a critiQal film review The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Plot: As D-Day approaches, Colonel Breed hands the roguish Major Reisman (Marvin) an important assignment: He must train a team of soldiers to parachute across enemy lines and assassinate German personnel at a French chateau. The soldiers, recruited from murderers, rapists and criminals on death row, are promised commuted sentences. In spite of their history, the 12 men prove a spirited and courageous unit. Led by Major Reisman, they will exact revenge.

571 words (Est. Reading Time 2m 51s)

In continuing our new tradition of catching up on the classics with our #TBT Review, we went for a action-packed adventure this time around: The Dirty Dozen. With classic actors like Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine and more among the cast, it seemed like a sure thing.

But, would the antics of The Dirty Dozen still work today? Or has time eroded another classic?

Lee Marvin leads the team, and he’s a strong presence on-screen. He plays his character with a natural ease, both rooting for the ragtag bunch he’s in control of, and showing them a strong-yet-fair leader to follow. It’s somewhat tough to pull off, but he manages to play the gruff guy the viewer roots for very well.

The rest of the group work well together. With Charles Bronson and Jim Brown taking the lead, the rest follow them to give some decent performances, especially a young Donald Sutherland. Telly Savalas, who most viewers will know either as the title character in “Kojak” (TV) or a Bond villain in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), plays crazy well, and is a standout among the cast. George Kennedy (The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)) and Ernest Borgnine (“Airwolf” (TV)), while outsiders to the group, also get to join in on the fun, and seem genuinely happy with their roles.

At a two-and-a-half hour run time, there is certainly a lot of story to get through, but The Dirty Dozen divvies the time up well, splitting the film up into three parts: basic training, wargames, and the mission. Each section is done well, and the training section gives the viewer a chance to get to know the characters before seeing what they can do in action. Once the wargames begin, the viewer thinks it’s going to get a bit more serious, but with the antics of the group still running high even while they accomplish what they need to, the film is still keeping the humor quotient up. Once the real mission begins though, the film takes on a much more serious tone. It’s a smart way to play out the film, as the humor helps the viewer bond with the characters, then uses that bond to heighten the tension when the characters are thrown into danger.

While The Dirty Dozen was created during a rough period in US history (during the Vietnam War), it’s far from the grim war picture presented by later films like Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (among many others). Instead, for the most part, it uses humor as it’s ally to create a strong bond between the viewer and the characters, before, inevitably, putting those characters into extreme danger.

While there are a few too many characters in The Dirty Dozen to really get the viewer invested in all of them, the strong third part – the mission itself – will still bring a shock for some viewers, as some of their favorite characters may not make it to the finale. After the humor throughout most of the film, it makes the ending all the more hard-hitting, and a quick finale will do nothing to temper that.

A strong storyline with lots more humor than expected and a strong cast help continue to make The Dirty Dozen a satisfyingly good time, even now. Check it out if you haven’t. If you have, but it’s been awhile, it might be time to revisit this ragtag bunch.

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