My favorite toys growing up were Legos. I do not know how other kids played with them, but for me it was all about building the sets and keeping them built. I had a bin full of loose parts, but mainly I liked to make things and keep them that way. I am sure there are some of you out there who will read this and think, well, he did know how to use Legos. Oh well. When I got tired of them, my next go to was a set of wooden blocks and army men. This is where my imagination was often inspired by today’s film, The Dirty Dozen (1967). It was another of these World War II movies that my dad exposed me to as a kid. There was something about a small group of men accomplishing daring feats of bravery against incredible odds that always spoke to me. Before the end of high school, I was taking my blocks outside with the army men, and creating battlegrounds on piecing of cardboard, using sand and other nature bits to make bunkers and other obstacles. I would then invite my friends over, have a set of war game rules, break out the dice, and have at it. Say what you like, I was that kind of kid.
The first of our title group in The Dirty Dozen that you meet is its commanding officer, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin). Major Reisman has a reputation for being a maverick, and Allied high command has given him the task of recruiting a group of men to parachute behind enemy lines in France and take out a chateau full of German officers. Given the low probability for survival, the pool of men from whom he is to choose are not among the most celebrated soldiers. In fact, aside from his right-hand-man, Sergeant Clyde Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), they are all convicted military criminals, some with death sentences. Some are there because of circumstance, like the former officer, and German speaking, Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), who ended up behind bars because he would not follow an order. The more you see them in the movie, spoiler alert, the longer they survive. As the title would suggest, there are going to be twelve of these men, and I will introduce them as they become relevant to the plot. When they get to camp and begin their training, one of them emerges as the loudest of the malcontents: Victor R. Franko (John Cassavetes). When they are not given warm water with which to bathe, his complaints lead the others to refuse to shave either, giving the unit their unkempt appearance and eventual nickname. Still, there is an incentive for them to comply somewhat: successful completion of the mission will lead to lessening or expulsion of their sentences. Further, the leadership of Wladislaw, fellow former inmate Robert T. Jefferson (Jim Brown), and normally gentle giant (unless pushed) Samson Posey (Clint Walker) means that they all, more or less, fall in line. The one remaining malcontent is the murderous Archer J. Maggott (Telly Savalas). Upon their completion of a training exercise, involving them not playing entirely by the usual rules in order to destroy the opposition’s command post, Major Reisman decides to reward the men by having some women brought in for a dance. On guard duty that night is Maggott, and while the rest enjoy themselves, he yells Bible-based insults at Major Reisman. From there, it is time to acquaint themselves with the particulars of their mission. Upon their landing in German occupied France, Major Reisman and Wladislaw, dressed as German officers, arrive at the chateau and infiltrate it while a party is taking place. The rest set themselves up around the grounds to take out any reinforcements that are bound to come once the shooting starts, and to keep everyone else locked inside. What almost ruins everything is Maggott. As part of the few that make it into the second floor of the mansion, he goes off the rails when he encounters a German girl. At knife point, on the verge of raping her, he tells her to scream. He then finishes her off before beginning to shoot anyone who comes to investigate, forcing his comrades to kill him before it gets any worse. Still, the element of surprise is gone. Fortunately, this turns out to be a stroke of luck for our band as, in response to a perceived full-scale attack, everyone is ushered into a cellar. Major Reisman and Wladislaw follow them, but show their colors at the last moment, forcing those inside to throw the bars behind them, trapping them. On the other hand, more German soldiers from the surrounding area begin arriving, and more of the title group begin dying. Soon, it is down to Major Reisman, Sergeant Bowren, Wladislaw, Jefferson, and Franko. Finding some fuel, and having already planted their explosives, they dump the gasoline down their air ducts and climb into a stolen German vehicle to make their getaway. It is left to Jefferson to set a series of grenades to set off the detonations, which he does, but dies on his way to the half-track they had commandeered. Franko is killed when he celebrates a little too early, but the remaining three make it out alive. We close with the survivors in the hospital and receiving the thanks of the Allied command.
The Dirty Dozen is an older movie, but it is an interesting take on criminal justice. Things work a little different in the military, and the film takes pains to make it known that the only person who really seems beyond help is Maggott. What is annoying for this Catholic reviewer is that he is the only character that shows any sort of belief in God. In other words, it is the Christian guy who is the really crazy one. When his comrades are brought a truck full of women while he is on guard duty, his condemnatory tirade sounds like the kind of stereotypical rant you would expect from a televangelist. Then again, there have been plenty of examples of them, not to mention priests, who have behaved poorly when left unsupervised, if you know what I mean. The way his character is presented is disappointing when you consider how, overall, the film has a redemptive tone. Granted, a few of these men had been given death sentences, and the Church is against these kinds of punishments. I am also pretty sure that the kind of redemption the Catechism has in mind for prisoners does not involve handing them a gun and telling them to go kill their fellow man. Thus, it is a narrow view of redemption, and yet it is a second chance nonetheless. As a society, this is something we tend not to give, particularly when our mind is made up about someone’s guilt, regardless of evidence. This is not the way it is with God. In Matthew, Jesus says that you are meant to forgive people seventy-seven times. That is not meant to be a literal count. Biblically speaking, seven in the number of completion, so essentially seventy-seven is infinity times infinity. Put in a more adult matter, it means that there is no limit to how often we should pardon our fellows. The characters in the film were given only one shot.
It is amazing to think that of the cast of The Dirty Dozen, there are only two members (that I am aware of) that are still with us: Brown and Donald Sutherland, who played the simpleton Vernon L. Pinkley. This is not necessary an endorsement for the film, just merely something I am noting. If you enjoy a solid war movie, I would take this one over many more modern ones. In the end, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the fact that you have characters that make a turn around is a good thing in my book.