When New York Times critic Bosley Crowther reviewed “The Dirty Dozen” upon its release (45 years ago this week, on June 15, 1967), he blasted the World War II action drama for its characters’ “hot, sadistic zeal,” its “astonishingly wanton” depiction of war, the way its violent-felons-turned-heroes plot “encourag[es] a spirit of hooliganism that is brazenly antisocial” and its “studied indulgence of sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words.”
If a similar action movie came out today, those would all be its selling points.
Indeed, in recent decades, we’ve come to take Robert Aldrich’s ultramacho commando flick for granted, not because it hasn’t aged well (it still delivers the goods), but because it’s been copied by so many movies and TV shows that its innovations seem old hat now. But 45 years ago, it not only pushed the envelope (in ways that disgusted Crowther but so delighted audiences that it was one of the top-grossing pictures of 1967), it also became the blueprint for the way action movies have been made ever since.
Working from E.M. Nathanson’s 1965 novel, Aldrich consciously set out to make a different kind of war movie. He felt Nunnally Johnson’s initial screenplay was insufficiently raw, writing in a memo that the script had “a 1940s flavor and a 1950 point of view, and we’re talking about cancer, not ice cream, because today war is cancer.” He wanted to make a movie that would let the filmmakers “[have] our cake and eat it too,” one that would approach warfare with brutal nihilism while still coming off as a rousing, patriotic adventure.
That sounds like a pretty cynical approach, but it worked. Lukas Heller’s revision of Johnson’s screenplay allowed Aldrich to exploit Vietnam War-era anti-militarism while still making a thoroughly militaristic war movie. In fact, “Dirty Dozen” managed to play both sides of the fence on racism, sexism, patriotism, religion, deference to authority and other issues that war films had previously taken for granted, papered over, or ignored.
Like many other well-regarded action movies, the politics in “The Dirty Dozen” were easy to read if you wanted to, easy to ignore if you didn’t. What was hard to miss, however, was its treatment of war as a thoroughly brutal enterprise, from training to actual combat. The movie featured unprecedented gore for a war movie; there were no bloodless kills, as in earlier battlefield films.
There was also the fact that, in the final half hour, the movie killed off almost all of the characters viewers had spent the previous two hours getting to know and empathize with. And they died unceremoniously, without dignity or poignant exit lines. Nor were civilians or women spared; many become collateral damage in the final raid, but no one voices any regret over the indiscriminate killing. Academy Awards lore even has it that Aldrich was told he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for his direction if he’d cut the sequence where Jim Brown drops grenades into the bomb shelter and kills all the Germans (soldiers and non-combatants alike) who are trapped inside, but Aldrich refused to compromise his vision for someone else’s notion of what was permissible in a war film. “Dirty Dozen” wasn’t especially accurate in its depiction of military protocol, weapons, or tactics, but about the ignoble suddenness of death amid the meat-grinder of combat, it was dead on.
Most notably, the movie was populated by antiheroes. It wasn’t just one or two characters; it was everyone, from the group’s leader (Lee Marvin’s Maj. Reisman, himself an insubordinate, troublemaking officer) to the murderers, thugs, rapists, and goons who made up the suicide squad. You could read the film as saying that war can turn even violent psychopaths into heroes. Or you could read it more cynically: that in war, violent psychopaths and heroes are indistinguishable. Within a few years, we’d start seeing Vietnam War movies that posited the reverse: that war turns heroes into violent psychopaths.
“Dirty Dozen” opened that door; it’s no wonder that John Wayne turned down the role of Reisman, a character that suited insolent, hard-boiled, too-cool-to-care Marvin to a T. The movie was full of similar tough guys with attitude, from veterans Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Robert Ryan, to relative newcomers Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Jim Brown, all of whom became stars as a result of their performances here. (Indeed, Brown’s turn in “Dirty Dozen” may have made him the first unapologetically macho black action hero; no Sidney Poitier-esque turning the other cheek or Woody Strode-ish noble deference for him.) The next decade and a half of action movies and TV shows are unthinkable without the personas launched here, including Bronson’s grimly efficient violence, Cassavetes’ sinister machismo, Savalas’ grinning mercilessness, Sutherland’s cheeky antiauthoritarianism, and Brown’s black-power righteous anger.
In the last 45 years, we’ve seen a lot of movies and TV shows about unlikely heroes banding together for a long-odds mission — movies as varied as “Where Eagles Dare,” “Force 10 From Navarone,” “Star Wars,” “The Wild Geese,” “Good Guys Wear Black,” “The Dogs of War,” “The A Team,” “Delta Force” “Navy SEALs,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Rock,” “X-Men,” “Doom,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” “The Expendables,” and “The Avengers.” Indeed, large passages of “Inglourious Basterds,” from Brad Pitt’s initial speech to his handpicked troops to the fiery climax in the movie theater, seem lifted from “Dirty Dozen.”
But more than form, modern action movies have emulated “Dirty Dozen” for its attitudes — toward violence, toward authority, toward old pieties of what is safe to depict on screen. Every anti-authoritarian action hero (from another “Dirty” guy, Clint Eastwood’s once-controversial “Dirty Harry,” to Bruce Willis’ John McClane, to Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, to Christian Bale’s public-opinion-be-damned Dark Knight), every indiscriminate slaughterer we’re expected to identify with (from Bronson’s vigilante heroes to take-your-pick from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, or Jason Statham), every lawman who bitterly grinds his badge into the dust, every crimefighter who must become as monstrous as the brutes he pursues, every warrior who expects our admiration for his willingness to shoot first and ask questions later — all of them owe a debt to “The Dirty Dozen” and the challenge it offered us, to see something admirable and even noble in antisocial violence channeled in the right direction.