Most people remember “The Dirty Dozen” for its action sequences. But what sets it apart from most of its many imitators are excellent casting and a well-constructed plot.
The 1967 wartime action-adventure epic will be shown Saturday and Sunday at Hoquiam’s 7th Street Theatre as part of its Silver Screen Classics series.
The movie features a seemingly farfetched plot that evidently was loosely based on an actual incident during World War II. With D-Day approaching, the U.S. Army brass sees an opportunity to disrupt the German chain of command if it can assassinate a group of officers gathering at a chateau in the French province of Brittany. But since that would involve parachuting men behind enemy lines and attacking the heavily guarded chateau, it’s viewed as a suicide mission.
Unwilling to risk such a heavy casualty rate to a standard unit, a group of officers led by Gen. Sam Worden (played by Ernest Borgnine) come up with an alternative they dub “Operation Amnesty.” They would recruit rebellious Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) to train a group of enlisted men with nothing to lose — a dozen soldiers facing long prison sentences or execution for a variety of offenses.
In addition to planning and leading the mission, Reisman must earn the trust of his dysfunctional underlings. He must also overcome the opposition of a domineering colonel played by Robert Ryan, who is unaware of the mission deatils but dislikes Reisman enough to torpedo it.
Since director Robert Aldrich and screenwriters Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller make no attempt to equally develop the characters, even movie trivialists are hard-pressed to identify all 12 of the actors portraying the convicts.
The seven most remember are Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, a young Donald Sutherland (whose name wasn’t even on the movie poster), former TV Western star Clint Walker, pro football great Jim Brown and singer Trini Lopez. When Lopez’s agent unwisely attempted to negotiate a raise after filming had begun, Aldrich made his character one of the mission’s early casualties.
The violent, action-packed climax at the chateau is justly celebrated. But the scenes leading up to it are often underrated. Two of those — Reisman goading Walker’s massive but slow-to-anger character into attacking him during a training exercise, and Sutherland impersonating a general inspecting Ryan’s troops — could be described as classic.
The film’s creative team doesn’t make the mistake of sanitizing the characters.
In the short-lived, long-forgotten TV knockoff “Garrison’s Gorillas,” the convicts were about as menacing as Tom Hanks. By the end of “The Dirty Dozen,” however, the characters played by Savalas and the Oscar-nominated Cassavetes in particular were people you wouldn’t want to meet on the street without a couple of pit bulls nearby.
Although he reportedly didn’t much care for the movie (calling it a “dummy moneymaker”), Marvin is excellent in a lead role originally intended for John Wayne. While Wayne would have brought his standard larger-than-life persona to the part, Marvin (who actually saw World War II combat as a Marine in the Pacific) invests Reisman with a lower-key sense of authenticity.
Although “The Dirty Dozen” seldom steps wrong until a curiously flat epilogue, the movie did spawn several inferior sequels and imitations. It also played an unwitting role in destroying pro football in Cleveland.
Universally regarded as one of the greatest running backs in National Football League history, Brown had intended to return to the Cleveland Browns (a perennial playoff team at the time) once the movie was completed. When filming ran beyond its original schedule, Brown informed team owner Art Modell that he might be a few days late to training camp.
In an ill-advised display of hubris, Modell threatened to fine his star for every day he missed camp. So Brown retired from football, never to return. The Browns haven’t won a league championship since, although Cleveland fans had the distinct displeasure of watching Modell win a Super Bowl after moving the franchise to Baltimore.
You don’t give Jim Brown an ultimatum. That’s a mistake Lee Marvin never made in “The Dirty Dozen.”
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