Movies to Watch With Your Dad: “The Dirty Dozen”
When is a war movie not a war movie?
In the case of The Dirty Dozen, directed by Robert Aldrich, the answer is when the movie plays less like a series of gritty battle sequences and more like a military-themed heist flick. True, the movie takes place during World War II, but if you’re looking for trench battles and tanks, look elsewhere. In fact, no Nazis even show up until late in the film. Does this make the movie any less enjoyable? Absolutely not; in fact, it places it near the top of my list of war movies.
What makes it such a good movie to watch with your dad? It’s just a damn great deal of fun, from start to finish. You’ve got an amazing cast led by Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes, the latter of which was up for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film. There are great sequences throughout that show some great character development between Marvin and his group of soldiers, and finally there’s a pervasive sense of humor about the movie that produces great laugh-out-loud moments.
The movie opens as a scared young soldier is being led down a prison hall, handcuffed and priest in tow. Things look grim. He’s led to a small room containing a few officers, Lee Marvin among them, various MPs, and a noose. The soldier’s final sentence is carried out, much to the apparent displeasure of Marvin. England, 1944.
Marvin then visits a high-ranking officer played by Ernest Borgnine, who gives the insubordinate Marvin an offer he can’t refuse. He’s put in charge of what amounts to a secret suicide mission on a chateau containing well-to-do members of the German army, in exchange for a transfer he’s been wanting. The catch? His unit will consist entirely of American soldiers whose court marshals have resulted in either 20-30 years hard labor or death.
What follows is an underdog story of soldiers with antisocial tendencies and problems with authority attempting to mesh together for a mission they know they have little chance of surviving for some glimmer of hope that, if they do survive, they may be granted a reprieve from their sentences.
The two strongest characters are Major Reisman, played by Lee Marvin and Franko, played by John Cassavetes. Marvin is, of course, the hard-nosed, take no guff commanding officer, but watch him talk to his own superiors. His mouth gets him into a great deal of hot water. This is countered by Cassavetes, who, from the very beginning, stands out as the de facto leader of the twelve inmates when he refuses to march. Throughout the movie, the two bounce off each other so well, you realize that they’re basically the same person, just in different positions. A favorite exchange of theirs is when Marvin is briefing the group on the mission:
Marvin: “And kill any officer on sight.”
Cassavetes: “Ours or theirs?”
Marvin: “Let’s start with theirs.”
The rest of the dozen is rounded out by Donald Sutherland, a young, twitchy, nervous man who seems to gain more confidence with the help of his fellow inmates, Charles Bronson, who plays the strong, silent type, Clint Walker, whose gentle demeanor betrays his enormous size, Jim Brown (who used his off season from being a legendary player for the Cleveland Browns to appear in this movie), and Telly Savalas as the maniacal Bible-thumping bigot who portrays himself as the most righteous of the group.
One of the best moments in the movie for me is when the group arrives at a base for flight school – as part of their mission, they’ll need to parachute in. The commanding officer, Colonel Breed, played by Robert Ryan, is expecting a big-time general and has prepared a fanfare for a greeting. Marvin approaches Breed and explains that the general is currently traveling incognito, and is blending in with the rest of his unit. When Breed requests that the general inspect his currently ranked and filed unit, Marvin goes to the transport and selects Donald Sutherland to pretend to be the general, much to the apprehension of Sutherland. He then goes up and down the ranks, pretending to be impressed with the soldiers, while the rest of the dozen are standing there trying not to fall over laughing. When Sutherland sees his buddies laughing, he decides to ham up his performance as the general a little bit, causing this exchange with one of the soldiers:
“Where are you from, son?”
“Madison, Missouri, sir!”
“Never heard of it.”
Another great sequence happens after the dozen finishes their training and is treated to a night of debauchery care of Marvin, who brings his unit into the officer barracks, three bottles of Johnny Walker in his arms, sets them down silently and leaves before turning around at the door and says “Well flight school didn’t kill ya, thought I’d give that a shot.” A truckload of prostitutes is escorted into the barracks and the fun begins. The next day, the group is discovered by Colonel Breed, and Marvin is brought to be punished by his superiors. His group of twelve are about to be trucked back to the jail for their behavior when Marvin suggests his group participate in the upcoming war games demonstration. He bets that his group can overtake Breed’s base before the demonstrations are over, which Breed eagerly and arrogantly accepts. The dozen then hatches a brilliant plan to take over the base, thus proving their efficiency as a unit and removing the threat of them being returned to the prison from which they came.
A great detail about this movie is that several of the cast members were themselves World War II veterans, including Marvin, who served in the Marines in the Pacific theater, Robert Webber and Robert Ryan, who also served in the Marines, Telly Savalas from the Army, Charles Bronson from the Air Force, Ernest Borgnine from the Navy and Clint Walker who served as a Merchant Marine.
While The Dirty Dozen doesn’t portray WWII in any realistic way as being the brutal war it was, realism is clearly not the intention here. Lee Marvin himself preferred another famous war movie he starred in, The Big Red One, because it mirrored some of Marvin’s own wartime experiences. But again, that’s not the point here. This is an excellent heist-type movie that happens to take place during World War II. When watching it with your dad, as you clearly should, take this into consideration. You’re not going to get a realistic portrayal of war, but you’re going to have a hell of a lot of fun.
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