Men On A Mission Films Theater: The Dirty Dozen (1967)
To get further amped up for INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, I’m revisiting four classic 1960’s “Men On A Mission” war epics that dominated the era: THE DIRTY DOZEN, WHERE EAGLES DARE, KELLY’S HEROES and THE GREEN BERETS. And THE GREEN BERETS is a “classic” in its cultural context as Hollywood’s only full-bore unapologetic pro-Vietnam War propaganda movie. Without further ado, our first entry is THE DIRTY DOZEN…
Look at that fucking poster. Don’t you wish they made posters like that today? I’d see anything if people were posed like Lee Marvin blasting away in crimson hues ala Frank McCarthy’s famous brazen widescreen pulp style. The biggest box-office hit of 1967, MGM’s THE DIRTY DOZEN also received 5 Academy Award nominations, including John Cassavetes for Best Supporting Actor. Still hot off his success after WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), director Robert Aldrich had wanted to film the story since 1963, and its lurid contrarian themes were a perfect commercial fit for him. Scripted by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, the very sixties plot is simple: a group of malcontent soldiers sentenced to die are offered freedom if they destroy a Nazi chateau in France. Led by stalwart Lee Marvin, the ultimate bad-ass cast of criminal heroes plays with heroic war genres (John Wayne turned down the lead) and provides a disturbing moral relativism at the exciting action climax, where the Dirty Dozen proceed to pour gasoline and alight alive dozens of Nazi officers — along with wives and mistresses. This scene caused critical controversy in 1967, with Roger Ebert’s review being the most incendiary:
But real live people burning to death! 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. If you have to censor, stick to censoring sex, I say. Censor out Hayley Mills‘ bare bottom, because the human body is evil and it’s a sin to look at it. But leave in the mutilation, leave in the sadism, and by all means leave in the human beings burning to death. It’s not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on.
Otherwise, Roger liked it. But I’m sure now he’d see the deliberate if fudged attempt at pointing out the bloodthirtsiness of our anti-heroes. It helps if your anti-heroes are played by John Cassavetes in his finest studio role as the MacMurphy-like convict; Charles Bronson, tunneling through the decade from THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) to here, as the most sympathetic team member; Donald Sutherland, stealing scenes as the loopy prisoner who must pretend to be a general inspecting troops — which Robert Altman says got him MASH (1970); Telly Savalas as the sleazy rapist fundamentalist Maggot, miles from Blofeld and Kojack; football star Jim Brown as the de rigeur minority, but given a good running role here; and the anachronistic others like folk star Trini Lopez who gets an abrupt exit from the film after his agent demanded more cash. Throw in Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ralph Meeker and George Kennedy as mocked military brass, and you have one of the great 60’s cinematic macho fests. Lee Marvin sealed his deal as the top box office star of the year with this film and POINT BLANK (1967) and although he called THE DIRTY DOZEN “a dummy moneymaker,” it certainly remains one of his iconic roles. Every time he speaks you feel like you’re getting a thespic treat. We will not see their kind again; they lived through World War II.
Robert Aldrich directs the long, three section film with his skewed compositional style and jarring cuts of violence, of which he is a master. The film takes its time setting up the scenario along with the characters without the ponderous fat of the era’s other Road Shows, so when the big climax arrives, the audience has either committed emotionally to the Dozen or not. The film’s cynical premise and ending perfectly mirrored 1967, the most transformative year of the decade, and that’s why it appealed to the counter-culture along with the old-school war genre fans. THE DIRTY DOZEN is not a film I revere, but appreciate for its iconic cultural aura. And of course, like Mr. White and Mr. Blonde, I’m a big Lee Marvin fan.