Twelve Mangly Men

Neither of us had watched THE DIRTY DOZEN before. So we did.

The distance between the nominally anti-war ATTACK! and this is not as great as first appears: the trouble with the “bad officer” school of war movie is that the assumption must be that, with a better officer, more of the right sort of people could be killed. TDD is correct in showing that war is a dirty business, but it can’t help but be an enjoyable guys-on-a-mission romp. The Boys Own adventure was traditionally clean-cut, but you can have dirty versions and much remains unaltered.

“There’s all kinds of weird male energy going on here!” remarked Fiona. Most of it comes from Lee Marvin, who puts on a mock-camp act to tease the men, but is also genuinely seductive when recruiting them. This is a man, we can assume, who is confident in his masculinity. Aldrich shoots hell out of everything with bullets but also angles: his coverage is extensive but interesting. Plenty of floor-level shots. And Donald Sutherland makes a good thing to cut to when in doubt.

If the idea is that these guys are effective in war because they’re much worse than ordinary soldiers (I’m told that the Germans really did have a squad recruited from prisons and asylums, but their missions were all the same: commit atrocities against civilians — the SS thought they went too far) then it’s odd that the grisly idea of burning the enemy alive in their bomb shelter is suggested by the officer, a non-dirty participant. But there are many things that don’t add up here. The title sequence is very nearly great except the titles chap, in a hurry to get the thing over in a decent amount of time, scrolls credits past each of the dozen, resulting in amusing name-face mismatches. THE DIRTY DOZEN stars Liberty Valance; Ragnar; Harmonica; Slaughter; Johnny Stacatto; Sheriff Kip McKinney; Herman Scobie; Mike Hammer; Smith Ohlrig; Pontius Pilate; Giacomo Casanova; Nick Nitro; Juror 12; Alraune; Ming’s Brute; Capungo; and Walter Paisley.

21 Responses to “Twelve Mangly Men”

  1. ukjarry Says:

    Watching it a couple of years ago I thought it was a film weirdly inflected by emerging counter-culture attitudes, in certain areas almost a precursor to MASH. For a start these aren’t the solders of 40s and 50s films. They’re hairy, smelly-looking, truculent individuals, depicting a fantasy of servicemen sniggering on parade. Sutherland pretending to be a general is more pointed and mocking than Jerry Lewis-style arsing about, which with the malarkey around the authoritarian Robert Ryan could all be dry runs for Catch 22 (I have recollections there may have been explicit stating that the army is enemy of soldiers) or even National Lampoon’s Animal House.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Much criticism has appeared on this film and I suggest you read some of it to get a broader picture. First impressions are not enough so I would hope you would look at Arnold and Miller, Alain Silver etc to see the film in its appropriate historical contexts as well as aldrich’s ironical treatment of the war genre. Even the French critics got the napalm references at the time. This is one of the pitfalls of blog commentary.

  3. mikeclelland Says:

    I was the perfect age to see this movie on television (often) in the early 70s. I watched it recently and was astonished by how it took me back, I relived that era. I could tap into being 12 again, and was drawn in all over again.

    It reminded me a lot of the Nazi planet episode of STAR TREK. (“Patterns of Force” 1968), especially the interior sets of the chateau.

    My very first memory of going to the movies was seeing THE DEVIL’s BRIGADE at the drive-in with my parents in 1968. (a very similar movie, also with Richard Jaeckel, but he was in every movie for a while). So anyway, this kind of corny-macho WWII movie was seared into my very impressionable psyche.

    Your initial image in this essay, with the craggy faces of Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin defines a grand chapter of cinema for me. A far cry from the boy-faces of Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt.

    Say hi to Momo.

  4. Momo says hi back, and a number of other, less printable things. He’s a chatty cat.

    The movie does show the men regarding the officers, rather than the enemy, as their natural foe. And of course soon we’ll have a couple of the stars returning for Kelly’s Heroes, where Sutherland is an anachronistic hippy.

    The napalm connection doesn’t reverse the film’s more gung-ho aspects, since if you connect the firebombing to ‘Nam, then you’re connecting the Vietnamese people to Nazis. The inclusion of the senior Nazis’ girlfriends/sex workers DOES complicate feelings a bit…

  5. Remember seeing this in a theater as a kid. Recall Savalas assaulting one of the German women. Her scream is laughed off by the Nazi officers (One quips something like “A sex field or an invasion” Another replies, “Or both.”).

