A pair of reviews from a series last year I never got around to publishing…
The Dirty Dozen, a war film perched on the cusp of the New Hollywood and preluding the obstreperous cynicism of the 1970s, feels like a new breed of war film more akin to the nasty, capricious revisionist Westerns waiting in the wings of the late ’60s. The film, directed by low-flying Hollywood stalwart Robert Aldrich, insulates itself from the stodgy, antiquated chamber-bound quality of most anti-war films by inducing a feral fit that, in the final third, explodes into an outright anxiety attack. Although military cruelty is on the mind, The Dirty Dozen is hardly a courtroom drama; befitting its brusque title, it’s a grubby grotto of unmanaged anger that sands itself down sometimes not to detach itself but to express the dehumanized, dispassionate nature of war altogether. Casting Lee Marvin in the role of a military commander tasked with training a motley crew of reprobates and military prisoners to dismantle and destroy a Nazi high command party on the eve of the D-Day invasion, Robert Aldrich’s film casts a ghostly pallor over the so-called last moral war by threatening it with its own essential amorality.
Hardly a comedy, The Dirty Dozen nonetheless boasts a diasrmingly scabrous quotient of Aldrich’s estimable cunning nihilism played with an atomic smirk in films like Kiss Me Deadly and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, two works which elevated the latent expressionist horror in film noir to the explicit, manifest level (Deadly, a cackling glimpse of the apocalypse, remains Aldrich’s best film). The middle section of The Dirty Dozen especially plays around with visual devices to suggest war as theater in a uniquely presentational way, upending the vicious cruelty that occasionally threatens to encumber the film and burn it to the ground. There’s something vaguely cataclysmic about the finale – about as carnivorous as mainstream American film could be circa 1967 – but Aldrich’s mercurial management of shifting tones and ever-dour sense of gallows humor saves the film from the cold, calculating respite of funeral solemnity. Even the fact that the gang of reprobates inserts themselves into a chateau party rather than a war room intimates a connection between the theater of war and the social theater of the aristocracy, a sentiment that is, if not expressed fully, typically Aldrich in its teasing brutality.
For all its pyrotechnics, The Dirty Dozen feels like a wake for the classically jingoist caliber of the American war film. For those who anticipate a second coming of The Magnificent Seven given the film’s similarly numerical name, don’t hold your breath – Aldrich’s film is more of a riposte to that camaraderie-encrusted work that began one of the cheerier, more flippant decades in American film. By 1967, America’s fortunes were more equivocal than in 1960 – the implosion of the Hollywood machine was well past, in addition to the generally more foreboding tone of the decade’s final years. If films like The Dirty Dozen represent the sputtering death spasms of classical Hollywood entertainment, they also reflect a more anti-authoritarian, muckraking air of wrathful embitterment and dispirited dejection more akin to the works soon to emerge in the ’70s. Although Aldrich’s work is not typically lumped in with the burgeoning, nascent New Hollywood likes of Bonnie and Clyde, it is as recalcitrant and forlorn as any of the more youthful films to come. No mere piece of fluff, it confiscates the unblinking moral carnage of the noir universe to hazard an interrogation of the flesh wounds of a late ’60s society brinking itself on wars both domestic and international.
Fittingly, the film’s cast, like its tone, is a combustible concoction of the old guard and the new, vituperative young men who would rise to prominence soon enough. Marvin is astringent and calculating, exhibiting the sangfroid of a man besieged by decades of dehumanization, stoically withholding himself and bearing the brunt of the alternately sadistic and businesslike, passionless demeanor of the military on his conscience. Ernest Borgnine exhibits the callous, self-effacing, abruptly defensive humor of a man burdened by the world and unsure of how to fight back. John Cassavetes is as manic and impetuous as his improvisational directorial efforts, Telly Savalas is decidedly less relaxed and more fervidly obdurate than his usual cool-customer vibe, Donald Sutherland is continually bemused in a role that quickly raise his star, and, perhaps best of all, Charles Bronson, as he always did, feels like he’s hiding the weight of the world in his stare alone.
An obvious rejoinder to the film’s success is its failure as a character piece, but the film’s rejection of traditional arcs in service of ruthlessly battering its characters into the machinations of the narrative feels like a meditation on how military figures are denied any character outside of the barest subsistence of consciousness. Their failure to emerge as people, rather than a question of screenplay negligence, reflects a subtle reconnaissance of military discipline at its fiercest. Film fans often forget that a film’s perspective is defined as much by what is excised and extracted rather than merely what is incorporated. Missing links are, after all, evocations of broken people, even if it remains easy to conflate surgical removal of character for shoddy characterization. That the film’s characters are mostly one-note is a cunning rejection of the assumption that life always provides room for characters to grow.
Even the jarring tonal shifts in the film feel like a riposte to the stagnancy of traditional wartime cinema, enjoining us to reflect on the schismatic contradictions in the world circa 1967. The Dirty Dozen is clearly beset by a certain programmatic air of clear, obvious breakages in narrative and shifts in tone, from the solemn opening third where Marvin gathers his men to the more comedic middle-third training segment, to the sweltering implosion of the caustic final attack. At some level, The Dirty Dozen’s trifurcated structure and the ensuing dissonance of its mood swings remains, if not any intentional expression of the fractious nature of warmongering, at least a tremulous reflection of the state of a world torn between past and future, when rah-rah patriotism was for the first time being lacerated by the knife of internal dissent in American consciousness. The confused, back-and-forth nature of the film is something of a sublimation of national mental schisms into the cinematic architecture of structure, envisioning a film, and an America, desperately in search of a stability no longer afforded it. The tonal shifts reflect an America longing for a tone to stick to.
All in all, The Dirty Dozen prefigures the ubiquity of the cynical action rabble-rousers of 1971, ie Shaft or The French Connection, films relying on the action template to peruse, exhume, and expunge the various anxieties of the time period. It’s not the apotheosis of the form, but its exculpation from the ranks of the New Hollywood is a shame; it is as guilty of the crime of curdling violence into its filthiest, least ceremonious sibling as any film released around the turn of ’70s. Insofar as the cinematic class of ’67 is its own dirty dozen, a murderer’s row of ne’er-do-wells with their knives stabbed into the carcass of Old Hollywood romanticism, then Aldrich’s film is an abnormally gruesome, effective saboteur, if a slightly blunt, course one. I certainly wouldn’t want to leave home without it in my war party.