March 20, 2013
The operation is impossible not only because the chateau is well defended and in enemy territory, but because Marvin's unit consists of 12 soldiers sentenced to death or lengthy prison terms. They are: gruff Charles Bronson, who speaks passable German; burly Jim Brown; arrogant John Cassavetes; religious psychopath Telly Savalas; simpleton Donald Sutherland; reticent man-mountain Clint Walker; and several less memorable supporting actors, notably folk singer Trini Lopez.
Various Army officers include humorless colonel Robert Ryan, an enemy of Marvin who opposes his mission; major George Kennedy, who cagily supports Marvin; and general Ernest Borgnine, who yells at Marvin alot but eventually always takes his side. We also recognize Richard Jaeckel, the sergeant and military policeman over the "dirty dozen."
Early on, the formerly imprisoned soldiers refuse to shower or shave with cold water, earning the name "The Dirty Dozen." Marvin gets in trouble when he smuggles British prostitutes into the base, built in the English countryside. Marvin's unit will be sent back to prison or the gallows unless they win the upcoming war games. Inevitably, they succeed, by breaking the rules in purportedly humorous fashion, and by capturing the mettlesome Robert Ryan.
The unit's celebration is brief, since the mission is impending. They parachute into France and all is successful, except that the Dirty Dozen are killed off one by one except for one, mostly due to German snipers that randomly emerge from chateau windows and doorways.
The movie is notorious for ending the football career of Jim Brown, considered at the time the greatest running back in NFL history. When the production ran late, Brown had to choose between his acting career and returning to the Cleveland Browns. Brown's career rushing average per carry was a remarkable 5.2 yards.
How others will see it. The Dirty Dozen was controversial upon release. Here we have murderers, rapists, and other criminals glorified as military heroes. Numerous French women, who admittedly have made the indecorous decision to consort with German officers, are murdered by the "dirty dozen" along with the targeted Germans.
And of course, the mission is preposterous to begin with. The U.S. Army would never pardon convicted murderers or spend resources training them for an important secret operation. Hence, the film cannot be taken seriously. It can only be regarded as a gung-ho comedy.
Nonetheless, the movie became the biggest MGM blockbuster of the year, and received general critical praise. It received four Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for John Cassavetes, at the time a highly regarded independent filmmaker.
Today at imdb.com, the film has 35K user votes, impressive for a 1967 movie, and a high user rating of 7.8, consistent across all demographics. Presumably, young audiences approve of the cartoonish action, while older audiences appreciate the film's moxie, as well as the many familiar faces within the cast.
How I felt about it. It's better than it should be. It has three things going for it: the famous cast, the director, and the writer. The director was Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Flight of the Phoenix), who enjoyed taking risks and pushing the envelope. The principal screenwriter was Nunnally Johnson, a veteran Hollywood writer (The Grapes of Wrath) at the very end of his career.
Faced with a ridiculous, implausible story, all involved know better than to play it straight. Thus, Donald Sutherland camps it up when compelled to impersonate a general, Telly Savalas leers maliciously at a French escort prior to stabbing her, Lee Marvin is insubordinate when faced with a room full of Army brass, and Charles Bronson acts toward an Army psychiatrist as if he wants to return to his prison cell to await hanging.
Some would say that this is the essence of film: men behaving badly and getting away with it. The viewer can't assault a heavily armed chateau in real life, but while watching the film, he can vicariously assume the identity as a generic Dirty Dozen and become a wartime hero.
Probing a bit deeper, the movie is about redemption. Even the worst criminal, a convicted murderer sentenced to hang, can instead die in action defeating the Nazis. The only one of the Dozen who fails in this conversion is Savalas, the sadist who delights in killing women he considers immoral.