Blu-Ray Classics: The Dirty Dozen Review

In his excellent “Personal Journey Through American Movies”, Martin Scorsese talks at some length about ‘smugglers’ in the Hollywood system; directors who managed to work within the constraints of the studios while surreptitiously subverting their films by weaving in a very strong personal vision and set of values. Examples of smugglers are legion, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Budd Boetticher, but one of the best of all of them was Robert Aldrich. I’ve rhapsodised about Aldrich many times in my DVD Times reviews but I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider just how skilled a smuggler he actually was. Certainly, some of his films directly challenged the status quo for one reason or another - The Killing of Sister George for instance with its graphic portrayal of a lesbian relationship – but many of them look, at first glance, like straightforward genre pieces - Ulzana’s Raid is a cavalry western, Kiss Me Deadly is a tough crime flick, Too Late The Hero is a Second World War mission movie. Aldrich’s skill is to take genre pieces and simultaneously deliver the audience-pleasing goods while making strong personal and usually left-liberal statements. So, for example, Ulzana’s Raid is a withering commentary on American involvement in Vietnam and a thoughtful study of the mutual incomprehension which has existed between ‘cowboys’ and ‘Indians’ for the past hundred years.

It’s in this context that The Dirty Dozen is revealed as a remarkable achievement. No-one has ever seriously doubted that it was a great action movie, machine-tooled and gleaming with professionalism. But it’s also a potent examination of war as not only terrible but also completely absurd – war is hell but, worse, it’s crazy and the only people who are really qualified to fight it are sociopaths and psychopaths. Some of this is tentatively present in the original novel by E.M. Nathanson, but I’m certain that it was Robert Aldrich who made it the key subtext of the film. The only sane man in the film is Major Reisman (Marvin) – Major General Worden (Borgnine) is a likeable buffoon while Colonel Breed (Ryan) is a pompous, tight-arsed fool. Reisman hates everybody in the army – he hates the militarism, the inhumanity, the regulations, the ludicrous plans, the rule-bound incompetence. The only things he cares about are his own back and the men under his command. Everything else is bullshit. There’s a tremendous scepticism about the capability of the army here and it’s not really very far below the surface – audiences in 1967 either didn’t realise or didn’t care about it or noticed it and thought it very apt when America was busily escalating their little police action in Vietnam.

The plot of the film is surely too familiar to require summary. It would have been very easy to make this a guts-and-glory macho epic but Aldrich isn’t interested in that. I’ve touched on the cynicism of the film above but Aldrich’s liberalism also comes through in two significant ways. Firstly, we have the strong anti-death penalty stance which results in an opening scene of hanging so horribly vivid that it might make the most rabid hanger and flogger have second thoughts. Reisman is a man of few convictions but he makes it quite clear that he considers capital punishment to be barbaric and goes out on a limb to make sure that any of the Dozen who survive will have their sentences commuted. Secondly, and this is linked to the first point, each of the convicted men is, to a greater or lesser extent, given a measure of humanity and understanding. Even the worst of the men – Telly Savalas’ memorably deranged Maggott – is made obviously mentally incompetent to stand trial under normal circumstances. Aldrich is concerned that we get to like deeply anti-social criminals and he does this by giving each of them some screen time to develop. A few characters get more time than others but the overall intent is clear – no-one, even the worst of us, is beyond redemption – although Maggott comes close and one of the major puzzles of the plot is why on earth Reisman would allow such a psychopath to go on the mission when he is bound to jeopardise it.

That would hardly be possible were it not for some very clever casting. Aldrich mixes some of his favourite actors with some relatively unfamiliar faces and the results are iconic. The Dozen are all vividly portrayed but it’s only fair to single out Telly Savalas as the truly disturbing Maggott, Donald Sutherland as the appealingly dim Pinkley, Jim Brown’s vision of black power incarnate, Jefferson, and Clint Walker’s gentle giant Posey. Charles Bronson keeps a low profile and scores points in the process while John Cassavetes goes for all-out Method intensity as the irrepressible Franko. Cassavetes got Oscar nominated for the role, probably because of all the cast he is the one who does the most visible acting. On the other side of the fence, Ernest Borgnine is hugely engaging as Worden while George Kennedy underplays as his adjutant. Special mention should go to the rock-solid Richard Jaeckel as Reisman’s trusty second-in-command. Jaeckel was a familiar face in Aldrich’s films but this is his signature role and he was still playing something like it in Delta Force 2 a few decades later.

But the film belongs to Lee Marvin. So many films belonged to Lee Marvin in the mid to late 1960s that it becomes hard to say anything new about them but look at this, The Killers, Cat Ballou, Point Blank, Monte Walsh, The Professionals and Hell In The Pacific and you see an actor in complete control of both his image and his material. Considering that he was knocking back several bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label a week, that’s quite an achievement. Marvin is one of my favourite actors and I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written elsewhere but I’m constantly staggered at how effortlessly he dominates the screen, even when he’s appearing with legendary scene-stealers such as Cassavetes and Borgnine. He makes Reisman the toughest bastard you can imagine but he humanises him with humour and makes him reflective and thoughtful without trying to turn him into a sweetheart. I’ve only seen one other actor pull off this kind of role without sentimentalising it and that’s Gene Hackman in the underrated Uncommon Valour. John Wayne, the original choice for the role, would have immediately changed the whole film – both the tone and the content. Wayne exudes heroism and bravado, Marvin gives us cynicism and self-disgust.

