Directed by Robert Aldrich
“Aldrich conforms to the traditional narrative requirements of heroes and villains, but within that he often skirts the issue of good and evil in favor of personal codes and moralities.” – Senses of Cinema
The basic plot elements of The Dirty Dozen can be found in recent films like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and DC’s Suicide Squad. All three films follow the journey of a group out outlaws on a single, all or nothing mission. Like Basterds, the twelve convicts of The Dirty Dozen are after Nazis, the most obvious of all villains.
A Nazi might as well be the be all and end all of evil. They show up in many a war movie, often with little to no shades of gray. If a Nazi is in your movie, he’s the enemy, and that likely means whoever fighting the Nazi is a hero’s hero because only something or someone so supremely good good triumph over such extreme evil.
This isn’t the case with the ‘dozen.’ They are convicts with varying prison sentences, ranging from thirty years hard labor to death. The thinking of the military brass in this movie seems to be that to beat evil you need to think like evil.
We meet the dozen through the eyes of Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), himself a looked down upon military commander. He doesn’t want to lead this supposed suicide mission deep into enemy territory with a band of criminals. It’s really the last thing he wants to do, but he’s subjugated by his military superiors, including one he outwardly loathes.
Within this framework, with a stubborn, misbehaving commander and a dozen convicts, it would seem that there is little to like about our protagonists, and that might be quite revolutionary. This is a two and a half hour movie about Nazis and violent offenders. And yet, we see the good within the convicts as they see the good in each other.
They of course hate each other at the start, like with any good story of ragtag individuals teaming up for the greater good. They fight and growl at each other, and Reisman lets them. He has little respect for his men and goes through the motions begrudgingly. Eventually the tide begins to turn as they go through the training montage and start to resemble actual soldiers. One of them (played by Charles Bronson) is beat up by the soldiers of a different unit, and his fellow convicts stand up for him. Boom, now they’re unified.
After an hour or so of training exercises, Reisman rewards his men with a night of drinking with women from the local town. By this point it’s easy to forget that these men are supposed to be the lowest of the low because we actually quite like them, and we’re meant to admire the bond between Reisman and his unit. By god they’re making it work.
It all builds up to the long-awaited assault on a chateau housing many Nazi generals. It’s a break from the fighting, and the military leaders find themselves drinking and lounging around with women and civilians. The attack, which has been in place since the beginning of the story and never wavered, involves the men infiltrating the chateau and blowing it up from the inside. It’s a long firefight which plays out as planned. Though there are a few deaths along the way, it was all to be expected considering this was a suicide mission.
The Dirty Dozen is far too long, though it’s a perfectly fine movie. The best part is certainly this chateau assault over the last forty or so minutes. It’s uniquely exciting, partially because the shades of gray begin to show up once again. One of the dozen kills an innocent woman (I mean, I guess she too is a Nazi so maybe she’s not completely innocent, but again there’s those shades of gray), before he turns on his own men and is shot down. Others are killed in brutal fashion, and these are men who, to be honest, showed no signs of evil. They’re just German soldiers drinking and playing cards, but they are nonetheless brutally slaughtered.
For the most part I enjoyed the action. It’s certainly made up to be taken in as entertainment, much as in Tarantino’s movie, and it’s easy to root against the villain simply because they where the Nazi uniform. Aldrich and the other minds behind The Dirty Dozen know that the Nazi uniform is a shortcut for getting the audience on the heroes’ side. We see the familiar gray, contrasting with the heroes’ old fashioned military green, and we want to see them get what’s coming.
Still, the final explosion, based on a mixture of gasoline and dozens of grenades, is so over the top that it really cements what these characters were sent here to do. After a couple of them, including Reisman, sneak into the party dressed in the nazi uniform (again like in Inglourious Basterds), they orchestrate a plan to force all of the chateau’s inhabitants into the cellar. That’s where they drop grenades down the air vents, trapping them in such a way that they can see their deaths coming from far away. It’s the only time the action escalates in such a way as to evoke an emotion. We’re still watching the Americans versus the Nazis, but now we see the Americans conducting the all out massacre and the Nazis scratching away for their lives, desperate and haunted.
And this is what the movie should be. Our heroes are unconventional heroes, and over the course of the film we grow to like them, at least until the end when everything is flipped and we question what we’re looking at. Or maybe we don’t. I’m not even sure if I did.
There’s the explosive finale, a few of our dozen are killed, and our two heroes, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, make it out alive. The movie ends with them recuperating in a military hospital, listening to the commanding officers congratulate them for a job well done.
I have to imagine that The Dirty Dozen came off as an entertaining B movie, to some degree. It was made to fill out a fairly conventional plot, give audiences characters to enjoy and moments to laugh at. It’s that familiar underdog story, but it’s really pretty subversive, making the enemy less villainous and more human while our heroes demonstrate a cruel side before the movie is done.
It’s still too long. What is up with these 140+ minute movies.
Up Next: Lady Bird (2017), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Darkest Hour (2017)