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…

D.DozenLook 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.

DirtyDozen2Otherwise, 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.

captureRobert 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.

14 Responses to “Men On A Mission Films Theater: The Dirty Dozen (1967)”

  1. CD – cool words, friend.

    “I don’t like to be pushed!” Love that scene.

  2. christian Says:

    Thanx NP.

    That is a cool scene. I’d let Lee Marvin push me.

  3. I f’ing love Where Eagles Dare.

    Nevermind ’60s Ebert, I wonder what x-factor elite Jeff Wells thinks of the immorality of Dirty Dozen

  4. christian Says:

    If I cared to comment there anymore, I’d ask that very question. So I leave that to you to bring it…At this point, Wells is like DZ, you know the schtick, it doesn’t change and it gets crazier by the week.

  5. This, or maybe “The Wild Bunch”, is the epitome of the tough guy film. There’s no doubt “The Dirty Dozen” is a nasty bit of business (& it doesn’t apologize or care), but it is the work of an action master and it is filled with real flesh & blood characters. Great action, a number of very funny moments, & some superb performances add up to a great, classic film. I swear one of these days Jefferson is gonna catch that truck & make it out alive. One of these days.

  6. Also —

    Major John Reisman: “You know what to do, feed the French and shoot the Germans!”

  7. christian Says:

    It’s also very long, but never feels that way and the movie forces you to become attached to the Dozen, who for the most part, aren’t as dirty as Savalas. Until they torch the Nazis and their women, which is a disturbing scene. I can’t remember which member of the Dozen reveals the only show of apprehension…

  8. christian Says:

    And there’s something cool about watching Lee Marvin and Donald Sutherland together, particularly in Sutherland’s best moment, where he glibly inspects the troops.

  9. “They look good…but can they fight?”

  10. christian Says:

    Now I know who to send on a mission…

  11. Geek minds think alike, I’ve been rewatching these movies in anticipation of IG as well. Did Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes this weekend. Eagles is awesome, Heroes kinda drags and horses around a bit for my tastes, any time it threatens to get going it goes somewhere else. Eagles is longer but plays shorter, and there’s, of course, Burton. Look forward to looking at the Dozen again in the next few days.

  12. christian Says:

    WHERE EAGLES DARE coming up next…but you’re right about KELLY’S HEROES.

  13. Don’t you wish they made posters like that today?

    Yes, I sure do.

  14. christian Says:

    Then let’s get on it! Thanks for stopping by. Love your site.

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