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Category:    Home > Reviews > War > Drama > Action > WWII > The Dirty Dozen (Two-Disc Special Edition)

The Dirty Dozen (Two-Disc Special Edition)


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: A     Film: B+



Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967) is hardly the most realistic of war films, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the most entertaining.  On the audio commentary track, former soldier and longtime Hollywood military technical advisor Dale Dye points out many of the film's inconsistencies and implausibilities, but while Aldrich's film isn't another Platoon, Saving Private Ryan or We Were Soldiers, it was quite edgy and gutsy for its day.  Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen is really a macho male fantasy that actually has a lot more in common with Clint Eastwood's highly underrated Heartbreak Ridge, which came along 19 years later.


Aldrich, who remains one of the most underappreciated great directors in Hollywood history, takes a traditional World War II mission adventure and deftly blends it with the anti-authoritarian attitudes that were quickly growing in America as the Vietnam War was escalating.  The Dirty Dozen hit a nerve with audiences, and still plays to the inner rebel in all viewers who harbor such a streak.


In a role originally intended for John Wayne, who opted out to star in and direct The Green Berets, Lee Marvin is perfectly cast as Major John Reisman, an Army officer notorious for defying authority and doing things his own way.  Reisman's own reputation as a rebel is what makes General Wordon (Ernest Borgnine) think he's the perfect man to lead a very unconventional, top-secret mission.  Shortly before D-Day on June 6, 1944, Reisman must lead a dozen men behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi chateau, taking out several Nazi officers in the process in hopes of disrupting the enemy chain of command.  But what makes this mission so unique is that Reisman isn't leading a group of ordinary soldiers.  Because the mission is so high risk, Reisman is ordered to recruit 12 court-martialed soldiers who are currently imprisoned and awaiting execution or serving a minimum of 20 years hard labor.  The only motivation for this "dirty dozen" of murderers, rapists and thieves is that if they happen to survive the mission, which is unlikely, they'll be set free.


During several weeks of training, Reisman will have his work cut out for him winning over such a surly group of rugged individualists, including an outspoken stateside Mafioso named Franko (John Cassavetes in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor); a tough guy of few words named Wladislaw (Charles Bronson); a black prisoner named Jackson (Jim Brown in his first major film role) who killed some crackers in self-defense; a gentle giant who'll snap if you push him too hard named Posey (Clint Walker); a half-wit named Pinkley (Donald Sutherland); and a religious fanatic named Maggott (Telly Savalas) on death row for rape and murder, who might even be a little too unstable for this wild bunch of renegades -- you certainly come away wishing actors as tough and naturally cool as Marvin and Bronson were still around.  Sadly, though, Hollywood just doesn't make guys like this anymore.


As Reisman whips this collection of anti-socials into shape with the help of a military police sergeant (Richard Jaeckel), Reisman finds himself in a battle of wits with a by-the-book superior named Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan), who despises Reisman for his unorthodox ways.  Viewing Reisman in comparison to a humorless tightass like Col. Breed only manages to ingratiate Reisman to his ragtag squad.


The Dirty Dozen established an entire subgenre of action films including The Devil's Brigade (1968), Play Dirty (1968), The Devil's 8 (1969), The Losers (1970) and Uncommon Valor (1983), and even influenced Aldrich's own The Longest Yard (1974).  And like Heartbreak Ridge, it's a knowing film about a rebel doing things his own way within a corrupt system (something I'm sure that a wily veteran like Aldrich could relate to) whose straight-shooter, no-BS style manages to inspire a group of misfits who'd given up.  And yes, the underdog does triumph in The Dirty Dozen, but it comes with a heavy price.


My biggest gripe with the film is a problem it shares with many a WWII movie: The German enemy is written as too conveniently stupid.  Had they been that dumb in real life, the war would have been over in a matter of days instead of years.


Warner Bros.’ Two-Disc Special Edition of The Dirty Dozen has this man's man's classic looking and sounding better than in previous versions with improved color and remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.  The film was such an event film that original producing studio MGM took the 1.75 X 1 British aspect ratio negative and did 70mm blow-ups, sometimes calling it “Metroscope” because that looked and sounded good.  British cinematographer Edward Scaife (Khartoum, Dirty Dozen knock-off Play Dirty) shot the war epic very memorably, balancing scenes of gritty battles on the field with face-to-face personal battles among the characters.  The anamorphically enhanced version on this DVD is a good-looking 1.78 X 1 and is a pleasing print with MetroColor, which actually did exist.  Unlike the regular 35mm prints, the 70mm prints had six strips of magnetic stereo sound and five of those were speakers behind the screen versus the type of surrounds we have today.


The result included traveling dialogue and sound effects (trucks driving by) that felt and sounded like that.  The new 5.1 mix has to fold down those five tracks into three, but you can still hear those moments to a great extent.  The sound still shows its age, but the music by Frank De Vol (listed as just De Vol) is in the best shape because it was recorded with better music studio audio equipment, dominated the surrounds and sounds incredible for its age.  The gap is noticeable, but worth it to have the best fidelity playback of all the elements, especially for a film that runs 149 minutes.


The set is also overflowing with extras.  Included is the first of three made-for-TV sequels called The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985) in which Marvin, Borgnine and Jaeckel reprise their roles, but fall victim to a terrible screenplay and uninspired direction by Andrew V. McLaglen -- the by-the-numbers sequel hints at how the original may have turned out if Wayne starred.  Preceding the main feature is an introduction by Borgnine, and a newly produced documentary featuring interviews with Borgnine, Brown, Sutherland, Walker, Trini Lopez and George Kennedy -- coincidentally, it was Kennedy who won the 1967 Best Supporting Actor award for another all-time great about imprisoned men, Cool Hand Luke.


Other extras include a documentary about a rebellious squad of real-life WWII veterans nicknamed The Filthy Thirteen, and a Marine Corps. recruitment film from the mid-1980s hosted by Marvin, himself a former real-life Marine; there's also a vintage featurette with behind-the scenes footage and footage of some of the actors on the swinging streets of '60s London during a day off; the original theatrical trailer; and a feature-length audio commentary with contributions by cast members Brown, Lopez, Stuart Cooper and Colin Maitland, producer Kenneth Hyman, Dirty Dozen novelist E.M. Nathanson, film historian David J. Schow, but dominated by Capt. Dye's picking the film apart.  Dye's criticisms of the film's authenticity are valid, but those of us who prefer older action flicks like The Dirty Dozen for their solid character development, strong dialogue and coherently shot action probably wouldn't trade this one for many of the more authentic military films on which Dye has worked in recent years.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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