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The Dirty Dozen (1967)

by on 2010/11/17

This review shouldn’t take too long.  You won’t read much in the way of complaints, and ultimately I’ll suggest you watch it, rather than read a lot of palaver.  The Dirty Dozen is an unapologetic popcorn pic, one of a trifecta of “men on a mission” landmarks which include The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  Sound and fury signifying machismo, it inspired sequels, imitators, and spiritual successors.  Unconventional without being parodical, it has earned the devotion of veterans, grognards, and the mainstream alike.

Toward the close of World War Two, a successful-but-insubordinate loose cannon, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is tasked (i.e. punished) with leading an untagged unit behind enemy lines.  The officially-unsanctioned mission, while strategically important, is considered a suicide run.  Accordingly he selects his men from military prisoners condemned to life- or death-sentences.

Marvin guides an amazing ensemble cast — one which includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland — through the process of selection, training, testing, and execution.  When they prove difficult to unify, Reisman willingly becomes the object of their hatred for the sake of solidarity, adding mutinous complication to an already-dangerous job.

Bronson, Jaeckel, and Marvin are effective as the serious ones in the group, while Cassavetes, Savalas, and Sutherland represent the upstarts, psychos, and simpletons.  These last three play against type, but Savalas as Maggott is particularly unnerving.  A religious extremist and rapist, he is repeatedly singled out as the very worst of the worst.

Of course the downside of a large cast is we don’t know the players too well.  Rather than give shallow details on each of twelve caricatures, the filmmakers deepen the focus on half.  In addition to the usual back stories and plot details, various production shorthands are used to involve us and impart more meaning:  the arrangement of men at their “last supper”, the mnemonic device of a plan set in rhyme, and the physical posture of characters to foreshadow their intent.

There is still less art than artifice, however, and while you’d expect enjoyment to come from not aesthetics but adrenaline, its greatest satisfactions are logistic.  Some tales rely on setups and payoffs.  This one relies on setups and setups and setups, with a generous dash of chaos.  In fact — unanticipated sequels notwithstanding — it feels more like the first in a planned series than a standalone affair.  Too often in this industry, the payoff steals the show.  Here we know the characters and their plan so well that, when things go awry, we’re invested enough to care.  Which may be why the movie has lasted longer than most testosterone-driven pulp.

And no it isn’t perfect, but I need make no excuses for my enjoyment of The Dirty Dozen.  I won’t be watching it for history, and a deeper meaning is out, but I will be watching, re-watching, and recommending it for its crazy, satisfying fun.  I think Lee Marvin would have agreed:  if The Big Red One was dinner, then this one is dessert.

* * * *

Rated 14A for language and violence

150 minutes

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