Friday, May 12, 2023

Dirt on “The Dirty Dozen”

My colleague Dwayne Epstein is perhaps the world’s #1 fan of tough-guy Lee Marvin. In 2013, after years of research, he published Lee Marvin: Point Blank. It’s an in-depth tribute to the gruff action star, whose world view was shaped by his combat experience in the Pacific. Now Dwayne has published an in-depth appraisal of one of Marvin’s biggest films, one that topped the box office in the volatile year 1967. This April saw the release of Dwayne’s Killin’ Generals: The Making of The Dirty Dozen, the Most Iconic WWII Movie of All Time.

 Since I myself have written books about the movie year 1967, I’ve wrestled with the popularity of this exciting but disturbing film. I was lucky enough to interview the late E.M. Nathanson, who wrote the best-selling 1965 novel on which the film was based. Dwayne was lucky too: I shared with him my unpublished transcript of that interview, and in his Acknowledgments he graciously thanks me for my contribution to his book. (Nathanson had praised to me Robert Aldrich’s film adaptation, and particularly its new climax, in which the ragtag American GIs take a particularly gruesome revenge on a cluster of Nazi generals and their consorts, saying: “Aldrich had a lot more balls to put that on screen than I did.”) 

 The Dirty Dozen is a World War II movie with a difference. Major John Reisman, played by Lee Marvin, has been put in charge of twelve dangerous men. They’re a motley bunch, coming in many shapes and colors, but all of them are American soldiers who’ve been convicted of criminal offenses, including rape and murder. With D-Day fast approaching, Reisman’s mission is to whip these felons into shape, then take them far behind enemy lines for a daring assault on a German stronghold.

Through finding its heroes among hardened outlaws and criminals, the film taps into a late Sixties inclination to challenge authority. Still, The Dirty Dozen, vigorously directed by Aldrich, is in many ways a glossy and old-fashioned war movie. The men’s crimes are mostly explained away, or quickly forgotten. A training segment (in which they discover group solidarity and earn their nickname by jointly refusing to shave) is played chiefly for laughs. So is an extended war-games sequence in which the Dozen use dirty tricks to stymie the pompous military brass, thus earning the sympathy of every viewer who’d ever butted heads with what the Sixties called the Establishment. By the film’s climax, when the tone turns deadly serious, virtually all of Reisman’s men come through in the clutch. Once they reach the chateau that harbors a large contingent of German officers, only one of them reverts to being the sociopath he once was. The filmmakers have taken several of the novel’s hardest cases—a rapist, a racist, and a pervert—and rolled them into a single character. True to the spirit of the Sixties, with its deep-seated commitment to civil rights, it is the Southern racist (played by the very unlikely Greek-American Telly Savalas) who proves to be beyond redemption. The others, under Reisman’s canny leadership, join forces to do their job bravely and well. Most of them end up laying down their lives for the Allied cause. Patriotic music swells as the mission’s few survivors are given military commendations, and a solemn voiceover tells us that the fallen men “lost their lives in the line of duty.”  

 What message is The Dirty Dozen sending? Critics of the day vigorously debated what Aldrich was saying about the nature of war. I’ll leave it to Dwayne Epstein to sort it all out. 




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