|Dirty Dozen, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 May 2005|
THE DIRTY DOZEN has one of the mostly manly-man casts ever assembled: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel Robert Ryan, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, Ralph Meeker, Robert Webber, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas. How in the world did they manage to leave out James Coburn? And all of them deliver the manly man goods; you can feel your beard grow while you watch the movie. Even if you're a woman.
The movie was a tremendous hit, and it's still easy to see why. It's carefully built from the ground up, establishing each step along the way with precision and focus. (Although the planning of the actual raid is rather oddly skipped over.) The performances are strong and clear, and we're drawn into the story by the film's sheer professionalism. You can tell in the first ten minutes that this movie will not let you down.
It was successful enough that, 18 years after its release, a TV-movie sequel followed, THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE NEXT MISSION, also starring a weary-looking Lee Marvin, who made only one more movie. Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel reprised their roles as well, with Borgnine continuing on in two more TV movie sequels, THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE DEADLY MISSION (1987) and THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE FATAL MISSION (1988). Peculiarly, Telly Savalas also appeared in the latter two, but hardly in the role he had in the original film. There was an awful short-lived TV series of The Dirty Dozen, but it's best forgotten.
The story was so clear and compelling that not only did it generate its own sequels, but a dirty dozen (at least) imitations as well. Tough Major John Reisman (Marvin) is ordered by General Worden (Borgnine) to train twelve military prisoners for an almost certainly fatal raid on a French chateau. It's being used as a kind of party house by Nazi brass; if Reisman and his men can kill a lot of the German officers, it will help the Allies' D-Day raid.
There's really nothing much more to the premise than that; the fun in the movie is in the details. With the help of Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), Reisman beats his team into shape, which ain't easy, since they're already malingerers or misfits going in. And some, like the giggling misogynistic murderer Maggott (Telly Savalas), are much worse than that. The two members of the dozen that Reisman deals with most are Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), a tough guy of Polish descent who speaks fluent German, and Franko (John Cassavetes), a Mafia thug who at first doesn't even understand the concept of cooperation.
The novel by E.M. Nathanson was turned into a screenplay by Lukas Heller and the witty Nunnally Johnson; it's a model of tight, efficient characterization and how to keep an audience fiercely focussed on a bunch of ordinarily repellent jerks. Produced by MGM on a lavish scale, the movie looks terrific, with excellent night photography, handsome sets and spectacular action.
But it's the cast that sells THE DIRTY DOZEN, a movie so tough that Robert Ryan is the comedy relief. It gave the great Lee Marvin one of his most famous roles; he's absolutely ideally cast, so much so that it's flat-out impossible to think of another actor of his time who could have done this role as well. Along with THE GREAT ESCAPE, it's one of the two great war-adventure movies of the 1960s, and can be watched repeatedly over the years with a great deal of pleasure.
It's too bad that Warners has more or less tossed out this DVD with a minimum of effort. The print seems to be the same one used as a source for the laserdisc of a few years ago, and shows a few signs of wear and lack of care. The "making-of" short, filmed while the movie was in production, is abysmally bad, insulting to the film, the actors and the audience, one of the worst such shorts ever made. The DVD would have been better without it.