Lee Marvin in a still from The Dirty Dozen
  • Release Date: 22/10/1967
  • Cast: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, Trini López, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker
  • Director: Robert Aldrich              

Propelled by Lee Marvin and the ensemble cast’s spirited performances, The Dirty Dozen tries hard to rise above its reach

During World War II, the US army comes up with an interesting albeit questionable plan of making optimum use of the Military Death Row convicts. They order Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) to take command of 12 such death row convicts, train them as saboteurs and infiltrate a castle behind Nazi lines. The castle is rumored to be used by the Nazis as a house of pleasure for its higher-ups who come there to relax and give in to their carnal desires. Once inside, the men are supposed to assassinate as many of the officers as possible denting the Nazi war efforts and throwing their leadership in disarray due to the loss of the commanding men. Major Reisman is initially apprehensive about the plan but he is forced to take up the assignment by the commanding General. However, as he gets to know the 12 convicted men through the course of the training, he realizes that there might be more to them than the conviction that they carry with them and eventually starts respecting them for their capabilities.

The Dirty Dozen is held in high esteem by many moviegoers even though it is not exactly the part of the elite like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and such. I had a good time with this film for a plethora of reasons. To start with, the idea of death row inmates taking it out on the Nazis to get off the hook appeared to be an interesting concept and it was executed well enough to extract a sense of realism as well as theatricality wherever necessary. I was amazed at how funny the film turned out to be even though it has such a grim subject matter to deal with. The very first scene of the film wherein, the protagonist of the film, Major Reisman witnesses a hanging and his subsequent meeting with General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) where he evidently carries the morose of the episode he witnessed before sets the mood for the rest of the film. Reisman is not particularly happy about his existence and the way the army works. His superiors are disgruntled too because of his lack of army manners and his nature of questioning authority that they view as insolence. The mutual disdain between the man and the establishment sets up the perfect showdowns that are referenced continually throughout the film to extract drama and thrills.

Charles Bronson in a still from The Dirty Dozen
Each of the 12 inmates is a character in themselves. Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) is the most animated of the lot. From the very first interaction between the Major and the inmates, he makes an impression on the major that tells him that he might either be the most difficult man to deal with or could be the glue that binds the whole team together. As the film progresses, his character assumes more importance. Telly Savalas plays maggot, a man who believes that God has entrusted him with the task of punishing every woman who has deviated from the path of righteousness and what according to him a woman’s life should be. He constantly crunches on the Bible and interprets it in a manner that aids his bigoted views. He is the only member of the team whose actions can never be predicted and this factor along with Savalas’ foxy act makes Maggot one of the most interesting characters of the dozen. Charles Bronson plays Joseph Wladislaw, the only inmate who depicts a semblance of sanity throughout the film. He is well-read and shares an instant camaraderie with the Major. He is also someone who honors his commitment to the Major and wants to see the mission through. Bronson is an old favorite of mine and here he re-affirms my belief in his acting skills and charms with an act that is instantly likable. Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley and Clint Walker as Samson Posey are noticeable is noticeable. Sutherland is hilarious in a sequence where he has to impersonate a general.
Lee Marvin as Major Reisman propels the film with his inspiring act and is also the character that we most identify with. What I loved about his act was the amount of realism, naturality, and attitude that he brings to the character. From the first time that we lay our eyes on him, everything about the performance endears and relates the character to us. There are few actors who look as perfect as an aging military officer as Marvin did in the film. There are sequences where he has to take on some of the convicts in hand-to-hand combat and the way Marvin deals with these sequences leaves no doubt in our mind that he could have handled these men with ease. This goes on to strongly affirm his place as the leader of the dozen and proves to be key in making us believe the reverence that these men are shown showering on his character later on.
Telly Savalas in a still from The Dirty Dozen
The customary training sequences of the film can be a tad bit shallow in terms of the physical and military inclinations and there isn’t a single serious combat until the very end of the film. This could prove to be a deal-breaker for many who might have enjoyed the relentless tension, thrills, and action of films like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. The film does move at a lethargic pace and there aren’t enough reasons to justify that slow pacing. There is a serious lack of thrills for at least 2/3rd of the film. However, the final climactic sequence has enough action and violence to please the ones who are there for the war-violence. This sequence is laid out well and we gradually work up to the big action portions. This approach helps in raising the stakes and enhances the effectivity of the action unfolding on-screen. While the action could have been better choreographed and doesn’t hold up too well in today’s time, it is decent enough to serve as the finale of a film made in the 1960s that was building up to it from the very first scene.
The Dirty Dozen is an interesting addition to a long list of films about World War II. It is elevated by the interesting performances, an absorbing screenplay, and a climax that pays off well. While it might not be an instant classic like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, it sure has its own niche audience and will be entertaining for anyone who embraces it with an open mind. Watch it for the performances of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and John Cassavetes if not anything else.
Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)



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