Friday 26 March 2010

Movie Review: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

A World War II action movie, The Dirty Dozen boasts a star-studded cast thrust into a suicide mission as a ticket to freedom from incarceration.

Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is an anti-authoritarian US Army commander based in England in the days leading up to the D-Day Normandy invasion. He is tasked with a high-risk behind-enemy-lines-mission: train a unit composed of 12 hardened convicts to attack and destroy a chateau in France popular as a retreat for high-ranking German army officers.

From the ranks of criminals facing the death penalty or long-term sentences for violent crimes, Reisman's recruits include Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), Maggott (Telly Savalas), Franko (John Cassavetes), Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), and Jefferson (Jim Brown). They are all promised freedom in the unlikely event they survive the mission. Arduous training follows, Reisman finding his hands full with men more likely to turn on each other and on him before they ever get deployed. And despite detailed planning, the attack on the chateau will encounter unforeseen challenges.

Neatly divided into forming then storming segments, The Dirty Dozen is jovial, violent, and unafraid to take casualties. Director Robert Aldrich keeps the action moving with a straightforward and generally unobtrusive style, alternating scenes of the convicts clashing with Reisman during training with examples of their progression into a fighting unit. The training culminates in a lengthy war-game sequence where the dozen prove their resourcefulness and combat readiness.

The premise of criminals as heroes creates a natural edge. The men are intrinsically unstable, and in some cases unhinged. Instilling military discipline to pull off a dangerous mission is a mission onto itself, and the anything-can-happen tension stems both from enemy response and the men's propensity for ill-conceived improvisation.

Lee Marvin delivers a steely-eyed performance as the renegade Major appropriately given control of an insane assignment. He manages to maintain a strong hold on the core of the film, despite the many other familiar faces and loud explosions swirling all around him. Although John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson are given the most prominent roles among the convicts, Donald Sutherland, as the most intellectually challenged of the group, and Telly Savalas, as a racist woman-hating religious nut, are the most memorable. The rich cast also includes Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and George Kennedy.

The final 45 minutes of the relatively long 140 minutes of running time depict the actual raid itself, and of course nothing goes as planned. The tension, excitement, and action are continuous, and both sides suffer high casualties. Here Aldrich merges crime with war, and challenges the definition of success: German wives and girlfriends, trapped and cowering in a shelter, are not spared the ravages of battle. In return, many of the dozen will find coveted freedom in the form of dirty death.

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