Captain Kinder (played by Ralph Meeker): “This is just about the most twisted, anti-social bunch of psychopathic deformities I have ever run into… You’ve got one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near-idiots, and the rest I don’t even wanna think about!”
Major Reisman (played by Lee Marvin): “Well, I can’t think of a better way to fight a war.”
Robert Aldrich’s 1967 The Dirty Dozen (now streaming on HBO Max) is a meathead masterpiece of bare-knuckle brutality, a testosterone touchstone shared by young men and their dads during lazy Sunday afternoon TV viewings for generations. Based on a novel by E.M. Nathanson, it’s a WWII men-on-a-mission movie with a cruel, countercultural kick. Aldrich is said to have intended it as a reaction to the war in Vietnam that by then was really starting to rage, and the film is notably absent any of the usual pieties about God and country or apple pie Americana. It’s a thoroughly rotten picture in the most wonderful ways, with Marvin’s miserable Major assigned a collection of convicts headed for the gallows, their only possibility for reprieve a suicide mission behind enemy lines, to go blow up a French chateau where Nazis like to get their rest and relaxation.
And what a mangy bunch of thieves, rapists and murderers this is! With John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and (somehow) Trini Lopez, you’ve got some of the meanest mugs in movies. They’re subject to psychological mind games by Marvin, who has no choice but to try and trick these misfits into working together as a cohesive fighting force. Some critics complain that The Dirty Dozen is lopsided in its emphasis on the training camp – these men don’t even embark on their mission until 105 minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour film – but such sequences are essential in establishing the soldiers’ slow-forming rapport, watching them unite against a common enemy. First it’s Marvin’s Major Reisman they hate, then the rest of the Army brass. They’ll get around to the Nazis eventually.
For a good stretch of its running time, The Dirty Dozen is a proto-Stripes, WWII variation on the slobs-versus-snobs comedy, with our scrappy hellions humiliating the stuffy soldiers at softie Robert Ryan’s parachute school, ultimately embarrassing the best and brightest during wargame maneuvers at which our guys are naturally adept at cheating. (The slow-dawning, gap-toothed smile on the face of Ernest Borgnine’s General Worden when he figures out their scheme is one of the movie’s most contagious delights.) Cassavetes received an Oscar nomination for the kind of performance in the kind of movie that doesn’t usually get Oscar nominations, but his frustrated felon Victor Franko is such an electrifying anti-establishment figure that the film falters slightly in the second half when Bronson steps up to second lead status.
Aldrich originally wanted John Wayne to play Major Reisman, but the Duke declined because he disapproved of an adulterous affair by the character in an early draft of the script. Wayne would have been all wrong anyway, foursquare and heroic whereas Marvin plays him as a sleepy-eyed sneak – cool, canny and not entirely trustworthy. He was one of our most malevolent movie stars, only 42 years old at the time of filming, but looking a good two decades older thanks to his premature white hair and the kind of hard living that was the stuff of legend. Wounded at the battle of Saipan –where shrapnel severed his sciatic nerve– Marvin was famously haunted by his tour in the Pacific, bristling at some of the more preposterous action sequences upon which Aldrich insisted. (The actor called the movie “a dummy moneymaker” and much preferred working on Samuel Fuller’s more realistic The Big Red One, which he felt better reflected his combat experiences.)
Jack Palance was supposed to play the bigoted rapist Maggot, but the role went to Savalas when Palance wanted the character’s racism removed. (It’s amusing that he didn’t seem to mind the rape stuff, but I suppose I wouldn’t want to have to call Jim Brown the n-word, either.) Sutherland only had one line of dialogue in the script, but Aldrich took a liking to “the one with the ears” and kept coming up with more scene-stealing stuff for the unknown Canadian actor to do, impressing producer Ingo Preminger to cast him in a little anti-war comedy 20th Century Fox was putting together called M*A*S*H.
The shoot dragged on for months behind schedule– so long that, at the urging of his friend Frank Sinatra, Lopez quit the movie and went back on tour, which is why his character is abruptly and unceremoniously killed offscreen. With football season fast approaching, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell demanded that Brown choose between Hollywood and his team, at which point the superstar running back held a press conference announcing his retirement from the sport. “I never had a better time making a movie,” Brown later said.
The set was infamous for all sorts of shenanigans. Lopez recalled arriving one morning to see a limousine pull up with Marvin, Cassavetes and Savalas emerging, still in their tuxedos from the night before. Bronson threatened to kill Marvin more than once, especially on days when his co-star had to be pulled out of a pub and poured into a scene. At one particular cocktail party, a slurring Marvin was said to have lewdly propositioned Sean Connery’s aunt, spared a pasting from the Scottish star only because producer Kenneth Hynan begged, “Please don’t hit him in the face, Sean! He’s got his close-ups tomorrow!” (“You fucking producers,” Connery laughed.)
There’s an almost comical level of cruelty and overkill in The Dirty Dozen, capped by a notorious finale in which our characters flagrantly commit war crimes, trapping the Nazis and their women in an underground bomb shelter and dousing the air vents with gasoline and grenades. Nearly the entirety of Roger Ebert’s original review – from his first year as a film critic – was spent decrying the sick spectacle of these burning bodies, while the New York Times called it “an astonishingly wanton war film” with “a studied indulgence of sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words.” Even Charles Bronson said he felt the movie was too violent. And folks, when you’ve lost the star of Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects…But this, I contend, is the entire point of The Dirty Dozen. It’s a war movie for people disgusted by war, fed up with battlefield myths about valor and noble sacrifice. It’s about cheating and breaking bullshit rules and killing the enemy in cold blood because you can and because you have to. It’s a movie where death is ugly and everywhere and only the meanest, most irredeemable sons of bitches survive, if they’re lucky. I can’t think of a better way to film a war.
“The Dirty Dozen” is now streaming on HBO Max.