June 21, 2017
Here we are, midway through 2017, and we’re already up to our Facebook feeds in 50th anniversary observances.
Just this month alone, two epochal musical events reached the half-century mark: the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Monterey International Pop Festival, which served as the coming-out party for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Janis Joplin, as well as ushering in the age of the rock-music festival.
And as we head into the second half of 2017, we await, among other milestones, the September commemoration of the release of “Bonnie & Clyde,” the film which, as much as any other, heralded the dawn of the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” era of filmmaking, and the same-month celebration of the debut of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which set off a TV-comedy revolution and made the bed for, among countless other programs, “Saturday Night Live.”
But there has been no big whoop-de-doo for another 50th birthday, one that was reached just last week: the release of “The Dirty Dozen,” which, to this moment, arguably stands as the Best. War. Movie. Ever.
“The Dirty Dozen” is based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Nathanson, which was, in turn, inspired by the real-life World War II exploits of a group of American soldiers dubbed, “The Filthy Thirteen.” In the film, renegade Army Major John Reisman (the always-awesome Lee Marvin), is ordered to lead a squad of 12 men (plus several MPs) who, after an intense six weeks of training, will execute a virtual suicide mission: kill as many Nazi officers as possible as they enjoy R&R in a heavily fortified, luxury chateau in the South of France.
The catch is that the soldiers are not standard-issue All-American heroes, but inmates in a U.S. military prison in Great Britain. All have been convicted of serious, primarily capital, crimes.
The joys of “The Dirty Dozen” are many, beginning with the cast. Marvin’s charges include some of the era’s greatest character actors, including Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland. Not to mention Jim Brown, who was just beginning his transition from legendary NFL fullback to actor.
Adding to the casting brilliance was a troupe of equally talented performers portraying Army officers, among them Robert Ryan (as Reisman’s bete noire, Col. Dasher Breed), Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy.
If you’ve noticed that so far only men have been name-checked, that’s because, in what may be the flick’s only drawback (especially in these PC times), the only women in the movie play either hookers or maids (mostly hookers). But on the upside, there is more testosterone in any given “Dirty Dozen” scene than in every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis movie combined.
Beyond the marvelous cast, there are three other aspects of “The Dirty Dozen” that earn it its status as The Greatest. One is the direction by Robert Aldrich (recently immortalized by Alfred Molina in the wonderful FX mini-series, “Feud: Bette & Joan”).
...there is more testosterone in any given 'Dirty Dozen' scene than in every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis movie combined."
Aldrich’s touch is perfect throughout the film’s 2½-hour running time. He employs a light, thoughtful touch (with some surprisingly good laughs) early on, and gradually ramps up the tension until the ultra-violent (especially for 1967), action-packed climax.
Another is the pacing and format of the script by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller. Rather than boast the standard three-act blueprint, it can be argued this is actually two movies in one: The first involves the process by which Marvin’s character molds his collection of misfits, mental midgets, and sociopaths into a lean, mean, fighting machine. The second deals with the mission itself.
But its most enduring legacy may be that it was among the first Hollywood war pictures that wasn’t painted exclusively in black-and-white (and I don’t mean visually).
Rather than presenting the squad as a collection of wholesome, God-fearing and brave men who were happily willing to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause, “The Dirty Dozen” inhabits a darker, morally ambiguous realm. As Brown’s character (who is facing a death sentence for murdering two white soldiers who were attempting to castrate him) tells Reisman early on, he has no particular stake—or interest--in beating Hitler and the Nazis. That’s a far cry from any John Wayne flick I’ve ever seen.
And it’s yet another reason why, when it comes to war movies, “The Dirty Dozen” has no equal.
Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), 104.9 FM, WWDBAM.com, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.
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