With Jim Brown’s recent passing and the approaching Memorial Day holiday, what better movie to watch than Robert Aldrich’s entertaining and influential WWII adventure “The Dirty Dozen.”
For those who haven’t seen the all-star actioner, it’s one of the few military movies that hooks you instantly with its premise: an unorthodox and maverick Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is tasked with training twelve Allied military prisoners for a top secret mission to terminate high-ranking Nazi officers before an impending invasion. If the convicts don’t conform, their sentences will be immediately carried out; if they successfully complete the mission, their sentences will be commuted. Dangling a carrot on a stick for their cooperation, Reisman lies to them and promises a full pardon by figuring none of the prisoners will survive the barrage on the Fuhrer’s brass.
Naturally, stuck between a rock and a hard place, the prisoners prepare to be trained for their target. While most face long sentences of imprisonment or hard labor, only the “Dozen’s” big name stars face the noose with ‘death by hanging’ charges: Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), Jefferson (Jim Brown), Franco (John Cassavetes), Maggot (Telly Savalas) and Posey (Clint Walker). We learn quickly through Reisman’s talks with these convicts that most crimes were legitimate self-defense and win some early audience favor for their likability (save for the arrogant Franco’s botched armed robbery and, the ‘Dozen’s’ loosest cannon, the appropriately-named Maggot- a murdering Bible-reading Southern racist rapist).
To bond the unit, Reisman has the prisoners build their own barracks and train together before embarking on a ‘jump’ school to learn to parachute into enemy lines and infiltrate the Chateau holding the German elite. Because the mission’s a secret and the prisoners go back to the pokey should their objective be found out, their main obstacle and Reisman’s army officer adversary is Col. Breed (Robert Ryan), a by-the-books blowhard hell-bent on finding out the mysterious Dozen’s directives. As the ‘jump’ school is Breed’s domain, he condemns the convicts in a report to General Worden (Ernest Borgnine). Using Reisman’s impromptu party for the prisoners on their completion of training as a reason for retribution, the Allied officers decide to test the Dozen’s mettle: participate in a war game where Reisman’s ragtag convicts must be victorious and defeat Breed’s best by overtaking Breed’s headquarters. If the Dozen win, they avoid the hangman but must still complete their preordained suicide scrape by breaking into a nest of high-ranking Nazis.
Made in 1967, it’s easy to see why “Dozen” still endures. Its structure makes the movie move swiftly. The convicts are colorful enough to be interesting and their camaraderie is well-earned despite their diversity. The acting is memorable, from former Marine Marvin’s Reisman to former “Magnificent Seven” member and “Great Escape” artist Bronson’s Wladislaw. Add an earned Oscar nod for Cassavetes’ work as the belligerent Franco and Savalas’ eccentric turn as religious maniac Maggot. Yet, in a time of civil rights unrest, Jim Brown holds his own in the heavyweight role of Jefferson.
Two years after obtaining rushing records in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, the beloved football running back became part of “The Dirty Dozen” and gained a slice of celluloid immortality. In his role as Jefferson, Brown isn’t the”Dozen’s” token African-American but a major component. Convicted for defending himself against a hate crime, Jefferson still suffers racial slurs at the hands of MPs and prisoner Maggot but, when the chips are down, proves his worth: helping Wladislaw contain Franco’s attempt to flee camp, rescuing Wladislaw from Breed’s guards out for information, commandeering an ambulance in the Dozen’s war game exercise. But it’s when it really counts, at the Chateau holding a Nazi-filled, gasoline-soaked bomb shelter, that the future Football Hall of Famer gets to show his true skill: lob grenades into air holes in a 20-second sprint. Turning acting into action, Brown makes us remember his role.
As for the “Dozen’s” influence, without Donald Sutherland’s role as prisoner Pinkley, would we have his memorable roles in “Kelly’s Heroes” or “M*A*S*H”? Would military comedies like the enlisted misfits of “Stripes” or the comedic war game scene in “Private Benjamin” even exist? Would the DC universe ever have united a “Suicide Squad”? Even Tarantino’s opening to “Inglourious Basterds” with Brad Pitt addressing side-by-side soldiers feels like homage to Marvin’s introduction to the lined-up ‘Dozen.’ While “The Dirty Dozen” is one of my favorite war movies, you may feel fictional felons don’t adequately commemorate the real fallen soldiers we should remember on Memorial Day. However, if providing the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our peace holds any weight, the “Dozen’s” spirit of duty deserves your attention.