Just about everyone enjoys a good ensemble action picture, especially when the camaraderie is believable. In the case of “The Dirty Dozen,” there isn’t any camaraderie – virtually every character in the film is a misfit and proud of it – and, yet, it’s probably one of the best entries in the genre.
Lee Marvin is Major John Reisman, a not-entirely-by-the-book Army officer during World War II who’s “offered” a new assignment: to train twelve of the most deplorable guys in the Army stockade and make them into a top-notch fighting force. The “Dirty Dozen” – so called because, after refusing to shower in cold water, their water privileges are revoked, leaving them smelling decidedly rank – are to be sent on what can only be called a suicide mission; whoever survives the attack on a Nazi-filled castle might have their records expunged…but not definitely. Still, even the possibility of freedom is a better offer than certain death or life imprisonment.
The “Dozen” is filled with some serious acting firepower, among them Charles Bronson, footballer-turned-actor Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, and a young Donald Sutherland (preparing, no doubt, for his role in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H”). Savalas’s role as Archer J. Maggott is the most crazed of the bunch; he’s a Bible-quoting rapist who thinks all women are sluts who deserve to be punished. The best role amongst the jailbirds, however, probably belongs to John Cassavetes as Victor R. Franko; while Cassavetes went on to greater fame as a director (his film “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” is a great mob flick), he’s the one who gets the best lines in “The Dirty Dozen.” (Hollywood agreed; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role.) Trini Lopez is best known for his singing career, which is why the script manages to have a guitar find its way to him; you’ll be reminded of how, during Harry Connick, Jr.’s first few films, they always found a way to get him to sing a song. (“Hey, everybody, it’s a piano! How ‘bout if I play us a number?”)
“The Dirty Dozen” earned a great deal of controversy due to its finale, which involved Nazis being herded into a basement, after which gasoline was poured into a hole and grenades were dropped down afterward to seal the deal. Roger Ebert’s original review of the film assured those who might never see the picture to “take my word for it, it was such a delightfully sadistic, brutal, inhuman scene that I'm glad the Chicago Police Censor Board forgot about that part of the local censorship law where it says films shall not depict the burning of the human body.” It wasn’t as disturbing as anything you’d see in even a PG-rated film nowadays, but it was disconcerting enough that most film scholars agree that it was why “The Dirty Dozen” didn’t earn a Best Picture nod.
Half the fun of watching the movie is to see who lives and who dies, but the performances are what make these two and a half hours seem to fly by. “The Dirty Dozen” was definitely a template for every other star-packed action extravaganza that followed, but few of the imitators ever lived up to the original.
This is a really nice set. Disc One opens with a new introduction from Borgnine, followed by the movie itself, with audio commentary from the few surviving stars (Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper, and Colin Maitland), as well as producer Kenneth Hyuman, the fellow who wrote the book on which the movie was based (E.M. Nathanson), and film historian David J. Schow. The most interesting person on the commentary, however, is Captain Dale Dye, who’s served as a military advisor to the motion picture industry for many years; Dye loves the film, but he also enjoys taking shots at it on occasion. (“And here in this opening scene, we see a soldier being hung on what I can only presume is a charge of very, very bad acting.”) Also on the first disc is a 1967 featurette about the filming of “The Dirty Dozen” in England.
On Disc 2, it’s pretty cool that they’ve included an entire second film – “The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission,” the first of three made-for-TV sequels – but it’s a little bizarre that the film was made 18 years after the first and yet supposedly takes place less than a year after the events of its predecessor. The only folks who return from the original are Marvin, Borgnine, and Jaeckel, and it’s a pale imitation of the film that inspired it, but it’s still fun, thanks almost entirely to Marvin. There are also two new documentaries – “Armed and Deadly: The Making of ‘The Dirty Dozen’” and “The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines,” as well as an actual Marine Corps recruitment film from the ‘60s that starred Lee Marvin.