Nov 25 2009

The Dirty Dozen

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. Classic movies can be difficult to review, but we’re going to try another one. See what Benn and James thought of The Dirty Dozen, a film who’s Film Duel selection was based on its similarities and influences on Quentin Tarantino’s recent Inglourious Basterds.

The Dirty Dozen
Year: 1967
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

The Dirty Dozen is a film that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, and my desire to see it was increased by my enjoyment of Inglourious Basterds. Hearing that The Dirty Dozen was one of the larger inspirations for that film definitely made me curious, but hearing from some people that Inglourious Basterds failed to offer many of the things that The Dirty Dozen excelled at made me even more intrigued. After seeing The Dirty Dozen I still feel both these movies are best left as they are as two very different and separate entities, but I can say that The Dirt Dozen does its own thing very well, and I had a ball watching it.

The Dirty Dozen is about a rebellious military major who’s put in charge of a suicide mission and given, instead of real soldiers, a group of twelve prisoners to train and then lead on said mission. The prisoners of course start as a distasteful, angry, and very individualistic group and are eventually molded into a unified squad with their own sets of talents. We’re then treated to a very fun war game where the Dirty Dozen show off their unusual skills before seeing them used once again to complete their mission. Plot-wise it’s relatively simple, but the film takes time to build up its many complex characters before using them in action, and that is the film’s biggest strength.

Between Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman and all of the twelve, count ‘em twelve, prisoner soldiers there are a lot of characters in this film. Surprisingly, almost all of these men are fully fleshed out and are given at least a few important things to do within the film (both on mission and in terms of character). Charles Bronson and John Cassavetes are the real standouts here. Bronson gives a low key but layered performance with little dialogue, instead he relies on subtle facial expressions and extremely clever delivery. Cassavetes on the other hand, has a lot to say, and is playing the type of character that could easily become irritating or villainous but manages to walk the line carefully. There are plenty more of the Dirty Dozen who give off great performances with their smaller roles as well. On top of that, we have the officers who have a clear distaste for both the Major and his group. They are the closest thing to antagonists we have for most of the film, and they aren’t even present that often. They do perform their roles well with the little time they have, but in some ways, they aren’t really necessary as antagonists because the great thing about the diverse and very full group of men in the squad is that they can become their own antagonists. There’re so many characters with so many ways to bounce them off each other, and the writer uses this well. And let’s not forget the Major himself. Lee Marvin does an awesome job being gritty, authoritative, and wryly funny all at once.

The first half of the movie is primarily taken up by this character development and interaction. There’s plenty of conflict to be had between the different men, and also between the men and the major. But there’s not a lot of action beyond the training itself, which is mostly done in montages. But when the action does finally pick up, it’s really fascinating. The war game not only is a ton of fun, but it really takes advantage of what we’ve learned about the characters. The action itself is well executed too. And with all the lightheartedness that we enjoy in the war game, there’s as much sternness and drama to counter it in the final sequence. The final sequence itself is an excellent payoff on what’s been built up beforehand. It’s because we care so dearly about the characters that it works so well. The writers have also managed to set up even the unexpected moments early on in the script, particularly in a way that makes sense based on the characters. When things begin to go wrong, you understand that there’s really no other way that they could’ve gone.

Even at an hour and a half, the film feels like a breeze. There isn’t a scene here that doesn’t feel vital. The film technique itself is so good that despite being over forty years old, it maintains that timeless feel and, particularly on blu-ray, still looks fantastic. The acting in particular doesn’t feel dated at all. The music may be a bit too playful at times, but it matches up with the military themes and certainly never hurts the movie. In fact, it may be its playful nature that helps to propel the film through its longer running time.

Mark Twain refers to classics as something that “you want to have read but don’t want to read.” I don’t fully subscribe to this theory, particularly when you have examples like The Dirty Dozen which are classic films and are still loads of fun to watch. This is highly recommended, especially for people who enjoy the genre at all.

Benn says:

What was it about the Sixties that films like The Dirty Dozen were able to blend machismo, grit, violence, and a can-do spirit into one masterfully orchestrated epic? Was it the freedom, the rebellion, or was it a response to the flowery, new agey, lackadaisical state that a generation of hippie-centric men had fallen into? A return to the idea that men were men who kicked ass, took names, finished the job, and picked lead over daisies every time.

Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) takes place just before D-Day, with Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) given a mission in which he is to assemble a team of allied military convicts, most of which or awaiting execution, to conduct a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines. The mission? Parachute behind enemy lines, infiltrate a ritzy German party and kill as many high ranking Nazi officers as possible.

Unfortunately, the actual mission isn’t as hard as getting the twelve ex-military criminals in the mood to risk death for Uncle Sam. Amongst the Dozen are Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), a stoic, cool-headed soldier who despises military officers, Jefferson (Jim Brown), who was imprisoned for killing a white officer in self-defense, gentle giant Posey (Clint Walker), religious zealot and psychopathic rapist Maggot (Telly Savalas) and the smart-mouthed, hot tempered Franko (John Cassavetes).

The film itself is episodic in nature, following the Dozen as they prepare for the mission. However, rather than focusing on what the boys are doing, the film focuses on the chemistry between the renegade unit. Though they start out as a group of stubborn individuals, they eventually become a single fighting unit. The Dozen’s first act as a team is small, but particularly fitting; fed up with having to shave and bathe in cold water, Franko speaks out against Reisman and the other officers, and refuses to bathe in protest. The other eleven soldiers, most of whom found Franko to be obnoxious, back him up, leading to the training ground’s chief guard (Richard Jaeckel) to label them as the titular Dirty Dozen.

The most important thing in a men-on-mission film is for the audience to root for the heroes. We’re with them, cheering them on through every training montage, every prank, every fight, joke and bit of struggle with the hope that they will come out victorious in the end. Dirty Dozen gives us two climaxes; one of which shows the Dozen in a battle simulation with other Allied platoons. Pitted against a snobby fuddy-duddy Colonel and his own unit of by-the-book, bullish soldiers. Needless to say, the Dozen win, but the way they do it and their demeanor while wiping the smirks off of their opponents is done with such a mischievous glee, you would be hard pressed not to be affected by the victorious, underdog spirit.

The second climax is without a doubt the finest, most anticipated climax in film history. For nearly two hours we’ve been watching the Dozen prepare for their mission, waiting to see how they do, yet hoping the film never quite gets to that point. We don’t want the fun to end, and we don’t want to see the Dozen get shot down which, unfortunately, is bound to happen. Director Robert Aldrich orchestrates the final mission marvelously, starting off with Wladislaw and Reisman infiltrating the German party disguised as two Nazi officers while the rest of the Dozen quietly gets to their positions. You’re already at the edge of your seat by the time the grenades and machine guns start a’ blazing, and the suspense still continues to build until the very end. Who will make it? Who won’t? And how will the Dozen accomplish their mission in the first place? Obviously I won’t go into details, but it is glorious and full of lead-and-fiery splendor.

Everybody loves an underdog. The struggle, the grit, the apathy for law and order… who better to embody this than a team of dirty, unshaven convicts armed with machine guns and bad attitudes? With its team of unsavory heroes and their disdain for authority and their own brand of duty and honor, The Dirty Dozen is, without a doubt, one of the manliest films ever made, and due to its balance between dirt, death and glory, it gives you some real endearing, heroic sons of bitches to march alongside of for two and a half hours.

Benn’s rebuttal:

James and I, yet again, agree entirely on the film. The Dirty Dozen personifies the kind of fun and excitement with over-the-top violence that makes a perfect guy movie.

James’ rebuttal:

“But don’t take my word for it…”

Okay so joking aside, we seem to agree on pretty much everything here.  The Dirty Dozen is a difficult film to review primarily because it’s just so enjoyable you get caught up in it.  The characters are really the centerpiece, and aside from it’s otherwise excellent execution there’s not much else to say.

I do object to Benn’s claim that the plot is “episodic.”  I don’t agree with that at all, to me it’s very linear and serial and really builds on things as it goes.  When I think episodic films like La Strada come to mind, where each scene really seems incidental to the rest of the plot and doesn’t necessarily build upon what’s come before it.

One Response to “The Dirty Dozen”

  • bennhadland Says:

    Correction on my part in terms of James’ comment. There was definitely a build between sequences, though I did think the scenes were pretty well self-contained. However, in hindsight, “episodic” wasn’t the best term to use.

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