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The Dirty Dozen (1967) has been continually popular since it first exploded in 1967 as one of that year's biggest hits. Four Oscar® nominations (with one win for Best Sound Effects by John Poyner) certainly didn't hurt and it's so critically respected that the film has even been shown at the Museum of Modern Art. In fact it's captured imaginations across the world: there's even a Hong Kong remake starring Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields, 1984) and Samo Hung! One reason for the success is that despite its superficial appearance as yet another film about soldiers sent on a desperate mission behind enemy lines, The Dirty Dozen strikes the perfect balance between taut action and artistic integrity. Director Robert Aldrich said of this film, "The nature of war is dehumanizing. There's no such thing as a nice war."
The premise is pretty simple: During World War II, the Allies need to destroy a chateau hosting a Nazi conference. The catch is that it's so far behind enemy lines and so well guarded that few soldiers making the attempt can be expected to survive. The solution is to recruit twelve prisoners and misfits with an unspecific promise of pardons if they survive. Since the twelve are a nasty assortment of murderers, psychopaths and other cultural offenders the mission isn't likely to be an easy or pleasant one.
The film is adapted from E.M. Nathanson's novel, which Aldrich had wanted to film even before it was published though rights were bought by MGM. Reportedly Aldrich wasn't happy with the original script, feeling it was too conventional. But bringing the dark cynicism he showed in Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife (both filmed in 1955), Aldrich transformed the action film into something more substantial. Shooting started April 25, 1966 in England (three studios were used there) and lasted about six months. Since England isn't the best place to find a French chateau one had to be built. Unfortunately construction was so successful that trying to explode it as planned would have been far too dangerous so a mock-up was used.
The cast apparently enjoyed England, spending a lot of time in what was then swinging London though Lee Marvin would occasionally disappear on one of his motorcycle outings. Clint Walker (who plays Posey) had an unusual experience. He was a well-known TV star for Cheyenne with some film roles under his belt. Walker visited Buckingham Palace and marveled at the famously immobile guards but as he started to walk away, one asked for an autograph out of the side of his mouth! Walker's role was originally meant to be an Indian and include a rain dance. However, some characters were scaled back and others built up such as the part of Robert T. Jefferson. When Cleveland Browns' fullback Jim Brown signed on as Jefferson, director Aldrich beefed up his part because he was such a big football fan. In fact, it was while making The Dirty Dozen that Brown announced his retirement from football. One of the biggest beneficiaries from the film was John Cassavetes who nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination. The fame helped him bankroll films as a director just as he was embarking on perhaps his most productive period. In 1998, Joe Dante made his sharp attack on militarism Small Soldiers and for voices of his model-animated characters reunited The Dirty Dozen actors Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, George Kennedy and Clint Walker.
The Dirty Dozen was released in June 1967 and proved to be a big hit, the year's highest grossing film. Aldrich was able to buy a studio with the money he made though it eventually closed a few years later. The actors found more offers coming their way. In the 1980s there would be three TV movie sequels and even a short-lived series. Of course the original is the best and still as exciting now as it was then.
Producer: Kenneth Hyman
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Sound Effects: John Poyner
Film Editing: Michael Luciano
Original Music: De Vol
Principal Cast: Lee Marvin (Maj. John Reisman), Ernest Borgnine (Maj. Gen. Worden), Charles Bronson (Joseph T. Wladislaw), Jim Brown (Robert T. Jefferson), John Cassavetes (Victor R. Franko), Richael Jaeckel (Sgt. Bowren), George Kennedy (Major Max Armbruster), Telly Savalas (Maggott), Robert Ryan (Colonel Breed), Donald Sutherland (Vernon L. Pinkley), Trini Lopez (Pedro), Clint Walker (Samson Posey).
C-150m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Lang Thompson