    The MAD magazine satire ended with Marvin getting orders to form a unit called “The Dirty Gross”, the ultimate plan being to free up all the non-psychotic soldiers for paperwork, cleaning latrines, etc. There was also a joke about pouring gasoline into the shelter because they didn’t have napalm. One can question whether the MAD writer was foregrounding the movie’s intentional points or mocking what he took as tone-deafness.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    On viewing a rough cut, the Hollywood Academy people promised Aldrich an Oscar if he removed the gasoline scene. To his credit he did not. I’d suggest a closer analysis of the film especially the scene when yes-man Bowren (Richard Jaeckel) questions Reisman’s decision. Up to that point, it is “gung ho”. Then the gasoline gives it a darker undertone. It thus deliberately undercuts the “gung ho” aspect that Aldrich uses to deceive the audiences before he delivers a devastating punch to their presuppositions. Similarly, the survivors cheer Jim Brown when he does one of his football runs but he is also involved in the atrocity. The whole point of that scene is to show that Americans are as equally capable as the enemy committing atrocities and the firebombing of Dresden that cost the lives of many innocent civilians revealed this. This has nothing to do with equating Nazis with Vietnamese but everything to show that American soldiers can commit atrocities also as we well know today but denied at the time in traditional war movies.

    Also no US Korean war movie depicted napalm being used by pilots such as John Glen. Like many genre films of the Viet Nam era, THE DIRTY DOZEN has its allegorical components and I’d recommend reading Arnold and Miller’s book on Aldrich when the writers were fortunate to interview several people still living such as Aldrich, Eddie Albert, and Lee Marvin, the latter two being WW2 veterans who understood the nature of the films they worked on. Their comments as veterans who saw combat are really informative.

    ULZANA’S RAID was made later an an allegorical depiction of the Viet Nam War. This film is much more serious than you believe. But, like THE WILD BUNCH, the message did not get through leaving Aldrich to present it in a more direct way in TOO LATE THE HERO that ironically flopped because the young audiences who loved DD thought of it as pro-military!

  7. The movie is not far removed from a Mad parody of a conventional military mission movie, so in a sense it would be hard to mock its tone which is already blackly flippant.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I only saw The Dirty Dozen once years ago on TV and don’t remember it well. Samuel Fuller though expressed dislike for it, I believe. Aldrich himself seemed to have mixed feelings. In interviews he brings up the film’s financial success for having provided him more freedom and opportunity than otherwise, so it became his run-for-cover film but he didn’t seem to value it much beyond that. It was the biggest hit of his career by far. ATTACK struck me as the better and more interesting film.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    DC, It is a parody but in an ironic absurdist sense far removed from the trivial infantile nature of MAD. Again, I suggest you do some serious reading about this film since it does not deserve the Siskel-and Ebert treatment it is getting here. Some films deserve frequent viewings, not the Pauline-Kael type of one viewing only. The same is true of the critical literature surrounding it.

    SR. I’d recommend the BFI monograph ROBERT ALDRICH (1978?), edited by Richard Combs that contains some good critiques as well as an interview with Aldrich.

  10. Andreas Flohr Says:

    @ Bad officers:
    The German director Harun Farocki said that the most anti-war films deal only with incompetent, inhuman, bad officers. And the message is therefore always: War is bad because of the officers. But the message is not: war is bad, or: criminals are the best soldiers. That would be too disturbing.
    DD and De Toths superior Play Dirty are exceptions of this scheme.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    Andreas – Exactly! Reducing DD to just a critique of bad officers does a great disservice to the film as well as ATTACK!, simplifying both works. The review of ATTACK! does not mention the play it was based on – FRAGILE FOX that John Garfield would have filmed had he lived. That play is worth reading.

  12. La Faustin Says:

    The Nazi Dirty Dozen were the Dirlewanger Brigade — I translated a fascinating sociological/psychological study on it by Christian Ingrao:

    Dirlewanger was happy to enlist Communists out of the concentration camps:

    “In our camps we have men who in February 1933, and perhaps even after March 5, 1933, remained faithful to their own conception of the world and didn’t hide behind an appearance of national socialism. In this they showed character, unlike those thousands who went over to the stronger side and, despite an interior hostility, turned towards us with their right arm high after March 5.”

