Dirty Dozen War At Its Most Humane
- Film Review
By Sohail Jamudeen
Just about everyone enjoys a good ensemble action picture, especially when the camaraderie is believable. In the case of The Dirty Dozen, there isn’t any camaraderie – virtually every character in the film is a misfit and proud of it – and, yet, it’s probably one of the best entries in the genre.
Lee Marvin is Major John Reisman, a not-entirely-by-the-book Army officer during World War II who’s ‘offered’ a new assignment: to train twelve of the most deplorable guys in the Army stockade and make them into a top-notch fighting force. The Dirty Dozen – so called because, after refusing to shower in cold water, their water privileges are revoked, leaving them smelling decidedly rank – are to be sent on what can only be called a suicide mission; whoever survives the attack on a Nazi-filled castle might have their records expunged…but not definitely. Still, even the possibility of freedom is a better offer thancertain death or life imprisonment.
The ‘Dozen’ is filled with some serious acting firepower, among them Charles Bronson, footballer-turned-actor Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, and a young Donald Sutherland (preparing, no doubt, for his role in Robert Altman’s ‘M*A*S*H’). Savalas’s role as Archer J. Maggott is the most crazed of the bunch; he’s a Bible-quoting rapist who thinks all women are sluts who deserve to be punished. The best role amongst the jailbirds, however, probably belongs to John Cassavetes as Victor R. Franko; while Cassavetes went on to greater fame as a director (his film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a great mob flick), he’s the one who gets the best lines in The Dirty Dozen. (Hollywood agreed; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role.) Trini Lopez is best known for his singing career, which is why the script manages to have a guitar find its way to him; you’ll be reminded of how, during Harry Connick, Jr.’s first few films, they always found a way to get him to sing a song.
The Dirty Dozen earned a great deal of controversy due to its finale, which involved Nazis being herded into a basement, after which gasoline was poured into a hole and grenades were dropped down afterward to seal the deal. Roger Ebert’s original review of the film assured those who might never see the picture to “take my word for it, it was such a delightfully sadistic, brutal, inhuman scene that I’m glad the Chicago Police Censor Board forgot about that part of the local censorship law where it says films shall not depict the burning of the human body.”
It wasn’t as disturbing as anything you’d see in even a PG-rated film nowadays, but it was disconcerting enough that most film scholars agree that it was why The Dirty Dozen didn’t earn a Best Picture nod.
Half the fun of watching the movie is to see who lives and who dies, but the performances are what make these two-and-a-half-hours seem to fly by. The Dirty Dozen was definitely a template for every other star-packed action extravaganza that followed, but few of the imitators ever lived up to the original.