Wednesday, April 20, 2011

FI: The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen
USA, 1967
Directed by Robert Aldrich

Probably the strangest thing about The Dirty Dozen—a film based loosely on a novel based loosely on a hearsay account inspired by true events—is not that it asks us to accept as protagonists a group of convicted killers, miscreants, racists, and ne'er-do-wells, but that it somehow manages to get us to do so with little hesitation. Sure, the film mitigates the circumstances for some of our "heroes," giving their crimes at least the veneer of justification, while leaving others as bad guys even amongst the rogues. Even still, most of the "Dozen" get little in the way of characterization and dedicated screen time, yet somehow, through the film's cartoonish action and exploitation of WWII/war movie tropes, we end up pulling for these underdogs.

The film sets the stakes fairly early, when Lee Marvin's Major Reisman is forced to watch a military execution prior to being briefed on his next assignment: to train a group of condemned men and take them on a suicide mission, storming a chateau, disabling radio, and killing Nazi officers, in order to enable D-Day to occur. If they flee or fail, they die or return to jail. If they succeed, they MAY have their sentences commuted (and that concession only comes up thanks to Reisman's pleading). The subtext is, for the most part, obvious: The high ranking officers are largely elitist, overly-formal, and uncaring, while the lower-class "Dozen" are (or will become) egalitarian, unconventional, and team-oriented. These traits will make them capable of planning and executing ops that are way beyond the ability of any real people in their situation, but who needs realism? The film borrows its plans from the heist genre, its moralistic, detached violence from the classic war picture, and its attitude towards authority from the 60's zeitgeist in which it was filmed.

Marvin headlines a great cast—including John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Donald Sutherland—and in spite of a lengthy 150-min. running time, the film rarely bogs down after the first act. It's a tough, unapologetic, "guys-getting-shit-done" kind of movie, and it still works well 40+ years later.

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