Based on E.M. Nathanson’s scathing examination of military decorum, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a provocative war movie set in the last glory days of espionage in 1944. The film stars Lee Marvin as Maj. Reisman. To his superiors, Reisman is a wild card. In point of fact, he’s insubordinate, smart mouthed and utterly disdainful of the military’s handling of localized covert operations. Major Armbruster (George Kennedy) advises Reisman against ruffling the army’s feathers any more with his own smug superiority, but Reisman simply doesn’t give a damn. In fact, in seeing through his commanders’ hidden agendas, he fails to realize just how much of an expendable threat they consider him to be.
General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) knows all of this too well. In fact, he’s received reports from Reisman’s acting superior, Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan), that have Reisman pegged for a swift court marshal…that is, if he survives his latest mission.
Instead, Worden orders Reisman to an unthinkable task – find twelve soldiers convicted to hang, train them and set them loose on a nest of Nazis conducting secret military operations inside a remote chateau behind enemy lines. To be certain, Reisman has his work cut out for him. The ‘trainees’ assigned range from petty criminal and cheap crook, Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) to Bible thumping rapist, Archer Maggott (Telly Savalas).
The rest of Reisman’s motley crew is rounded out by a stellar cast including Charles Bronson (as the defiant, Joseph Wladislaw), Clint Walker (muscle bound, Samson Posey), Donald Sutherland (sycophant Vernon Pinkley), Jim Brown (scheming Robert Jefferson) and Trini Lopez (Pedro Jiminez). Reportedly, Lopez’ agent asked for more money midway through filming, necessitating Aldrich writing the actor out of the story earlier than originally intended.
What is unique and compelling about the film today is not the mission itself; though the finale remains an impressive sequence of mass devastation and carnage. Aside: reportedly the chateau, as built by art director William Hutchinson on MGM’s back lot was so massive and well constructed that it would have required 70 tons of explosives to destroy. Instead, Hutchinson built a faux front identical to the actual structure, made from more easily destroyed cork and plastic for the climactic sequence.
There are many war movies that treat their protagonists as little more than stick men falling to either the right or left of that traditional G.I. Joe center. The Dirty Dozen takes no such back road and the results remain as one of the best and most fondly remembered war movies ever made.The intense character study continues to stand up. Reisman’s dirty dozen are indeed a pack of raving psychotics. It would have been so easy to lump them together as cardboard cutouts without delineating any of their individual back stories.
Instead, Nunnally Johnson’s impeccable screenplay provides a serious, often thought provoking deconstruction of each character’s internal make up. As an audience, we get to know these men intimately; learn their strengths, weaknesses and overriding arch of flawed behavior that will ultimately lead to each man’s undoing before the final reel.
Given the film’s significance, Warner Home Video’s 2 disc incarnation is a very palpable disappointment; at least from a visual standpoint. The Dirty Dozen falls into a gray area of photochemical color processes that began with the introduction of Eastman and AnscoColor film stocks in the mid-fifties that continued to be used during the mid-60s. These dyes proved highly unstable and showed significant signs of fading even three to five years after the films were produced.
All the more reason then that Warner Home Video ought to have undertaken a complete video restoration of the image for this DVD re-release. Image quality is a marginal improvement at best over the previously released single disc treatment. Color fidelity varies greatly from scene to scene and, in some cases, from shot to shot.
Flesh tones are either a garish pink or ruddy orange. Many scenes adopt either an overly green or overly brown tonal quality. Contrast levels appear weaker than expected. Blacks are more a deep brown. Whites are yellowish and dull. Some scenes are very softly focused and blurry while many remain relatively sharp and appealing with a considerable amount of fine detail present. There is a significant and occasionally distracting amount of grain and digital grit present in this image. Age related artifacts are also quite obvious.
The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remix of the original mono – adequately represented during dialogue scenes but sounding quite strident in its sound effects tracks. Extras on disc 2 are of an impressive array that even Warner Home Video has rarely afforded its deluxe 2, 3 and 4 disc editions. We get a definitive history of the film; a behind the scenes look at most of the actors involved in bringing this project to life; afterthoughts and retrospectives on the production; stills; an audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Impressive accoutrements: a pity the film itself does not live up to them.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)