Here Ernest Borgnine tests the faith of William Shatner in The Devil's Rain. The former died yesterday.
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.