There are certain situations—usually in Tarantino films, or any Sandra Bullock movie—where you end up pulling for people to be slaughtered wholesale. I had a chance to watch all 150 minutes of that glorious Nazi-quashing movie The Dirty Dozen again, the 1967 WWII film that stars a pantheon of iconic actors, and this became (as it’s always been) the case. If you’re not egging Jefferson on at the end to get those grenades down the air shafts of the gas-soaked Nazi bomb shelter to carry out massive, truly satisfying immolation, well, there’s something wrong with you. Yes, Hollywood knows you know the context of WWII. But its finest directors—in this case Robert Aldrich—know even better that your mind is totally malleable and that the trick is not directing actors but in directing audience desires. Even hidden ones.
That’s never truer than in this case.
The Dirty Dozen does what a good movie-watching experience does well, which is take you out of yourself (reconnects you to your closeted self?). In it we are dealt a series of derelicts, felons and military rogues—some of them already scheduled for the execution by hanging—who are given a chance to exonerate themselves by carrying out a very tall order. In other words, we’re presented a band of underdogs. These guys are like Virginia Commonwealth making their run at the Final Four, only they’re on their way to a Nazi raid in France and they have records. They can’t possibility succeed—we’re told this in as many words. It’s written in Ernest Borgnine’s big diabolical smile. Telly Savalas (as “Maggott”) is incorrigible; Charles Bronson (as “Wladislaw”) is disinterested; Donald Sutherland (as “Pinkley”) too knuckleheaded. Even Jefferson—played by a just-retired Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns—has the blank-faced nothingness of the deeply psychopathic.
But through an hour and a half of training sequences and speeches by the caramel voiced Lee Marvin (“Major Reisman”), we get behind them. If they kill all those high-ranking Nazis at the end, they will pull off the impossible. If they get killed off in the process, all the better. The payoff is win-win from an audience standpoint. Before we get to that sequence though, we see them in a variety of situations, from entertaining strumpets to banding together on the premise of refusing to shave or bathe with cold water (hence, the Dirty Dozen) to acting out. But mostly, it’s them conversing. Just talking. What they say is of only small importance, but they say plenty of it.
When it came out in 1967, the movie was a box office smash. There were sequels made in the 1980s that resurrected Savalas as a Major, a totally different person than the apeshit bastard who did the slow-stab of the elegant German woman at the end that inspired a scene in Saving Private Ryan. But it’s a course in psychology that keeps the movie vital 45 years later. We don’t inherently love nihilism served up in fatigues, but we can’t say no to an underdog, and, as the adage goes, in the end we see what we want to see.
Which is of course to see them Nazis killed off in volume. Popcorn never tastes better than when you get exactly what you didn’t know you wanted. Rewatch The Dirty Dozen and judge for yourself.
Get The Dirty Dozen here.