The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_yuma_281957_film29My love of westerns typically goes down two paths; toward John Wayne movies and spaghetti westerns. The gap then in a genre that I proudly call my favorite? The 1950s, a hit or miss decade for westerns. When they’re good though, they’re real good. It’s been years since I watched today’s entry, a genuine classic from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma.

In the Arizona territory in the 1880s, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) are two very different men who find themselves on a similar path. Evans is a small rancher who could potentially lose his ranch during a drought. Wade is an infamous outlaw at the head of a gang known throughout the territory. Wade has pushed his luck though and has been captured in the town of Bisbee. The problem? No one wants to risk their life to transport Wade to prison and risk incurring the wrath of the outlaw’s gang. Desperately needing money, Evans takes on the task for $200 upon delivery. Can the rancher pull it off and get Wade to prison? Will the gang get to him first? A train awaits in Contention where all roads converge.

What an excellent movie. From director Delmer Daves and based off a short story from Elmore Leonard, ‘3:10’ is a gem. Filmed in black and white and clocking in at just 92 minutes, this is an adult western. There is little to no gunplay other than a few shots here and there. Instead, this is a western about mood, intensity and a story that is always moving but almost in a lyrical way and never in a rush. Helping drive the story along is a very solid score from George Duning and a memorable theme — listen HERE — that you’ll be humming along with for days. A whole bunch of positives going on.

So little gunplay and a story built on dialogue and…yeah, just dialogue and intensity. That movie better have some damn good performances, and ‘3:10’ has two great performances to lead the way. Heflin and Ford are two of the more underrated actors of their era, and both deliver one of their career-best parts. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. An actor who typically played a stout, resolute good guy looks to be having a ball playing the bad guy. He’s vicious, bottom-line, highly intelligent and manipulative. The most impressive thing is that this isn’t a ‘hey, look at me!’ performance. Ford is subtle and underplays the part and steals the movie in the process.

Heflin is equally as good as the other side of the coin, the rancher who’s always done things the right way, how he’s supposed to…and what has it gotten him? A struggling ranch he may lose, putting his wife and two sons out in the process. In Wade, he sees multiple opportunities for some much-needed $, some more legit and some illegal. It is a great part as you see Ford’s manipulation makes its impact as Heflin’s Evans starts to question what exactly he should do. Should he do the right thing? There is a straightforward elegance to this relationship, to the story and the execution.This movie succeeds. The last 45 minutes are mostly 2 men talking — an epic cat-and-mouse game — in a hotel room, and it works in effortless fashion.

Not a huge supporting cast on display here, but it’s a good cast. Felicia Farr plays Emmy, a saloon girl who Wade meets and may know from his past. Kinda risque stuff as we see them interact too, especially for a 1957 western (but it is fairly subtle). Leora Dana is solid as Dan’s wife who is a worrier but most of all, purely loves her husband. Robert Emhardt plays Butterfield, the owner of the oft-robbed stage line, while Henry Jones plays Alex Potter, the town drunk who steps up when needed. And last but not least, Richard Jaeckel is memorable in an underused part as Charlie Prince, Wade’s loyal right-hand man and a bit of an unhinged gunslinger.

A lot of fun to catch up with his 1957 western. Not always mentioned as an all-time classic, but it deserves its reputation. It’s so good at building tension and mood and intensity that ‘3:10’ is a movie that is actually nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to watch at times. Ford and Heflin carry the load with a strong supporting cast chipping in. The finale? Light on gunplay but high on intensity with a chase — not a gunfight — wrapping things up. Highly recommended. Also worth watching, the 2007 remake starring Christian Bale as Evans, Russell Crowe as Wade and Ben Foster as Charlie.

3:10 to Yuma (1957): *** 1/2 /****

Ulzana’s Raid

ulzanasraidIt’s not a gunfighter, a cowboy, a sheriff or even the homesteader, but the group itself is one of the most iconic, memorable aspects of the western genre. That group? The U.S. cavalry. Immortalized in countless movies, I don’t know if there’s a more straightforward, brutally honest portrayal of the cavalry than the 1972 western Ulzana’s Raid.

It’s 1885 at the lonely desert outpost Fort Lowell when news arrives that an Apache chief, Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez), has left the reservation with eight warriors. No one has spotted them to know where they’re going, but their intent to burn, maim, rape and kill is evident. A small patrol commanded by an inexperienced lieutenant, DeBuin (Bruce Davison), is ordered to pursue Ulzana and his war party to either kill them, capture them or chase them to the U.S./Mexico border. Along for the patrol is a veteran scout, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), who will provide some guidance for the recent West Point graduate. Can the patrol catch up with Ulzana? What damage can the Apache war party do in the meantime?

Revisionist westerns are so often heavy-handed and overdone for the sake of doing so. It doesn’t serve a purpose other than cynicism and meanness. This western from director Robert Aldrich (and a screenplay from Alan Sharp, based on a true story) is one of the best revisionist entries ever. Violent, brutal, uncomfortable and realistic, ‘Raid’ is an underrated gem. This is the wild west as it truly was, not as movies so often glamorized it. You’re alive one second and dead the next without warning. ‘Raid’ tackles the subject as effectively as any other western I can think of.

Where I give credit in the casting are the archetypal characters. We’ve seen the veteran scout, the inexperienced officer and more in countless westerns. Here though, nothing is cut and dry. There are edges and angles to all the characters. The Apaches do awful things, but the soldiers do equally horrific things at times. Aldrich wisely doesn’t paint anyone as simply a good guy or bad guy. The Apaches aren’t overtly vilified either. Instead, we see them as what they were, a brutal tribe that survived thousands of years because of their brutality and will to live.

Lancaster is known for his bigger-than-life characters, but what appeals to me about MacIntosh is the exact opposite. It’s one of Lancaster’s most underrated and understated roles. The cavalry scout is a frontiersman, well-respected and liked who simply knows the land, the people and how to survive. He’s firm and states his case but never overdoes it. The dynamic between him and Davison’s lieutenant holds it all together. Things get a touch slow at times with some longer dialogue scenes, but those scenes crackled for me. Very timely for when it was released – 1972 – as so many questioned what was going on in the world.

The strongest feature of ‘Raid’ though is Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay, an Apache scout and friend of MacIntosh’s. He’s a human being, a window into the Apache life, and a fascinating character, especially in his scenes with Davison’s Lt. DeBuin. It’s probably the most well-developed Indian character I can think of in a western. A highly memorable part. The same for Richard Jaeckel as an unnamed sergeant, a cavalry veteran and capable soldier trying to get himself and the patrol through things relatively unscathed. Also look for Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson and Richard Bull in key supporting parts.

An added element of ‘Raid’ is its realism. We don’t see cavalry horses sprinting across the desert. Instead, we hear Lancaster’s MacIntosh discuss the importance of the horses and not wanting to wear them down too soon. It may bore some viewers, but this is a script about tactics and the science of a looming battle. Horses, water, rest and the ever-hanging cloud of death in the air hovers around our story at all times.

Filmed in Arizona, this is a bleak, uncomfortable film to watch. The soundtrack is a little overdone and out of place at times. The guts of the nasty story is its realism. We see a cavalry trooper shoot a woman in the head rather than let her be captured, raped and tortured. He then turns the gun on himself because he knows the horrors that await him. I love the John Ford cavalry trilogy, but it ain’t the most realistic depiction of the American west. Know what you’re getting into, but a revisionist western that hits the right notes for a change. Look for a longer version too – about 104 minutes – because there are cut versions out there.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972): ***/****