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The Dirty Dozen: Special Edition

"Anarchy and rebellion against systems that have proved phony, hypocritical, and tyrannical are the banners of the future." If you're playing short-money on "Jeopardy," you might guess that French leftist Guy Debord, Black Panther Huey Newton, or even punk icon Johnny Rotten made the above statement. In fact, it was written by director Robert Aldrich in a letter to producer Kenneth Hyman after he looked over the original screenplay of The Dirty Dozen (1967). As a story, Aldrich considered it workable, although he felt that its sentiments were dated — and specifically, that it lacked a contemporary swagger that could mark it as a film of the 1960s rather than a decade or two earlier. A talented filmmaker who adopted an auterist's posture in Hollywood, despite the fact that he never achieved a first-tier reputation, Aldrich had pushed the envelope before, in particular with the apocalyptic post-noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and the cult classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). With The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich would step into a new era of filmmaking, the "New Hollywood" that made anti-heroes, criminals, and misfits the next generation of screen idols. Unfortunately, Dozen is too-often overlooked when its closest peers are mentioned, titles such as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, and William Friedkin's The French Connection, which took up criminals as heroes or showed how those in authority are often compelled to break the law to enforce it. Instead, we sometimes hear that Dozen was a reaction to Vietnam, even though, during its 1966 production, public fatigue with the war had yet to sink in. The Dirty Dozen isn't an anti-war film — rather, it's an exercise in gleeful anti-authority. And Aldrich knew it would work, as long as the script was leavened with some much-needed humor, and if the star of the show wasn't the "dozen," but instead their leader, Maj. John Reisman, whom Aldrich insisted should be "the most cynical, suspicious, sophisticated, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, mean, miserable sonofabitch that anybody has ever seen in a movie."

Lee Marvin stars as Maj. Reisman — a U.S. Army officer who, in early 1944 London, finds himself assigned to a unusual mission. Or rather, he's informed that he's "volunteering." With papers handed down from war-planners to Gen. Worden (Ernest Borgnine) and his attaché Maj. Armbruster (George Kennedy), Reisman is told that he will be assigned a new special-forces unit for behind-the-lines operations. The catch is that they're all condemned men, soldiers who have been sentenced to decades in military prison or a swift execution. Convinced that the plan borders on insanity, Reisman does manage to negotiate commuted sentences for those who survive the secret raid, but it seems a hollow victory — the "twelve deadheads" he's assigned are, almost by definition, unable to respect authority or work as a unit. Among the most defiant is Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), a cut-up who looks down on his fellow inmates. However, Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) and Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown) appear to be victims of circumstance, Pedro Jiminez (Trini Lopez) and Samson Posey (Clint Walker) are mostly harmless, and Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) is a simpleton. Then again, A.J. Maggot (Telly Savalas) is a textbook-case religious narcissist. Hoping to get the men to think and work as a team, Reisman makes himself the bad guy at first, while he later uses his dozen to buffalo his chief rival, Col. Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan) and gambles that they will win a pre-invasion war-games exercise. However, on the night before D-Day, the men are forced to confront their suicide mission: an assault on a Nazi chateau in France, where they will "all come out like it's Halloween" and kill every officer in sight.

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John Wayne was originally offered the part of Maj. John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen — the fact that he turned it down offers a tantalizing "what if" scenario, along the lines of if Cary Grant had starred as Linus Larrabee in Sabrina or Steve McQueen had taken the role of Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Had Wayne bought into Aldrich's thematic point-of-view, it doubtless would have been one of The Duke's most memorable screen roles, particularly in regard to Reisman's authoritarian stance among his men and his not-so-secret disgust with officers in the higher ranks. Nonetheless, Wayne's well-known traditionalism meant he never would have done the movie. Instead, Lee Marvin made Reisman his defining role, and it's difficult to consider The Dirty Dozen without his presence. Despite playing heavies early in his career, Marvin's foremost gift was his skill at understatement — which not only flew in the face of Method, but also was something few of his peers could pull off. The pre-credits opening scene isn't just a minor masterpiece in exposition; it also reveals Lee Marvin's remarkable dramatic range while doing nothing more than sitting at a table and lacing his dialogue with stonefaced sarcasm. Reisman isn't anti-war — he's only against those who are running the war, and if he's told the enemy is the Germans, then at least he will get to kill their officers. Reisman pities the dozen, but he also sympathizes with them, and even if they don't realize it, he's the only officer who's willing to bend enough rules to actually complete their training. Aldrich's epic features not just one, but two showcase payoffs, the war-games and the final assault on the chateau, and he even throws in a Last Supper homage with his own anti-authoritarian wink. And he was right — it did work, with the right men for the mission, including memorable support from Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. However, only John Cassavetes could compete with Lee Marvin for screen-time, and his charismatic, caustic Franko made him the movie's second bona fide star, and only Oscar nominee.

Warner's two-disc DVD release of The Dirty Dozen updates the previous single-disc release from MGM with a new transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio — the image is improved all around, with reduced collateral wear, more accurate color, and less edge-enhancement. Without a full restoration, the film probably will never look pristine, but it's likely this is the best presentation that DVD collectors can expect for some time, and there's little cause to complain. Extras on Disc One include an introduction from Ernest Borgnine (3 min.); an edited commentary featuring film historian David J. Schow, author E.M. Nathason, and Capt. Dale Dye, with additional comments from producer Kenneth Hyman and stars Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper, and Colin Maitland; and the wonderfully dated vintage featurette "Operation Dirty Dozen," which heralds the cast's "action guys" and is in remarkably good shape (9 min.). Disc Two features the 1985 telefilm The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission starring Marvin and Borgnine, which should be considered a guilty pleasure at best. Also on board are the featurettes "Armed and Deadly: The Making of The Dirty Dozen" (30 min.), "The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines" (41 min.), and "Marine Corps Combat Leadership Skills" (29 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB



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