Two months or so before D-Day. Deeply impolitic Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is given the mission to quickly turn a dozen men convicted to death or decades of hard labour into a small commando unit that will parachute behind enemy lines on the day of the Allied invasion and attack a castle full of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers on R&R. All in exchange for the possibility of a commuted sentence. Reisman’s men (among them characters played by Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Clint Walker) range from the unlucky over the socially maladjusted, to guys who shouldn’t be in any army even at wartime, and the downright homicidally maniacal, so he has his work cut out for him turning them into some kind of team.
Because that and the suicide mission just aren’t enough to fill two and a
half hours of movie, Reisman also has to cope with the obstructionism of the
excellently named Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan).
Given how many Italian, Japanese, and other movies I’ve seen that operate on
this film’s basic plot - though they are usually an hour shorter and more
focussed on the climactic mission - it’s a bit of a surprise I have only now
come around to watching Robert Aldrich’s original “men of dubious moral fibre on
a suicide mission” film. Well, it does make a degree of sense to keep something
good for last.
And say what you want about The Dirty Dozen, it’s impossible not to
at least call it a good film. I’d even go with excellent, but then I have a
weakness for quite this well-developed machismo.
The cast is of course brilliant, and they turn what could be a bunch of
boring clichés into a lively crew of misfits whose interactions are generally a
joy to watch, even in the handful of moments when the film goes off for a bit of
unfunny humour (of a sort that is certainly not improved by the score just
barely avoiding slide whistles after each joke). These are the only moments in
the film that do feel like filler, otherwise this two and a half hour movie
feels much shorter, and rather more personal than epic.
Among the film’s other pleasures are a deep disregard for authority and
generals not played by Ernest Borgnine, a cynical view on war as well the
self-consciousness to know that the mission the audience wants their heroes to
fulfil is indeed brutal and rather horrible. Aldrich does manage to make us root
for the characters without pretending the things they heroically do are in
itself heroic or all of them are particularly nice people.
Which is pretty much the holy grail of action movies and films about cool
violence, a having its cake and eating it too that shouldn’t work at all but
does so rather brilliantly. It’s a film that tells a war adventure story without
wanting to lie too much about what a war adventure actually entails.