Thursday, 15 June 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Arguably the Sixties was the Golden Age of the war film, with such movies as The Longest Day (1962), PT 109 (1963), The Train (1964), In Harm's Way (1965), and many others released during the decade. It was also the era of all-star extravaganzas--action films filled with big name movie and TV stars. Among these were The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Professionals (1966), and several others. Among the war films that were also all-star extravaganzas (as was often the case), was The Dirty Dozen (1967). It would prove to be a blockbuster at the box office, making $45,300,000 and ranking as the fourth highest grossing film of 1967. And while it was criticised for its violence, it did receive its share of positive reviews. Yesterday it was 50 years ago that The Dirty Dozen was released. It opened in theatres on June 15 1967 in the United States.

The Dirty Dozen was based on the novel of the same name by E. M. Nathanson. Even before the novel was published, director Robert Aldrich tried to buy its film rights. Ultimately it was MGM who bought the rights to The Dirty Dozen in May 1963, a full two years before the novel was published. Fortunately, Robert Aldrich would wind up directing the movie adaptation anyway. After MGM made many failed attempts at a screenplay, Mr. Aldrich was brought onto the project. He brought in screenwriter Lukas Heller, with whom he had worked on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962),  Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), to rework the script written by Nunnally Johnson (who had written such films as The Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, and How to Marry a Millionaire).

As to the novel The Dirty Dozen, upon its publication in 1965 it proved to be a bestseller. The novel was very loosely based on an actual group during World War II, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army, nicknamed "the Filthy Thirteen". Unlike the movie, the real-life Filthy Thirteen was not composed of convicts, criminals, and malcontents. They earned their nickname because they bathed and shaved only once a week, and never cleaned their uniforms. Instead they conserved their water to cook deer, rabbits, and fish that they had poached.

Given the era, it should come as no surprise that The Dirty Dozen would have an all-star cast. That having been said, that cast could have been very different. John Wayne was offered the role of Major Reisman that was ultimately played by Lee Marvin in the movie. Mr. Wayne turned the part down because of objections he had to a subplot in the original script in which Major Reisman was having an affair with a married Englishwoman. Jack Palance was offered the role of Maggott, but turned it down because of objections he had to the portrayal of the character's racism. Ultimately Telly Savalas was cast in the part. Several members of the cast were actual World War II veterans. Ernest Borgnine (United States Navy), Charles Bronson (United States Army Air Corps), Lee Marvin ( United States Marine Corps),  Robert Ryan (United States Marine Corps),  Telly Savalas (United States Army), Robert Webber (United States Marine Corps),  and Clint Walker (United States Merchant Marine) all served during the war.

While the novel The Dirty Dozen took its inspiration from the Filthy Thirteen, neither the novel nor the movie were based on a historic incident as many World War II movies were.  In fact, the movie The Dirty Dozen paid little heed to historical accuracy. For example, it seems as if the whole of the Dirty Dozen are armed with M3 submachine guns, also known as "Grease Guns". In truth, the Grease Gun saw very little use during World War II. It was also, contrary to its portrayal in the movie, notoriously inaccurate. Of course, The Dirty Dozen was never meant to be a documentary drama, but instead an escapist action film.

The Dirty Dozen also differed from many earlier World War II films in its anti-authoritarian tone. Not only do the Dirty Dozen themselves regularly defy their superiors, but, except for Major Reisman, those superiors are portrayed as detestable on the whole, and often stupid and downright deranged as well. This marked a dramatic shift from war movies as recent as The Great Escape in 1963, in which most Allied officers were portrayed as heroes and some level of patriotism was prominent throughout the film. Arguably The Dirty Dozen would spark a whole slough of anti-authoritarian protagonists in movies throughout the late Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, and up to this day. Frank Bullittt, Dirty Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, and many other characters who regularly defy authority owe something to The Dirty Dozen.

Upon its release The Dirty Dozen received generally positive reviews. Alongside Bonnie and Clyde and other films it proved to be a source of controversy due to its violence. An article by Associated Press Movie-TV writer Bob Thomas (published in the August 31 1967 issue of The Lima News, among many other newspapers) addressed the violence in many recent films, including The Dirty Dozen, A Fistful of Dollars, and Beach Red. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther attacked The Dirty Dozen as "A raw and preposterous glorification of a group of criminal soldiers who are trained to kill and who then go about this brutal business with hot, sadistic zeal..."  He remained one of the film's most vocal detractors. While Pauline Kael had no objection to the use of violence in Bonnie and Clyde (which she strenuously defended against her fellow critics), she wrote that The Dirty Dozen "...offends me personally." Roger Ebert, then in his first year with The Chicago Sun-Times, also criticised The Dirty Dozen for its violence. While most reviews acknowledged that The Dirty Dozen was violent, the film did receive some positive reviews. Variety referred to it as an "...exciting Second World War pre-D-Day drama" and commended some of the performances in the film. In his review in the July 21 1967 issue of Life magazine, Richard Schickel commented of The Dirty Dozen, "Flawed as it is, however, it seems to me one of the most interesting films about the brutalizing effects of war that we have had from American film makes in the last decade."

The controversy over the violence in The Dirty Dozen was made even greater by the fact that 1967 saw the release of several films then considered extremely violent. The aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde, Beach Red, A Fistful of Dollars (released in Italy in 1964, but not in the U.S. until 1967), and Point Blank were also released that year. The growing violence in movies, as well as the growing sexual content in films (such as Blowup and Belle de Jour), led to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system that took effect in late 1968.

The Dirty Dozen would inspire several films in a similar vein over the next several years. Play Dirty (1969) centred on a group of British convicts who were used as soldiers. The Inglorious Bastard (1977) could be considered an outright imitation of The Dirty Dozen. Starting in 1985 with The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, there would be several TV movie sequels, including The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), and The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988). In 1988 Fox aired a short-lived TV series inspired by the original movie entitled The Dirty Dozen: The Series.

Despite being attacked by some critics for its violence, The Dirty Dozen would prove to be a success upon its release in 1967. It would also prove to be influential. Not only did it inspire similar war films, but it was one of a group of films that escalated cinematic violence to new levels. Its anti-authoritarian tone would have a long lasting impact on American cinema that lasts to this day. For all the controversy it provoked upon its initial release, The Dirty Dozen remains one of the most memorable and influential films of the late Sixties.

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