when you don’t know a classic as well as you think you do

I had apparently never seen The Dirty Dozen all the way through. It’s one of those that has slipped through the cracks, somehow. As with The Shining, a movie I finally watched from start to finish only last year, I knew the plot and had seen certain key scenes many times. I knew the characters almost instinctively, probably because they’re epitomes of certain kinds of action movie anti-heroes: John Cassavetes’ loudmouth misfit, Charles Bronson’s quiet tough guy, Lee Marvin’s iron-jawed leader of men, Jim Brown’s dignified black icon. (Only the creepy rapist/religious maniac played by Telly Savalas seems to break out of the box, and even he is purposefully set up as the one member of the group who’s “really” a criminal.) But somehow I had never actually, well, watched the movie.

It’s a pretty good movie, the kind of mid-level, completely watchable entertainment that’s all but evaporated from cineplexes these days. The story of an rebellious officer assigned to train twelve criminals for a suicide mission was fashioned from E.M. Nathanson’s novel by studio technicians Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, The Three Faces of Eve) and Lukas Heller (The Flight of the Phoenix, Damnation Alley) and directed by madman Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly), and it’s got a nice mix of craftsmanlike proficiency and slightly-around-the-bend melodrama. The latter is a particular signature of Aldrich’s — he also directed Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and The Longest Yard, and if there’s a consistent thread in his films, it’s unchecked, extravagant emotion. The same is on display here, as Cassavates screams his lines like a Method ape while Savalas gibbers and clutches his Bible. Even Marvin and Bronson, diamond-hard, can’t help glittering.

But that’s all right. These dudes are cool, cool as cukes, all of them, and despite the fact that it’s about a bunch of murderers, the film bounces along gaily as a you’re-in-the-Army-now comedy through the training montages and a nifty sequence where the convicts prove their worth during wargames by acting as a rogue, undercover unit and capturing the command headquarters. It’s only when they’re finally sent on their real mission — to kill a bunch of German officers vacationing at a chateau just before the D-Day invasion — that the film’s grimmer side becomes apparent, as they herd officers and their girlfriends into an underground shelter and then burn them alive. (You might think this is an appropriate death for Nazis, and of course all’s fair in war, but as the Lady Friend pointed out, a lot of those guys were just German Army regulars, not S.S., not necessarily guilty of war crimes or genocide. Well, so it goes — it doesn’t pay to be on the losing side, I guess.)

Which is all fine, except for one minor detail — Major Reisman is at best a really mediocre mission-planner. Even when you’re watching them rehearse the steps of the plan (there’s a rhyming mnemonic), it seems overly complicated and not that well coordinated. Why don’t they kill more of the guards before starting the raid? Why does Reisman bring an unstable whacko like Maggott into the house during the stealthy part of the mission rather than leaving him outside to watch the road or something? And what was their plan, anyway, before Maggott screwed it up? The mnemonic count-off ends, “Sixteen — we all come out like it’s Halloween,” which is pretty vague but I guess means that the major’s plan was to carefully sneak into the chateau and then cut loose with a lot of random murdering and chaos. Wouldn’t a better plan have been to secure the radio room and then get the drop on everyone and calmly round them up? Or heck, plant a bunch of plastic explosive and blow the place sky-high, and then wait outside to pick off survivors. Or… or…. Really? This was the extent of your plan? “We all come out like it’s Halloween”?

Sigh. Charles Bronson is still pretty damn cool, though.

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