The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Directed by Robert Aldrich

When I was younger – oh, about fourteen maybe? – I thought The Dirty Dozen was about the coolest movie going. And over the years, I’ve seen it several times. The other night I watched it once more, the first time in a very long while, and I think my view has altered somewhat from that first time I saw it.

I like to think I’ve a more objective, critical eye now but, who knows? Maybe I’m as full of you-know-what now as I was then.

The Dirty Dozen really is a good movie. It’s a kind of template for every action-adventure, testosterone-driven movie that has followed in its wake. As the quote on the DVD cover says, “Often imitated, never bettered.”

Lee Marvin as Major John Reisman.

It partly accomplishes this by adroitly working an inherent contradiction. All of the primary characters (the Dirty Dozen plus Lee Marvin’s Major John Reisman) are in the military and all of them hate authority. Hmm.

That’s kind of like being a lifeguard and hating the water. And swimmers. And everything related to the beach.

All of these guys also have serious … umm, shall we say anger management issues? Whatever … somehow they all managed to get into the army. Of course, this may be partly because the military is portrayed as being largely run by morons. And this reflects a certain attitude prevalent at the time the movie was made – circa 1967.

Earnest Borgnine is General Worden.

The point is, there is a fundamental illogic in the movie. Chain of command is a basic given in the military, I would think, so the idea of these guys being in the military, much less taking on a key mission, is something of a stretch of common sense. But movies aren’t necessarily the proper place for logic. Emotion is the driving force and if it makes no sense, who cares? It feels right. Well, at least it feels good.

If you’re male, you can’t help but like these guys – especially Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson.

They’re tough, right-thinking guys stuck in a bad situation they must make the best of, and that they must (and do) accomplish while maintaining a sense of personal honour. (“He may be a killer but I respect him for sticking to his guns – no pun intended.”)

There is action, there is humour, there is conflict, and all of it done in a well-paced, nicely constructed way. But more importantly, there is Lee Marvin as Major Reisman. He is, oddly enough, the dominant authority figure in the film and, because of the type of authority figure he plays, he’s the glue that holds it all together. He isn’t just an authority figure, he’s a father figure. (No, I’m not trying to get psychological here but … well, that’s what he is and it is psychological.)

Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) and Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) mingle as Nazis before all hell breaks loose.

For the audience (at least the males, especially those younger ones), he’s a patriarchal archetype. It’s his respect that is important to the Dirty Dozen. He earns it by being just as disrespectful of authority (the military) and maintaining a kind of personal code. You can’t help but want to be like him – tough and true. (Nasty? Yes. But in a good way.)

The problem with all of this is that while it certainly appeals on a gut, instinctive level to boys and men, it never puts it into a social context. In fact, it does just the opposite. This kind of “maleness” is fine within certain confines but without any reference to how the rest of the world lives, it means mayhem.

And that, of course, is what the film ultimately gives us. The film ends in an orgy of explosions, gunfire and dying people. For me at least, once these guys embark on the mission they’ve trained for, the movie kind of peters out (which is ironic since this is also when everything explodes).

Ultimately, this is an extremely well made movie. I still enjoy watching it though I have problems now with how it ends: killing people, however it’s done, however many they may be, is okay as long as they’re the bad guys and their friends. I don’t think I buy that reasoning.

At the risk of sounding school-marmish, for me The Dirty Dozen is essentially a teenage boy’s movie. It addresses and satisfies all the raging hormones but without a context for dealing with them in any kind of socially appropriate way.

In many ways, that seems to be the movie’s point. What if you could just let go and do what you want? Wouldn’t that be fun? And just beat the crap out of anyone who doesn’t like it? In a way, the movie is a kind of pornography of violence.

(But that was kind of popular in movies of the late sixties, early seventies.)

In a way, this movie makes an interesting companion to East of Eden. They both deal, to some degree, with rebellion. In East of Eden though, James Dean’s youthful rebelliousness is an attempt to find an identity and to become something. In The Dirty Dozen, the Dozen (who are rebels of a kind) seem to be rebellious because it’s fun to be an asshole. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion.

Watching it, the feeling I end up with is one of relief that I’ve grown up.

The DVD:

The image quality on this one is pretty lame. It’s surprising that it’s released as Warner until you realize that it’s MGM, which probably explains it. This is probably the same MGM release but now with the Warner logo tacked on.

It doesn’t matter. The point is that while watchable, overall this has some major flaws. It’s a poor print especially at those moments when the reels change. There is quite a bit of scratching etc. (plus those annoying circles to announce the coming reel change). Poor quality DVD. This transfer should have had at least some restoration done to it.

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