Memorial Day Memories: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

dozen1This Dirty Dozen (1967) succeeds in spite of the 60s anti-war era, mainly because of its characters.  Anyone who watches movies will recognize many of the faces in this film and all of these stars make this film work.  Lee Marvin, Telly Sevalas, Donald Sutherland, and many, many more, all of them famous names.  Every single major character is a star or went on to be a star.  That alone makes this film notable.  Everyone in this film does a good job, especially Charles Bronson and Donald Sutherland.  I chuckle every time Donald Sutherland impersonates a General.  This movie is classic.

This film solidified Lee Marvin as an actor who could carry a movie.  He wasn’t a lead actor before this.  He went on to star in other movies, including Point Blank that same year, as its star.  It seems as if Lee Marvin’s character Mayor Reisman doesn’t want the assignment of leading a group of prisoners because he’s as surly as any military instructor put to film.  I like Lee Marvin and I like him in this movie.  Reisman is a tough soldier who borders on insolent, which is quickly illustrated during one single briefing scene where Reisman succeeds in making each of the top brass hate his guts.

dozen2Each of members of the dirty dozen are criminals and scum.  John Cassavettes as Franco is an underrated part of this film and he probably stands out the most.  He plays a convicted murderer and one of the loudest, abrasive men in the outfit.  Lee Marvin steps on his head and shows everybody who’s boss.  That doesn’t deter any of the prisoners from any typical hijinx you might expect from morally inept criminals.  Lee Marvin doesn’t take any guff though.

Somehow, Reisman has the prisoners build a military compound from scratch and start training.  It is Franco who makes the first escape attempt, which was not surprising in the least.  The prisoners beat up Franco, because the hope of a military pardon is better than a hanging.  This illustrates that the dozen of them are in it together.  One escapes, one disobeys, they all go back for a hanging.

dozen3Each of the characters has a unique personality.  Some of them are really abrasive, but most of them are endearing in the end.  Surprisingly, there is an antagonist to even contrast these despicable criminals.  Colonel Breed strolls into the camp and tries to find out just what is going on with this secret training.  The troop of prisoners kick Colonel Breed out on his ass.  This sets up the middle part of the movie, where the prisoners participate in a wargames scenario against Colonel Breed.  This part of the movie is fun, like watching people put it to the man.

Unfortunately, the fun comes to a crashing halt when the prisoners go on their suicide mission.  By now, we sympathize with the men, at least a little bit.  I mean, they are all still criminals and really unlikable, but anyone pitted against Germans retains some element of heroism.  Unfortunately, their mission was never supposed to be a success.

 This movie has one big theme, in that men want to belong to something.  In general, this is what The Dirty Dozen illustrates.   It is interesting to watch this theme play out.  The fact that all of the men are prisoners gives color to an otherwise bland military war movie.  If they had used regular soldiers in the same type of setup, it wouldn’t have worked.  Their antics serve this purpose.

dozen4All in all, this is a good movie.  It is entertaining and light in places, but has action and drama in other places.  Many of the movie elements strike a chord with the general viewer, even today.  Despite criticism by liberal jerks, this movie is universally praised today.  It is on television every Memorial Day.  There has been some debate about the violence at the end, but I think there’s way worse explosions, death, and destruction on film.  The prisoners blow up Germans with impunity, and the censors don’t seem to mind.  Luckily, there is no censoring of entertainment either.



Name Portrayed by Sentence
Franko, V. R. John Cassavetes Death by hanging
Vladek, M. Tom Busby 30 years’ hard labor
Jefferson, R. T. Jim Brown Death by hanging
Pinkley, V. L. Donald Sutherland 30 years’ imprisonment
Gilpin, S. Ben Carruthers 30 years’ hard labor
Posey, S. Clint Walker Death by hanging
Wladislaw, T. Charles Bronson Death by hanging
Sawyer, S. K. Colin Maitland 20 years’ hard labor
Lever, R. Stuart Cooper 20 years’ imprisonment
Bravos, T. R. Al Mancini 20 years’ hard labor
Jiminez, J. P. Trini Lopez 20 years’ hard labor
Maggott, A. J. Telly Savalas Death by hanging