You know what most of those war time movies featuring men on a desperate mission have in common – apart from usually having big Hollywood starts don itchy looking Nazi uniforms to blend in? Respect. There’s always respect for the uniform, or the other men involved, or even the enemy if all the usual rules of engagement are followed like cilivized men.
But what if the men involved WEREN’T civilised? What if the men recruited for this particular death defying mission were real pieces of shit who’s survival wasn’t a massive deal to the powers that be – how would you even train men like that?
This is the intriguing question posed by The Dirty Dozen, a rollicking war time adventure flick that’s surprisingly good natured considering it’s a film that flings murderers and rapists into a suicide mission that simply involves them killing as many Nazi high ranking officers as they can before D-Day.
Notorious loose cannon Major Reisman, a man who’s presumably gone through his entire life with that “smell-the-fart” sneer on his face, has been given a cherry of a mission by his smug collection of superiors. The task: parachute across enemy lines and make it to a large French chateau that’s being used as a rest station for German officials in order to literally slaughter as many Nazi’s as humanly possible on the eve of the D-Day landings. As virtually impossible as it sounds, Reisman’s orders only get more crappy from here as the men he has to take on this suicide mission have to be as expendable as possible, so he gets to pick a selection of twelve men from military prison – most facing the death penalty or twenty years imprisonment at least – and get them battle ready in a couple of months.
Amongst this disgraced crew of motley examples of soldier are the taciturn Wladislaw, who’s earned the rope for the shooting of a cowardly superior officer; Jefferson, a black soldier who killed a man in a racially motivated brawl; Franko, a mouthy thief with ties to organized crime; the slow-witted Pinkley and the legitimately odious Maggott, a maniacal misogynist who counts rape and murder as some of his less charming traits.
Initially, Reisman gets a predictable amount of pushback from this “dirty” dozen – particularly from Franko who has an almost pathological hatred of authority – but after slowly getting them to work together and having them pit their wits against other platoons during a friendly training exercise, the team is ready for the mission that will either grant them freedom or flat out kill them anyway. Can Reisman manage to hold this volatile group together, even in the face of Maggott preparing to go full batshit mid-mission, and bring any of these reformed boys home in the face of overwhelming odds?
While a lot of those movies that feature super-serious soldiers undertaking super-serious missions where everyone has a face like a slapped arse while they do unspeakable things for god and country, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen separates itself from the pack by infusing it’s tough-as-nails story with a blue collar swagger that feels incredibly fresh when stacked alongside the endless clenched jaws of The Guns Of Naverone and Where Eagles Dare. Oh sure, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson are just as guilty of having frowns locked onto their features that are as enigmatic as they are unchangeable, but The Dirty Dozen has a much more kickabout tone than some of it’s peers which is kinda strange when you consider that the majority of the characters are about as fucking wholesome as a sack of starved rats, but then things would probably be as heavy as Requem For A Dream if the movie got fully behind it’s brutal premise.
As it stands, this unwashed twelve can proudly count itself as one of the greatest war movies every made from that period where you could callously wipe out large amounts of the opposing army by slaughtering them like Hugo Boss clad pigs as they cower in fear without the requisite naval gazing that modern war movies have to employ to balance things out. And yet considering the premise and the magnificently over-exaggerated poster (Just fucking look at it!), the reason that the film works so damn well is the actual lack of action it actually deploys.
You see, the mission that they’re training for only takes up the last thirty minutes of the movie, whereas the preceding two hours is almost solely dedicated to getting us nice and cozy with our titular crew via an extended training sequence – in fact the opening of the movie spends so much time separately introducing the majority of the group to such winning success, you wish David Ayers had taken more notes when compiling the first third of the original Suicide Squad.
Lee Marvin is utterly flawless in the lead and every scrap of dialogue that croaks past his lips is a slice of sardonic genius, especially when telling Waldislaw that the only he did wrong when plugging a fleeing officer during battle was, “You let someone see you do it.” – but he’s in impressive company as the rest of the cast is an impressive regiment of craggy character actors that actually were WWII veterand that includes Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy and the legendary Charles Bronson who fixes absolutely everybody around him with that trademark squint that makes him look like he’s constantly measuring everybody up for either a sharp uppercut or a coffin.
When the machine fire finally starts to light up horrified German guards, however, it doesn’t stop until the end credits mournfully honors it’s glorious dead and it’s awesomely callous the way a sizeable chunk of the “heroes” we’ve spent so much time with getting chewed up by whizzing bullets in such a casual manner.
Loaded with one liners that feel less like they were typed on a page than hammered straight onto solid steel (“Free the French and shoot the Germans!”) and packed with characters that are as fun as they are untrustworthy (read: very) some nevertheless might find The Dirty Dozen both a little long-winded and unsubtle. Telly Savalas’ deranged Maggott is hardly a nuanced portrait of a religiously fanatic sex offender – but then, when has the notoriously massive personality of the man who is Kojack, ever been low-key?
Intelligently crafted to near perfection and loaded with as countless great moments, The Dirty Dozen is a stone cold war-time classic that takes absolutely no prisoners both on and off the screen.