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The Dirlewanger Brigade were pedophiles, child molesters and serial rapists (see them in action in Klimov’s COME AND SEE). The Dirty Dozen are a–holes. They aren’t pure cosmic evil like that.

    I am also quite dubious about the idea of looking for an anti-war movie set during World War II (and for that matter the American Civil War). That happens to be an entirely just war.

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Dirty Dozen” is the biggest film the great Ben Carruthers was ever cast in. Alas he died at 47. His finest work (“Shadows,” “Guns of the Trees”) was his earliest. Jonas Mekas called him “the American Belmondo.” And for brief time he was. In “The Dirty Dozen” however he was jut a prop.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    SB, Not for those Germans who surrendered and were massacred during D-Day as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN shows nor for those Cossacks forcibly returned by the British to Stalin’s tender mercies.Had not Der Fuhrer not made the classic blunder of declaring war on the USA after Pearl Harbor we would be celebrating another type of “special relationship between the USA and The Third Reich today! Remember the role of the Dulles Bros and Operation Paperclip in the post-war era. Coming from the banker class Aldrich knew the realities all too well and had no “Good War” illusions.

  16. Interesting few Cassavetes associates in the Dozen: Carruthers and also Tom Busby, who died relatively young in Glasgow.

    I’ve just read Anthony Burgess’s Any Old Iron which deals with (among many things) Russians forcibly repatriated to execution by Stalin as a result of the Yalta agreement. The Brits were unsure if they’d get back their own POWs from camps liberated by the USSR unless they cooperated in this way, and decided it was better safe than sorry. So innocents, “contaminated” by contact with the West, were delivered to their deaths.

    Tackling a “just” or “necessary” war is actually the best way to make an anti-war statement. Merely showing that WWI was futile and ghastly doesn’t cover the field. Pointing up the beastliness of a war fought for noble reasons allows for a blanket condemnation of all war.

    Unfortunately now is not a convenient time for me to access books on Aldrich.

    The Dirlewanger Brigade is a fascinating and horrible story and probably completely unfilmable except as a kind of Salo. I never realized that’s who was being portrayed in Come and See, but it makes sense. I was aware of the war crimes in Byelorussia, as we had an abortive attempt to prosecute one of those thought responsible in Edinburgh in the 90s. He died of old age before standing trial.

  17. Thanks! It’s rather superb. Great attention to detail. And even though Sutherland was one of the least famous in the group, Mort Drucker is obviously obsessed with him, as what caricaturist would not be?

  18. Tony williams Says:

    DC, Point taken about lack of access to criticism. But the sad thing is this film does not deserve the triviliazation it is now receiving with irrelevant comparisons to Mad Magazine. The result is more like Rotten;, uneducated Web criticism, rather than the standards you normally maintain on this blog.

  19. I don’t know… I am open to discovering many hidden subtleties and grace notes and layers of meaning on a rewatch. But I’m not sure the moments of breaking character, the anachronistic hair and Trini Lopez song, and many scenes which are UNsubtle and UNgraceful will vanish for me.

    So I’m unconvinced whether my lack of appreciation is a lack of attentiveness, or just that this film doesn’t sing for me the way it clearly does for you.

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    “Anachronistic hair” is what Ex-Marine Captain Dale Dye goes on about interminably in his audio-commentary especially the two MPs who beat up Wdislaw. However, in their book, Arnold and Miller mention that Aldrich threatened actors in the Dozen to get a proper haircut the next day when they first arrived on set or get the bus home if they did not comply.

    Anyway, we are going into the realms of the “realist fallacy” that does not apply to a film hailed for its anti-military features by the young Viet Nam era audiences (though I would say the film has many other complexities derived from Heller’s screenplay). Trini Lopez was possibly forced on Aldrich by MGM (after they attempted to do that with John Wayne who refused the role!) but when he asked for more money Aldrich conveniently used it as an excuse to eliminate him as soon as possible. Remember that this was the time, studios wanted pop songs in the score not composers like Bernard Herrmann whom Universal wanted to remove him from Hitchcock.

    A lot of serious criticism on this film is available once libraries re-open.

    Next time you see the film look at the STARS AND STRIPES featured story Wladislaw reads when Reisman interviews him

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