It’s not a perfect film. The plot is full of holes and the commentary track on the DVD points a number of them out – my favourite is the fact that a group of jobbing soldiers turn out to be skilled enough in engineering tasks to build their camp to such a high standard. More seriously, from my point of view, the marvellous actor Robert Ryan is squandered in the one-note role of Breed. Ryan could do so much more than this kind of thing as he demonstrated time after time in films like On Dangerous Ground and he’s given a much better opportunity in a later collaboration with Marvin, The Iceman Cometh. There’s also the inevitable problem with making this kind of anti-war war movie – the audience will inevitably get hyped up by the action at the end and won’t necessarily register the ‘war is hell’ angle. Aldrich does his best to minimise this by keeping the action in a very confined part of the narrative but there’s not much he can do with a plot which inevitably hyped the audience up into applauding the killing of the Germans, no matter how horrifying it might be. This isn’t Aldrich’s fault, it’s unavoidable if you’ve taken the time to build up the characters to make us care about them. But the final scenes do evoke a sense of terror and chaos which stays with you and it’s not difficult to see the connection between pouring petrol on the Germans and their women companions and atrocities committed on both sides in Vietnam. There’s also little room for conventional heroics – Aldrich doesn’t have any interest in macho platitudes – and he does take the time to demonstrate that, in war, innocent people are inevitably going to get hurt. This isn’t, by the way, the first film by any means to show the dark side of war. Take a look at King Vidor’s The Big Parade from 1925 or, for that matter, Aldrich’s own Attack! from 1956. What The Dirty Dozen does is raise the stakes in terms of on-screen violence and blatant cynicism.

Yet even while delivering a strong message that war is madness, The Dirty Dozen still works beautifully as a classic piece of action entertainment. The script by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller has a strong structure and dialogue with a measure of wit while the editing is quite brilliant. Some people seem to labour under the illusion that it has something to do with real life but it’s pretty clear that it has about as much to do with the realities of World War Two as Abbott and Costello Join The Navy. There’s not a great deal of technical accuracy and, indeed, the whole concept seems to be pretty outré – the ‘Filthy Thirteen’ were rebels and outcasts from the military but they were not murderers and psychopaths. But in its own terms, the film works thanks to the illusion, created by Robert Aldrich and a superb team of actors and craftsmen. Guys on a mission movies are ten-a-penny but The Dirty Dozen is one of the very best.

The Disc

The Dirty Dozen was one of the earliest Blu-Ray titles and is now nearly seven years old - and it looks it. The 1.78:1 presentation is perfectly acceptable and the level of detail is certainly above that on the 2006 standard definition disc. However, the source material was clearly not in the best condition and there's a fair amount of minor print damage in evidence. Like some other early Warner releases, when the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray was raging, it looks rather soft and lacking in depth. As for the colours, they are not too impressive but then I've never seen a version of the film in which they were and I've come to the conclusion that it's characteristic of the shooting style of Aldrich and DP Joseph Biroc - the same thing is evident in their other films together such as The Longest Yard although not, interestingly, in Ulzana's Raid.

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is derived from the 6 track mix used for the blown-up 70MM prints of the film. It's not going to knock anyone's socks off but it does the job reasonably efficiently. The rear channels are rarely used but the .1 LFE effects are often very effective during the frequent explosions. A lossless track would have been welcomed. Frank De Vol's music score comes across very nicely and is the best thing about the soundtrack. Optional subtitles are included in English and a range of other languages.

The extras are identical to those on the 2006 2-Disc Special Edition DVD.

The biggest extra on the disc is a whole movie – the 1985 TV sequel The Dirty Dozen: Their Next Mission. It’s certainly fun to see Marvin, Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel back together again in their roles although a little distressing to see them all looking so old. But generally it’s a mess with plodding direction from Andrew V. McLaglen – who had already done a pretty good Dirty Dozen knock-off with 1968’s The Devil’s Brigade. It makes no sense to see the three hold-overs from the original film looking so old when the action takes place shortly after the original film and the point of having a black soldier impersonate a Nazi is lost on me. The supporting cast is packed with pretty boy TV stalwarts such as Larry Wilcox who don’t look like they could invade a church coffee morning without meeting devastating resistance. It’s worth watching for a cheap laugh but it’s a terrible waste of Marvin who is clearly completely uninterested in the whole thing.

Among the supplements, the best is a commentary track from a variety of interested parties. The most compelling of these is Dale Dye, ex-Marine and consultant on numerous Hollywood war movies. He doesn’t seem to like the film too much and he has a string of attitudes which might make some liberals hide under their beds but he’s such an enjoyable and eloquent speaker that everything he says is highly entertaining. He points out a multitude of plot holes and technical inaccuracies and talks more generally about Hollywood’s attitude to the military. Also on the track are E.M. Nathanson – still smarting a bit that his script for the film wasn’t made – Jim Brown, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Colin Maitland, Stuart Cooper and film historian David J. Schow. The latter is particularly interesting when reading out Aldrich’s letters to the producer Kenneth Hyman which make the director’s attitudes to the project very clear.

We also get a brief introduction from Ernest Borgnine, the trailer and an archive 1967 featurette “Operation Dirty Dozen”. This is great fun, concentrating on the actors swanning around Swinging London, and it looks a lot more dated than the film itself. There are also two new featurettes - a fascinating 47 minute piece about the real ‘Filthy Thirteen’ which is packed with good interviews and staggering archive photographs and a conventional 30 minute making-of piece which has lots of interviews and not too many extraneous film clips. Somewhat more unusual is a 30 minute training film for the US Marines – “Marine Corps Combat Leadership Skills” – which is presented by Marvin who was himself in the Marines. It dates from the early-1980s and interesting for the layman in the way it presents what Marines do on a day-to-day basis. Nor does it soft-pedal the horrors of war. It’s certainly a lot more mature and reflective than the recruitment commercial I had been expecting.

The Dirty Dozen has aged very well and remains one of the most influential films ever made. This Blu-Ray is the best way of viewing it but also demonstrates that a full restoration of the film is necessary to display it at its finest.

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