sutherland and Tom Busby, and Americans Stuart CooperAl Mancini and Ben Carruthers. According to commentary on The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition when Trini López left the film early, the death scene of Lopez's character where he blew himself up with the radio tower was given to Busby[6] (in the film, it is Ben Carruthers' character Glenn Gilpin who is tasked with blowing up the radio tower while Busby's character Milo Vladek is shot in front of the château).[7] The same commentary also states that the impersonation of the General scene was to have been done by Clint Walker who thought the scene demeaning to his character who was a native American. Aldrich picked out Sutherland for the bit.[8]

Reception and criticism[edit]Edit

In response to the violence of the film, Roger Ebert, in his first year as a film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote sarcastically:

I'm glad the Chicago Police Censor Board forgot about that part of the local censorship law where it says films shall not depict the burning of the human body. If you have to censor, stick to censoring sex, I say...but leave in the mutilation, leave in the sadism and by all means leave in the human beings burning to death. It's not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on.[9]

In another contemporary review, Bosley Crowther called it "an astonishingly wanton war film" and a "studied indulgence of sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words"; he also noted:

It is not simply that this violent picture of an American military venture is based on a fictional supposition that is silly and irresponsible.... But to have this bunch of felons a totally incorrigible lot, some of them psychopathic, and to try to make us believe that they would be committed by any American general to carry out an exceedingly important raid that a regular commando group could do with equal efficiency – and certainly with greater dependability – is downright preposterous.[10]

Crowther called some of the portrayals "bizarre and bold":

Marvin's taut, pugnacious playing of the major ... is tough and terrifying. John Cassavetes is wormy and noxious as a psychopath condemned to death, and Telly Savalas is swinish and maniacal as a religious fanatic and sex degenerate. Charles Bronson as an alienated murderer, Richard Jaeckel as a hard-boiled military policeman, and Jim Brown as a white-hating Negro stand out in the animalistic group.[10]

Variety was more positive, calling it an "exciting Second World War pre-D-Day drama" based on a "good screenplay" with a "ring of authenticity to it"; they drew particular attention to the performances by Marvin, Cassavetes, and Bronson.[11]

The Time Out Film Guide notes that over the years, "The Dirty Dozen has taken its place alongside that other commercial classic, The Magnificent Seven:

The violence which liberal critics found so offensive has survived intact. Aldrich sets up dispensable characters with no past and no future, as Marvin reprieves a bunch of death row prisoners, forges them into a tough fighting unit, and leads them on a suicide mission into Nazi France. Apart from the values of team spirit, cudgeled by Marvin into his dropout group, Aldrich appears to be against everything: anti-military, anti-Establishment, anti-women, anti-religion, anti-culture, anti-life. Overriding such nihilism is the super-crudity of Aldrich's energy and his humour, sufficiently cynical to suggest that the whole thing is a game anyway, a spectacle that demands an audience.[12]

The film currently holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews.[13]

Awards[edit]Edit

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in the category Best Sound Effects.[14]

  • Actor in a Supporting Role (John Cassavetes)
  • Film Editing (Michael Luciano)
  • Sound
  • Sound Effects (John Poyner) (Won)

Box office performance[edit]Edit

The Dirty Dozen was a massive commercial success. Produced on a budget of $5.4 million, it grossed $45.3 million, earning domestic rentals of $24.2 million in North America.[15] It was the 5th highest grossing film of 1967 and MGM's highest grossing movie of the year.

Basis in fact[edit]Edit

The Dirty Dozen is not the story of a real unit. In the prologue to the novel, Nathanson states that, while he heard a legend that such a unit may have existed, he was unable to find any corroboration in the archives of the US Army in Europe.

However, there was a unit called the "Filthy Thirteen", an airborne demolition unit documented in the eponymous book,[16] and this unit's exploits inspired the fictional account. Barbara Maloney, the daughter of John Agnew, a private in the Filthy Thirteen, told the American Valor Quarterly that her father felt that 30% of the movie's content was historically correct, including a scene where officers are captured. Unlike the Dirty Dozen, the Filthy Thirteen were not convicts; however, they were men prone to drinking and fighting and often spent time in the stockade.[17][18]

Both the Germans and Soviets used convicted men in high risk operations during the war.

Sequels and adaptations[edit]Edit

Three years after The Dirty Dozen was released, Too Late the Hero – a film also directed by Aldrich – was described as a "kind of sequel to The Dirty Dozen".[19] The 1969 Michael Caine film Play Dirty follows a similar theme of convicts-recruited-as-soldiers.

Several made-for-TV movies were produced in the mid- to late-1980s which capitalized on the popularity of the first film. Lee MarvinRichard Jaeckel, and Ernest Borgnine reprised their roles for The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission in 1985, leading a group of military convicts in a mission to kill a German general who was plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.[20] In The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), Telly Savalas, who had played the role of the psychotic Maggott in the original film, assumed the different role of Major Wright, an officer who leads a group of military convicts to extract a group of German scientists who are being forced to make a deadly nerve gas.[21] Ernest Borgnine again reprised his role of General Worden. The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988) depicts Savalas's Wright character and a group of renegade soldiers attempting to prevent a group of extreme German generals from starting a Fourth Reich, with Erik Estrada co-starring and Ernest Borgnine again playing the role of General Worden.[22] In 1988, FOX aired a short-lived television series, with no major stars, that lasted only eleven episodes.