“You will select twelve general prisoners convicted and sentenced to death or long terms of imprisonment for murder, rape, robbery, and/or other crimes of violence and so forth, and train and qualify these prisoners in as much of the business of behind-the-lines operations as they can absorb for a brief but unspecified time. You will then deliver them secretly into the European mainland and, just prior to the invasion, attack and destroy the target specified.”
Major John Reisman just got dealt a shit sandwich, eh?
C’mon. Everybody knows this movie, right? It’s 1944: Lee Marvin is Reisman, tasked by his C.O. (Ernest Borgnine) to recruit a dozen ne’er do wells and train them up for a top secret insertion behind enemy lines on the eve of the D-Day invasion. What’s the target? A French chateau known to be a hot gathering spot for high-ranking German officers and their “companions.” The mission? Blow the fuck out of that place, kill every German big-wig they can find, and get out of Dodge.
Endlessly imitated or just flat-out ripped off, The Dirty Dozen remains one of the most popular war films of all time. It’s based on the 1965 novel of the same name written by E.M. Nathanson (who would write a sequel, A Dirty Distant War, two decades later), and retains most of the book’s plot. The storyline is pretty simple, moving along from the selection of the prisoners to their training and the eventual parachute drop into France in mostly straightforward fashion. The training period provides the backdrop for much of the film’s humor, from the construction of their camp to the learning of the various skills they must master before being sent into action. There’s a diversion to a parachute training base commanded by an adversary of Reisman’s that’s mined for laughs, and which also sets into motion the sequence of events whereby Reisman is able to convince a skeptical leadership that his “dirty dozen” can hold their own even against spit-and-polish troops.
Most of the characters from the novel are there, as well, though a few are changed or tweaked in order to give the cast of convicts “flavor.” Filling out the ranks of the criminals Reisman selects for his team are such notable faces as Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker and, of course, John Cassavetes as Franko (or, Number 11, if you prefer). Along with Borgnine, George Kennedy and Richard Jaekel also provide memorable supporting performances, but even with all this star power, it’s Lee Marvin as the non-conformist Reisman who helps bring the whole thing together.
But, does the mission succeed? Well, watch the flick, dagnabbit. Even after 50 years, this baby still holds up. For me, I love to double-feature it with one of my other favorites, The Great Escape.
When it was first released, the movie took a lot of heat from reviewers for its on-screen violence. Tame by today’s standards, it was pretty brutal for 1967. There also was some criticism as to the unrealistic nature of taking prisoners and training them for such an important mission. Hey, it’s a movie, right?
In addition to the sequel to the original novel Nathanson wrote in 1987, there also was a made-for-TV movie sequel to the film, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, released in 1985 and with Marvin, Borgnine, and Jaekel reprising their roles. As the events of the telefilm–centering on preventing a Nazi plot to kill Hitler–supposedly take place mere months after D-Day, actors who are nearly 20 years older than when we last saw them playing these characters is pretty weird. It’s weak…very weak, when compared to the original, but it’s still better than what would follow.
Borgnine would portray his character in two subsequent TV movies, The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission in 1987 and The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission in 1988. As if that wasn’t enough, there also was a short-lived TV series inspired by the original film, with Ben Murphy playing a different Army officer given
the shaft the assignment to lead “unconventional” soldiers on special missions. The less said about any of the sequels, the better. For all of us.
Meanwhile, there’s still the original flick, always watchable. Give it a spin, whydontcha?