The Dirty Dozen

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1967. Starring: Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine. War Movies.
The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen, the granddaddy of action super-team flicks, took the sheen off the WWII big ensemble picture (The Longest Day, The Great Escape) and mixed in the military cynicism that was bubbling up (encouraged by doubt about the Vietnam War) with rowdy anti-heroics (MASH, Kelly’s Heroes). Like so many films to follow, the film breaks into two halves easily: first, assembling the team full of anti-authority types (Stripes); and second, the undercover suicide mission behind enemy lines (Inglourious Basterds). After years of dependable supporting performances in The Wild One, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ship of Fools, this may be silver haired, tough guy actor Lee Marvin's signature role (with apologies to the great crime thriller Point Blank and his Oscar winning work in the otherwise forgettable Cat Ballou). The Dirty Dozen gives Marvin the perfect opportunity to showcase his brawn as well as his sense of humor. As Major Reisman, he is assigned the task of putting together a WWII team made of 12 creeps and criminals, many of whom are facing the noose, to first train and then sneak into France before D-Day to kill a group of high-end Nazis (with their dates) at a fancy chateau shindig.

The team is made up of many future stars, or at least interesting cinematic curios...

- John Cassavetes as Franko. Though he had already begun to direct his influential homemade independent flicks (Shadows) and was known as an intense actor, mostly from TV, he pretty much steals the flick as the most rebellious of the 12 and his performance garnered the only acting Oscar nomination for the movie. His career would break even bigger two years later with his performance in the horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.

- Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, a coal miner who also speaks German. Bronson had been bumping around Hollywood for years, earning his stripes in TV, and was part of the earlier super ensemble in The Great Escape (1963). He followed The Dirty Dozen with his best performance in Sergio Leone’s brilliant Once Upon a Time In The West (1968), shooting him to the big time and helping to cement him as a major action, Western and exploitation star of the '70s.

- NFL football star Jim Brown had already appeared in films once before (a forgettable oater called Rio Conchos). As Jefferson, The Dirty Dozen's only black member, he is the victim of some racism (this was ‘67 and that was a hot topic), but he gets to show off his touchdown running speed while blowing up the chateau. Brown followed The Dirty Dozen with the great action movie Dark of the Sun (1968) and, for the next ten years, continued to move successfully between mainstream drama ensembles and blaxplotation flicks.

- Telly Savalas plays Maggott, the only truly unlikable member of the dozen, a rapey, racist Southern psychopath. Though Savalas had gotten a supporting actor Oscar nomination in ‘63 for Birdman of Alcatraz, he was still doing mostly TV and B pics. The Dirty Dozen would be his first taste of a blockbuster. He would go on to play Blofeld in the wonderful culty James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but it wasn’t until he took on the title role of TV’s Kojak that his would become a household name.

- On paper it was a small part, but Donald Sutherland managed to make Vernon Pinkley a memorable role, mostly because of the scene where he poses as a general and inspects another company's troops. “Very pretty, General. But can they fight?” Three years later Sutherland would shoot to superstardom with his breakout performance in MASH. He continued for decades with a massive string of important performances and interesting films (Klute, 1900, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People, etc), making him one of the most accomplished, if not underrated, actors of his generation.

- For the beefcake Clint Walker, Posey was the perfect role, a pretty-boy hulk with a soft heart. Walker was mostly known for TV performances (the ‘50s Western Cheyenne). The Dirty Dozen would be his film apex, after which he went back to mostly small screen parts.

- Trini Lopez’s only major acting role was as Jiminez (though later he did appear in episodes of Adam-12 and The Hardy Boys). He was more famous as a nightclub singer/songwriter who had a hit song with “If I Had a Hammer.”

- The rest of the dozen’s characters are less descript but feature Tom Busby (who went on to do the casting for Cassavetes’s movie Husbands); Ben Carruthers (who was in Cassavetes’s Shadows); Stuart Cooper (he would go on to direct the independent cult war film Overlord); Colin Maitland (Lolita); and Al Mancini (Miller’s Crossing).

- The outside military brass who work at either harassing or helping Marvin include big name actors Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan (both of whom appear in the groundbreaking, ultraviolent Western The Wild Bunch, two years later), as well as Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker.

Genre busting director Robert Aldrich may not get as much name recognition as some of his contemporaries, but he had a massive career. The Dirty Dozen may have been his biggest box office hit, but he also made a number of other classics, including the oddball apocalyptic noir flick Kiss Me Deadly; the gothic weirdo thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; and a personal fave, the Burt Reynolds prison football comedy The Longest Yard (a rowdy crowd pleaser in the same vain as The Dirty Dozen). Even the second tier of his resume is impressive with films as diverse as The Big Knife, The Flight of the Phoenix, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Emperor of the North. Like Lee Marvin’s character, Aldrich was considered a Hollywood rebel who played by his own rules. At the time of its release The Dirty Dozen was pooh poohed by many critics as a violent perversity, but obviously Aldrich understood audience’s tastes at the time (and today, the film still holds up so well). It has the color and grandness of a big, loud, explosive WWII flick, but Aldrich gives the myth of the “greatest generation” the finger - his filthy, grubby heroes break all the rules and cliches of the genre. In terms of pure entertainment, The Dirty Dozen surely ranks as one of the most fun war flicks ever made.


The Dirty Dozenwon one Oscar for Best Sound Effects. It received three additional nominations for Best Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 25, 2013 5:39pm
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