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On June 15, 1967, MGM unveiled the 149-minute World War II thriller The Dirty Dozen, featuring a template that would be echoed in action films for decades. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review of the film is below.
The Dirty Dozen, a Kenneth Hyman production for MGM, is the beneficiary of extensive advance publicity and excitement and has a strong, virile cast to deliver both the brutalizing violence and grotesque comedy which will make it one of MGM’s big money pictures of the year. It is overlong, uneven and frequently obscure, but will succeed by virtue of its sustained action, even though what it attempts to say, if anything, remains elusive. Robert Aldrich directed with his usual eye for arresting composition and the impact of individual episodes. The quality of the print reviewed suffered by having been blown up to 70mm in an apparent attempt to imbue first-run engagements with greater import.
Perhaps if the movie had not run two-and-a-half hours, there would have been less opportunity to confuse the purpose, which was apparently to make the point that war is Hell, directed by madmen. Frankly, the hours fly by, the action is well directed and the laughs are numerous. But relevant connective tissue between the episodes seems to be missing.
In the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, adapted from the book by E.M. Nathanson, Lee Marvin plays a U.S. Army major, who has perhaps made no more infractions of the rules than his peers, but has the misfortune of having all of them listed as part of his record. Because of this, he is given the assignment of training 12 convicted, thoroughly undisciplined GIs, most of them awaiting execution, and leading them on a suicide mission to kill the German high command. Marvin protests that the plan is the conception of lunatics, a conclusion which seems to be silently shared by his liaison, Robert Webber, George Kennedy, Ralph Meeker and Ernest Borgnine.
The action progresses logically with Marvin devising means to bring the rebels together in shared hatred of him and achieving a measure of discipline and spirit. A complication, both to Marvin and the film, is that the secret training mission brings Marvin under the scrutiny of an old rival, Robert Ryan, a stuffy, by-the-books head of the parachute school. He assigns beefy sadists to attack the dozen in an attempt to learn the purpose of their mission. He attacks the compound with troops but is repelled by the dozen. His objections to Borgnine almost cancel the plan, which would mean immediate execution of the malcontented GIs.
The dozen redeem themselves by capturing Ryan’s command post through a series of extra-legal ploys during a massive war game. The sequence proves to be the high point of the film, reducing the action which follows.
The actual attack on the German hideout is immensely cluttered. It snafus on a predictable shoot-out between Telly Savalas, a religious Southern bigot and full-time madman, and Jim Brown, who plays a Negro sentenced to death for killing the “whitey” who attempted to mutilate him. There has not been time to adequately know the dozen by the time the climactic action begins. Trini Lopez disappears, apparently the victim of offscreen death in a tree following his parachute drop. Since the whole sequence of the raid is contained in the changed rhyme, we are not familiar enough to follow all of the foul-ups in the plan.
The action is heady, but many will be offended that it includes an act by the U.S. team in which they pour grenades and gasoline through air vents on to officers and women trapped in a bomb shelter, incinerating them Buchenwald-style. Charles Bronson and Marvin survive the madness. Bronson’s last line, on learning that the dead dozen will be listed as having died honorably in action, is “killing generals could get to be a habit with me.” Is that line supposed to ring pacifistically? The only general we have met is Borgnine, who seems to be one of the most reasonable men of them all. Aside from the top brass who conceived the plan but are never seen, the worst excesses are committed by the lower hierarchy of the officers and by the dozen, with whom we are frequently encouraged to identify. What of Marvin’s implication? Or is the film simply a brutalizing savory for action lovers?
Marvin is excellent, particularly in the first half of the film. Borgnine excels primarily by telling glances in a deft performance not dependent on dialogue alone. Brown and Lopez play competently, while John Cassavetes scores in a comically arrogant role as the most outspoken of the convicts. Bronson, despite recurrently swallowed passages of dialogue, makes another strong impression. Richard Jaeckel, Clint Walker and Webber have command of their brief supporting roles, while Savalas languishes in the film’s most incredible role.
Sound recording by Franklin Milton and Claude Hitchcock is substandard; at least one of the players sounds as though he had been dubbed by another. Edward Scaife’s cinematography in Metrocolor and puffed 70mm appears to have accomplished some excellent night effects, but this is weakened in the grainy quality which resulted in the blow-up. W.E. Hutchinson’s settings are suitably authentic, while the remainder of technical credits, including Michael Luciano’s editing, are slick. The score by Frank De Vol is percussive and martial, amplifying the starkness which is curiously balanced with the outrageously comic throughout the film. — John Mahoney, originally published on June 16, 1967
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