Retro Review: ‘The Dirty Dozen’

During the Second World War, a demolition unit dubbed the Filthy Thirteen became like a real life version of the Suicide Squad or the Inglorious Basterds. A group of unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells who put their talents to good use making life Hell for the Nazis. They would go on to inspire a book loosely based on their exploits. In 1967, this book would be adapted into arguably the most badass war film of all-time the Dirty Dozen.

Major John Reisman has an idea considered unorthodox to say the least. He scours the brig for 12 of the worst criminals to ever be arrested while serving in the US military to be part of his Project Amnesty. With no-iest of no-nonsense methods, Reisman plans to turn these men into a disciplined unit. Seen as nothing more than criminals and thugs, they will be expendable enough to join him on a suicide attack on a chateau that will be hosting several of highest-ranking Nazi officers. This does not come easy, as his “Dirty Dozen” have to prove their worth to those who doubt their usefulness. Of course, with a military unit like this, when the time comes to launch the carefully crafted plan, things go horribly wrong forcing the Dirty Dozen to rely on their guts and wits to complete their mission.

First and foremost, director Robert Aldrich knew that the ensemble he put together had to be believable so he cast some of cinema’s most famous tough guys and roguishly charming actors. Led by Lee Marvin, audiences are treated to the likes of: Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Donald Southerland, Jim Brown, and others of that ilk. There is a perfect balance of well-known stars and soon-to-be big stars filling out this cast. Despite large cast, each of these testosterone-fueled characters is a realized and three-dimensional person and along the way, we get to know all of them very well.

With so much ground to cover, the Dirty Dozen is divided up into three distinct acts. The characters are introduced and trained, they prove their worth to their doubters and it all leads up to the climactic attack. I know this sounds like a basic narrative flow but director Robert Aldrich and screenwriters Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, take the time to make sure each of these segments have their own unique story and feel. The entire second act could be encapsulated as it’s own short film coming to climax when they outwit the well-trained and disciplined unit in the war games. Granted this would have deprived us one of the greatest film climaxes in history. What begins as a covert plan, which played to the strengths of each soldier, is ruined by the religious maniac played by Telly Savalas. Instead of being discouraged, the Dozen switch the Plan B: Indiscriminately killing every Nazi, but now while taking on fire. Pure madcap ensues with enough gunfire and explosions to satisfy any action movie junkie. The movie even tries for a bit of Holocaust-inspired symbolism by having the Nazi top brass cowering underground, futilely trying to stop the explosions poured into the vents above their heads.

If you like your war films with lots of macho action and raucous humor with no thoughtful meditations on conflict, the Dirty Dozen is your movie. Having attained the status of a “classic” has sadly warded off many (granted being warded off by a “classic” should make people think less of you). But the film still holds u to modern audiences, because hard-hitting action and irreverent humor from cinematic tough guys is something that never goes out of style.