The Dirty Dozen: An Epic World War II Thriller

The Dirty Dozen. Courtesy of MGM.

The Dirty Dozen is an epic Oscar-winning World War II thriller and features a star-studded cast in the 1967 big screen adaptation.

When the Academy Awards took place in 1968, the film’s only win was for Best Sound Effects aka Sound Editing. It earned three other nominations for Supporting Actor (John Cassavetes), Film Editing, and Sound. In 2001, the film would be honored as one of the top 100 thrillers by the American Film Institute. In terms of the film’s legacy, it would help inspire the plot of Inglourious Basterds and Suicide Squad. The gist of the film is that OSS officer Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) trains some of the worst Army prisoners into an elite squadron. Some have death sentences while others have a sentence for hard labor. It’s a top-secret mission under the orders of Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine).

Their mission is to wipe out the Wehrmacht leadership prior to D-Day. In watching my first viewing of the film, I could definitely see comparisons to the Quentin Tarantino movie. Wiping out Nazi leadership will never not be thrilling on screen. This film is certainly not an exception. As an audience member, I was on the edge of my seat in seeing who would live and who would die. There are tragedies but I guess we always knew that Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson would make it. They are two of the biggest stars in the film! Richard Jaeckel’s Sgt. Bowren also survives. But yes, I can’t help but feel for the others who didn’t survive. If it’s any consolation, we learn that they died honorably in the line of duty.

Something I thought about while watching the film is how they make us wait several minutes for the opening credits. A few minutes is one thing but nearly ten minutes into the film, if not more, is another. In any event, the credits only come as the film introduces us to The Dirty Dozen themselves.

Like the novel, the film is inspired by a group of demolition specialists in the 101st Airborne Division. They were nicknamed the “Filthy Thirteen.” They were not convicts in real life. It was more or less a case of mishearing something. While it makes for a convincing thriller, the film is not 100% authentic in that regard. This magazine article will provide more of the historical context. Furthermore, only 30% of what happens in the film is true per an obituary of John “Jack” Agnew.” One of the scenes is where they captured the officers. It is best to approach the film as historical fiction.

There are at least eight veterans of WW2 in the cast. It’s interesting to think about considering the war ended over 20 years before its release. One of those veterans is actor Lee Marvin in what was probably his most demanding role to date in his career. Two years earlier, his performance in Western comedy Cat Ballou earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. In another universe, it could have been John Wayne portraying Reisman but he wasn’t fond of the adultery in the script. Similarly, Jack Palance turned down a role because of a character’s racism.

The film runs two and a half hours. At times, it definitely feels every but of its length. Some of this could also be because of watching it on a Saturday night. Another reason could be my watching it on TV rather than seeing it on a big screen. There’s no denying that the film is a solid thriller. The action really gets going once they get the operation underway in France and start taking out some Nazis! When it gets going, there’s no stopping until the end of the film.

This is a film that features the good and bad of war. Listen, if you have a war film, you can’t have it both ways. It’s one thing to just see the heroic efforts but if you’re only showing that, you’re not showing the bigger picture. Perhaps Robert Aldrich would have received an Oscar nomination but he opted against holding back. This film is all the better for it. Moreover, the late 1960s were turning the tide from Hollywood into New Hollywood. This film came out around the same time as Bonnie and Clyde, a film that was not short in its supply of violence. Two years later in 1969, The Wild Bunch would be let loose on audiences–a film that is no less violent. Without the Production Code, there would be a lot of change in Hollywood. The film would have been impossible to make even a decade earlier!

The Dirty Dozen is every bit that an epic war thriller with an all-star cast should be. The film’s legacy lives on today especially in how we view action heroes with anti-authoritarian views. It ought to be upgraded to 4K Ultra HD at some point.

DIRECTOR: Robert Aldrich
SCREENWRITERS: Nunally Johnson and Lukas Heller
CAST: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, Robert Webber

MGM released The Dirty Dozen in theaters on June 15, 1967. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.