The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 war action drama film directed by Robert Aldrich and based on the novel written by E.M. Nathanson. The story is a work of fiction, set during World War II and centred around twelve court-martialled soldiers who are promised a reprieve from their capital sentences if they are successful in completing a virtual suicide mission behind enemy lines, just before D-Day.
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Starring Lee Marvin as the rebellious Major John Reisman, who is tasked to train and command this self-styled “dirty dozen”, the ensemble cast includes Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Trini Lopez, Clint Walker, James Brown, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy amongst others.
The bulk of The Dirty Dozen is focused on the soldiers’ recruitment and training before the actual mission is executed in the third act. Characterisation is keenly developed as well as the highly charged relationships between Reisman and his charges and amongst the soldiers themselves. As expected, a bond begins to form within this motley crew and this gang of unruly criminals start to resemble a crack military, despite all the odds.
This entire process allows the audience to engage fully with the soldiers despite their obvious flaws and the crimes they have committed. However, any empathy the audience may feel will of course come with a tinge of guilt, once one realises that essentially these men are hardcore sociopaths. The ability of Reisman to mould the group into a fighting unit is only possible with a healthy dose of the suspension of disbelief as it is difficult to imagine such a scenario happening in real life.
Thematically, it is clear that director Aldrich framed The Dirty Dozen as the antithesis of everything that is proper in good society. Thus, ultimately the criminals turn out to be the heroes. Reisman is the ultimate cynic as he remarks in a comedic moment in the film – “You’ve seen a general inspecting troops before haven’t you? Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid!”
Despite the above, Aldrich is unable to let his gang of heroic malcontents walk away scott-free into the sunset as all but one ultimately survive the suicide mission. And even that character, ostensibly, was unjustly convicted and probably deserves his exoneration. Whether this conservative resolution was down to Aldrich or studio pressure is open to debate.
Dodgy convenient ending notwithstanding, there is little doubting the heavy influence on The Dirty Dozen’s premise on contemporary movie making, with David Ayers’ crediting the film for inspiring his approach on Suicide Squad. Elsewhere, diverse films as The Wild Bunch, The Longest Yard and Inglorious Basterds have exploited the criminals as anti-heroes trope to good effect. No surprise perhaps that Ayers has been tasked to direct a contemporary version of The Dirty Dozen, which is expected to see light of day soon.
However, before that happens, make sure that you enjoy the original first. Highly recommended!
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