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The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen(1967)

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It's hard to go wrong with Robert Aldrich. By the time he made 1967's The Dirty Dozen, he'd already made one of the most hard-edged private eye movies (Kiss Me Deadly), another essential film noir in which the violence is all mental (The Big Knife), one of the great anti-war movies (Attack!) and a dandy western (Vera Cruz). Aldrich generally avoided the bloated spectacles many veteran directors indulged in during the 1960s, recovering from his lone foray, Sodom and Gomorrah, by making the enjoyably garish What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The Dirty Dozen is certainly an overextended late-1960s big budget movie, and its 150-minute running time could have benefited from a trim. But while capable contemporaries were turning out big-budget fluff like Doctor Dolittle, Darling Lili and Star!, Aldrich's big-budget World War II action-thriller has bite.

The Dirty Dozen definitely springs from the 1960s group-of-guys action genre that had included The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Professionals. But it also is clearly made by the man who gave us Attack!, which is at least as anti-authoritarian and was made 11 years before. Lee Marvin's Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen is very similar to Jack Palance's Lieutenant Joe Costa in Attack!. They're both very capable soldiers and very suspicious of higher-ups. The disgusted sneer Reisman perpetually wears on his face immediately sets the tone for The Dirty Dozen. He's disgusted when the generals played by Ernest Borgnine and Robert Webber assign him to lead a squad of military convicts on a near-suicide mission, disgusted when he meets the troublemakers he has to whip into shape (characters played by John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland among them), disgusted when the officer he's feuding with (Robert Ryan) makes it difficult for the squad and disgusted when he has to masquerade as a Nazi as part of the plan whereby the squad will kill as many German officers as possible at a French chateau the Nazis use for luxurious R & R.

In finding honor in a group of transgressive criminals that the Army brass have given up on, The Dirty Dozen toyed with notions of heroism and patriotism in ways that were very timely for 1967, when the number of people questioning our purpose in the Vietnam War was increasing. The new special edition DVD of The Dirty Dozen includes an audio commentary cobbled together from clips with surviving cast members such as Brown, Trini Lopez, Clint Walker and Stuart Cooper (who later directed the outstanding indie WWII movie, Overlord). But the best thing in the commentary is a letter written by Aldrich to producer Kenneth Hyman, when the movie was still in pre-production, read by film historian David Schow. Aldrich totally nails the importance of the movie's attitude and complains that the existing script plays like a rah-rah 1950 movie, not a 1967 movie (Aldrich ultimately had frequent collaborator Lukas Heller polish Nunnally Johnson's existing script before cameras rolled). A very interesting fact that comes out is that Hyman had offered the role of Reisman to John Wayne, who fortunately turned it down (and went off to make the anachronistic The Green Berets instead). You know Aldrich heaved a sigh of relief when he could cast Marvin as Reisman. Dale Dye, the former Marine and frequent military advisor of movies who also chips in on the audio commentary, says it best when summing up what's usually in Reisman's head: "This is all Bravo Sierra." Clearly, The Dirty Dozen paved the way for Robert Altman's even more irreverent M*A*S*H, while Aldrich returned to a similar premise in 1974 with The Longest Yard.

In a rare gaffe from Warner Home Video, which normally does a smart job of organizing its DVDs, the packaging fails to list which extras are on which disc. The only way to find out is to pop the discs in your player. The vintage promo short Operation Dirty Dozen, filmed during the movie's English shoot (and, which, if I recall, is on disc one), is an amusingly dated look at, as it calls them, "action guys" in swinging London. On disc two, the new Armed and Deadly: The Making of the Dirty Dozen is an engaging half-hour collection of surviving cast member's anecdotes (Sutherland tells of how he was supposed to have only one line in the movie, but ended up getting more and getting cast in M*A*S*H because of his performance). Less interesting is the initially involving The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines, which starts as a look at any possible relation between the fiction of The Dirty Dozen and real incidents in World War II. It veers into a chronicle of paratrooper Jake McNiece, whose combat exploits are amazing, but this drags on for 47 minutes. Save it for the Military Channel.

The new The Dirty Dozen special edition DVD also includes The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, the first of three mid-1980s TV sequels (coincidentally, the other two have come out together on another DVD). Even though this is the one Marvin appears in (he died before the others), it's small consolation. These TV movies were less of an attempt to live up to the original as they were an attempt to cash in on the success of TV's The A Team, in some ways a Dirty Dozen knock-off. Another project Marvin completed shortly before his death, the training film Marine Combat Leadership Skills, adds to the cheesy side of disc two.

For more information about the special edition of The Dirty Dozen, visit Warner Video. To order The Dirty Dozen, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman