‘Morbid and disgusting beyond words’: how The Dirty Dozen blew up the war movie rulebook

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An original 1967 poster for The Dirty Dozen - Alamy
An original 1967 poster for The Dirty Dozen - Alamy

Just before D-Day, the great and good of the German army – high ranking officers and their wives – lord it up in a French chateau. It's pure Nazi-style opulence: wine, food, women, portraits of the Fuhrer.

But the celebration is cut short. The Dirty Dozen arrive to execute a massacre, burning the Germans alive as they flee into the cellars of the chateau.

In the final minutes, the grizzled duo of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson lead an appropriately macho escape. With the chateau engulfed behind them, Marvin drives a monstrous German half-track across a bridge – ramming through an armed Daimler scout car – while Bronson pumps machinegun-fire into every Nazi in sight.

Creating the literally explosive scenes was no easy feat for director Robert Aldrich and his crew. It took a 250-man team to build the chateau – including a boathouse, landscaping, and bomb shelters – at the MGM British Studios in Borehamwood.

The chateau was built specifically to destroy. But so formidable was its construction that it would have taken 70 tons of explosives to bring it down. One section had to be rebuilt with more-easily-destroyed plastic and cork. But when they came to shoot Marvin and Bronson racing away from the carnage, there was a problem: Lee Marvin – the Dozen’s hard-nosed leader – was nowhere to be found.

Producer Ken Hyman drove to London to find him – specifically, to the Star Tavern in Belgravia. Curiously, the same pub where Ronnie Biggs and co planned the Great Train Robbery.

“Lee was hanging on at the end of the bar apparently as drunk as a skunk,” Hyman later said. “Now he is the man who has to drive that vehicle across the bridge. I get him into the car and feed him like a child from a flask of coffee. We arrived on the set and got out of the car. Bronson was standing at the back of the chateau where he'd been waiting for Marvin to show. We pulled in and Lee sort of fell out of the car. Charlie says, ‘I'm going to f––––– kill you, Lee!’” Hyman pleaded with Bronson: “Don't hit him Charlie – don't punch him.”

Incredibly, the scene was completed. “He always came through,” said Hyman about the hard-drinking Lee Marvin. “There were several moments in the production when he probably couldn't have articulated his own name. But you'd never know it from the sure way in which he moved.”

Such boozed-up troublemaking – while ultimately winning the day – is certainly befitting of The Dirty Dozen, a gang of military prisoners who are recruited from death row and sent on a suicide mission behind enemy lines.

Released on June 17, 1967, The Dirty Dozen was a box office smash and scored four Academy Award nominations. In a collection of Robert Aldrich interviews, Eugene L. Miller and Edwin T. Arnold argued that The Dirty Dozen helped create the concept of the blockbuster – eight full years before Jaws, widely regarded as the inaugural summer event movie.

Director Robert Aldrich on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy
Director Robert Aldrich on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy

The Dirty Dozen has inspired scores of films, from The Wild Bunch to The Blues Brothers and Inglorious Basterds (named after a sort-of Italian remake of The Dirty Dozen) and now James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad; the Squad's retro-style poster is even a direct homage to Frank McCarthy’s original Dirty Dozen artwork. (David Ayer, director of the first Suicide Squad film, also cited The Dirty Dozen as an influence. He’s since been attached to a remake.)

Some critics were horrified by the Dozen's brutality and rampant testosterone. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther claimed The Dirty Dozen was “encouraging a spirit of hooliganism that is brazenly antisocial” and branded the film “morbid and disgusting beyond words”.

It begins with Marvin’s protagonist, Major John Reisman, attending the execution of a military prisoner (it's a key theme: the US army hanging one its own). The Dirty Dozen then marches from a bleak pondering on the nature of war to cartoon-like comedy, whipsmart satire, and sadism at the hands of Telly Savalas. “I think it stems from a dichotomy in my own opinion,” said Robert Aldrich about his film. “I do think that war brings out both the best and the worst in men.”

The Dirty Dozen is based on a novel by EM Nathanson, first published in 1965. Nathanson was inspired by a story told to him by his neighbour, Russ Meyer – future director of bouncy-bosomed sexploitations, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Supervixens.

Meyer had been a combat photographer in the Second World War and told Nathanson about an Army stockade he’d attended in England, where prisoners were being trained for a secret mission just before D-Day. Nathanson researched the story for a potential non-fiction book but couldn’t find any evidence of the unit’s existence – instead, he found himself reading about imprisoned soldiers and court martials, which led him to create the Dirty Dozen.

The story has also been linked to the Filthy Thirteen, a real-life unit of demolitionist paratroopers. They were known for their aversion to washing, Native American-style war paint and Mohawks, and raucous, drunken behaviour that landed them in the stockade. They airdropped during the Normandy landings and were ordered to take bridges over the Douve River. (“If we didn’t take those bridges and a Panzer unit got over to us, we would have had another Dunkirk on our hands,” said one of the Thirteen.)

Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy
Lee Marvin on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy

MGM picked up the rights to The Dirty Dozen and had a script by Nunnally Johnson, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Grapes of Wrath. Robert Aldrich later commented on Johnson’s script: “This would have made a very good, very acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don't think that a 1945 war picture is necessarily a good 1967 war picture.” Indeed, the US by the mid-Sixties was in the midst of an anti-war movement, as President Lyndon B. Johnson sent more troops to Vietnam.

Aldrich enlisted German screenwriter Lukas Heller, writer of Aldrich films What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, to rework the script. John Wayne was in line to play Marvin’s role, apparently offered to Wayne without Aldrich’s knowledge. “I’m a Wayne fan,” said Aldrich. “His politics don’t bother me, that’s his mother’s problem. But not Wayne for the Marvin part.”

Wayne – whose gung-ho, jingoistic persona is the antithesis to what The Dirty Dozen became – objected to adultery in the script (excised before the final draft) and wrote to MGM complaining that the screenwriter likely wore sandals. Heroism, for John Wayne, was seemingly uncomplicated.

In a letter to Ken Hyman, Aldrich described how the character of Major Reisman should be the “most cynical, suspicious, sophisticated, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, mean, miserable, son of a bitch that anybody has ever seen in a movie.”

Lee Marvin – by then an Academy Award-winner – is perfect: belligerent and unimpressed by his superiors. Reisman is fighting for the right side, but he's doing it his way. “I'm not very interested in embroidery, only results,” he tells his commanding officers. The officers – the likes of Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine) and Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) – are buffoonish but sinister.

Lee Marvin and Charles Brosnan in The Dirty Dozen
Lee Marvin and Charles Brosnan in The Dirty Dozen

They charge Reisman with leading Project Amnesty: take 12 prisoners condemned to death or lengthy sentences, and train them for a mission to kill as many German officers as they can ahead of D-Day. If they survive (and it’s a big if), their sentences will be commuted. If Reisman can’t control his men, the officers would happily send them back to be hanged. They’d likely hang Reisman too if they could, for the war crime of having a bad attitude.

Introduced to Reisman and viewers by their names and sentence – from “20 years’ hard labour” to “death by hanging” – the Dirty Dozen are played by Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Clint Walker, Donald Sutherland, Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini.

There were real WWII veterans among them. Lee Marvin was a marine, Charles Bronson served in the US Air Force, Clint Walker was a merchant marine, and Telly Savalas served in the US Army.

Reisman wins the Dozen over – first with violence and intimidation, then with camaraderie and trust. It plays out like a jolly old romp at times. See the Dozen training together and using crafty criminal tactics to outwit a rival Colonel and his men in practice maneuvers. (British viewers might get an extra laugh when Richard Marner – the roly-poly Nazi from ‘Allo ‘Allo – shows up.) The morality feels even more complex now: robbers, murderers, and a rapist given a chance at redemption – via a top brass-sanctioned massacre.

Most frightening is Telly Savalas's Archer Maggot – an unhinged, woman-hating, rapist, religious nut. Jack Palance was originally announced to play the role but turned down a reported $141,000 fee over Maggot's racism.

Ernest Borgnine on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy
Ernest Borgnine on the set of The Dirty Dozen - Alamy

The film tackles the issue with sly humour. When Maggot sneers at the idea of eating alongside a black man, Jefferson (NFL player Jim Brown), a fight breaks out. Marvin mocks Maggot by apologising to the guards at the door. “Sorry Sergeant,” says Reisman about the fracas. “A gentleman from the south made some kind of enquiries about the dining arrangements”.

Jefferson provides the film’s most blatant parallels to Vietnam. “That’s your war, man, not mine” he tells Reisman about their mission. His words echo Muhammad Ali’s legendary quote about 'Nam: “I got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Ali even visited the set of the film. In real life, Jim Brown was so dedicated to The Dirty Dozen that he retired from professional football when filming clashed with his NFL duties.

Aldrich's casting of actor/director John Cassavetes was an especially gutsy move. Cassavetes was blacklisted at the time for a previous bust up with a producer. His character, Victor Franko – sentenced to hanging for robbery and murder (pocketing a paltry sum of two pounds and ten shillings) – was originally a small part, but Aldrich encouraged him to make more of it. Cassavetes would earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

The Dirty Dozen was also a star-making moment for Donald Sutherland. In one memorable scene, Sutherland’s character – the gormless Pinkley – pretends to be a general, making fools of another unit, to keep their cover. The scene was meant to be Clint Walker's, but Walker protested that as a Hollywood star and proud Native American it would be inappropriate. Sutherland, who originally had one line (“Number two, sir!”). was called upon.

He recalled the incident in an interview with The Guardian: “The director Robert Aldrich, who had a huge authoritarian streak, turned to me – we'd all had our heads shaved – and said, 'You! With the big ears! You do it!' He didn't even know my name!”

The Dirty Dozen on parade - Alamy
The Dirty Dozen on parade - Alamy

Of all the Dozen, it’s Charles Bronson’s character, Wladislaw, who plays the traditional cinematic hero. He’s sentenced to be hanged – for shooting a soldier who was running off with his unit’s medical supplies. Reisman tells Wladislaw what his real mistake was: “You let somebody see you do it.”

Marvin and Bronson were reported to clash several times over Marvin’s drinking. Marvin and his pal Bob Philips (also a marine-turned-actor-turned-drinking buddy) gave the grumpy Bronson a nickname: “Charlie Sunshine”.

Going AWOL to the Star Tavern was not Marvin’s only alcohol-fuelled indiscretion. In another pub, Marvin and Bob Phillips got into a punch-up with regulars over a game of darts – or more specifically, Marvin throwing a wayward dart that hit another drinker. As detailed in Dwayne Epstein’s biography of Marvin, the star threw a punch at the offended local.

“Lee swings with a John Wayne roundhouse right,” recalled Bob Phillips. “Lee missed him by three feet. Not that the guy ducked or anything. Lee sailed over right behind him. I went in and I hit that son-of-a-b–––– right, and he went down and out. Lee stands up, and he looks down at the guy. ‘Anybody else? Who’s next?’” The pair were ultimately saved by the barmaid – a Lee Marvin super-fan with a beehive hairdo.

Jim Brown and Donald Sutherland in The Suicide Squad - Alamy
Jim Brown and Donald Sutherland in The Suicide Squad - Alamy

Marvin revelled in Swingin’ Sixties London. (A behind-the-scenes feature showed the entire Dirty Dozen enjoying themselves in the hip capital. “Swinging London is an ideal setting for these men,” said the narrator. “Action guys enjoying themselves on the town”). But not everyone enjoyed the trip to England.

Robert Aldrich was unhappy with restrictions that prevented him from using his regular American crew, and British summer rain interrupted the schedule.

The English – well, some of them – weren’t especially pleased with Aldrich and the Dirty Dozen, either. Residents in the village of Chenies complained that the crew damaged the idyllic landscape, and a Mrs Helen James complained about the racket coming from Borehamwood Studios. “For three weeks we've been kept awake by machine-gun fire, explosions and I don't know what.” Aldrich was given 14 days’ notice to keep the noise down.

Ahead of the big mission is one of the film’s most iconic scenes, known as the “Last Supper”. The Dozen eat and fine-tune their plan, which they remember with a 16-point rhyme (“One: down to the roadblock we've just begun. Two: the guards are through…”). The objective, as Reisman says, is to “kill every officer in sight.” “Ours or theirs?” quips Franko. “Well, let’s start off with theirs, eh...?” replies Reisman.

By now, singer Trini Lopez had dropped out – reportedly encouraged to leave the production by his mentor Frank Sinatra – and his character was written out by being killed in their parachute jump.

Aldrich himself would admit that the story of the Dirty Dozen is preposterous. And never more so than in the final act, when Reisman and Wladislaw, now disguised as German officers, walk into the chateau bold as brass, going shoulder-to-shoulder with Nazi commanders, without Reisman speaking a word of German. Shrugging his way through the undercover secret op, it’s comical.

But if you're amped up for a satisfying gun battle – and the just killing of Nazi scum – the nerve-rattling, literally explosive conclusion turns very murky.

Telly Savalas’s Maggot, sneaking into the chateau upstairs, is so enraged by the mere sight of a woman that he murders her – a slow, still-uncomfortable-to-watch knife attack – then betrays the Dozen by opening fire. As the German officers and the civilians rush into the chateau’s cellars for safety, the Dirty Dozen’s plucky plan becomes a wartime atrocity.

In the inevitable shootout, Reisman orders the execution of unarmed German captives and tosses grenades – with the pins still in – and petrol down into the air vents of the cellars. Even the Dozen – or what’s left of them by now – look hesitant at the orders. Jim Brown’s Jefferson once again triggers memories of Vietnam, finally dropping live grenades into the vents and charging away as the chateau blows.

The sequence seems to deliberately recall napalming, though Aldrich later insisted that the 'Nam connection, and the film's success, was accidental. “When we planned The Dirty Dozen in 1965 do you think for one moment we knew that by the time the film came out the French kids would be in revolt and Americans would be sick of Vietnam so the mood would be just right for our picture? Rubbish. The fact that the film grossed $80 million was luck. Pure luck.”

John Cassavetes’ Franko perhaps sums up the spirit of The Dirty Dozen: a man full of misplaced rage, both wildness and vulnerability in his eyes, searching for something to fight against. Given his moment of redemption, he’s shot in the back in the final seconds – killed with barely a whimper.

The Dirty Dozen’s real mission was to explode the John Wayne-style heroics of traditional war movies. As Robert Aldrich later said about the burnings: “What I was trying to do was say that under the circumstances it's not only the Germans who do unkind and hideous, horrible things in the name of war, but that the Americans do it and anybody does it. The whole nature of war is dehumanising. There's no such thing as a nice war.”

In the final scene, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson's characters recover in hospital. “You did a good job, soldier,” says an officer to Bronson's once-condemned man. “Hurry up and get well. We need men like you out there.”

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