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): ****/****

The Last Sunset

the_last_sunset_-_film_posterA Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.

Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.

What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.

When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.

The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.

Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.

How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****

Vera Cruz

vera_cruz423The 1960’s have often been identified as the decade that did in the western genre. Too many TV shows, shifting styles and tones, and a general cynicism in the viewing audience turned old-fashioned westerns into violent, nasty and bloody stories. The process continued well into the 1970s with the concept of revisionist westerns. Let’s be honest though, the trend started before the 60s, notably with 1954’s Vera Cruz.

After his Louisiana plantation was destroyed during the Civil War, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) rides south into Mexico. He’s looking for work as a gunhand, willing to take just about any job he can as a mercenary. On the trail, he meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an American gunman with quite a track record. Joe is at the head of a gang of American gunfighters, bandits and outlaws, all looking for work. They find it in French emperor Maximilian who’s looking for help. Along with a company of French lancers, Ben and Joe must help transport a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to the coastal town of Vera Cruz. There’s more to the convoy though which Trane and Erin quickly find out. Betrayals, back-stabbing and double-crosses await in abundance on the trail.

I can’t imagine what audiences thought when they saw this 1954 western from director Robert Aldrich. It’s unlike any western released to that point and for several more years to boot! Violent, cynical and other than Cooper’s Ben Trane, not even a remotely sympathetic character in sight! Everyone is out for themselves, and $ is the end-all, be-all no matter who gets in the way. Case in point? Lancaster’s Joe Erin uses children as a hostage in an early scene, and it doesn’t seem like it’d take too much for him to call a bluff. Characters willing to go to those depths wouldn’t be common in westerns until spaghetti westerns exploded in popularity about a decade later. 10 years! We’re still 3 years from Leave it to Beaver even premiering on TV!

‘Cruz’ is influential in any number of ways, but my favorite influence is the casting of its two leads, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Trane is a true Southern gentleman, but a desperate one in search of cash and a new beginning. Erin is a killer, a gunslinger, and not above doing anything to get that money. Their chemistry is flawless, Cooper’s understated charm and Lancaster’s showier style, especially when he flashes that toothy smile when you know he’s up to no good. The relationship — unlikely and untrusting — is the inspiration for countless future westerns, especially The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Not often thought of as their best performances, but clearly two parts the duo had some fun bringing to life.

Aldrich specialized in guy’s guys movies — The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix — and he brings a cool supporting cast together here, including several budding stars. Erin’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and several other familiar faces. Also look for Archie Savage as Ballad, a black soldier who served with the Union. Along with Darcel, Sara Montiel is a potential love interest as Nina, a Mexican girl working with the revolutionaries. Rounding out the powers that be on both the Mexican and French side are Cesar Romero (a French Marquis), Henry Brandon (a French lancer), Morris Ankrum (revolutionary leader), and George Macready (Maximilian).

Filmed on location in Mexico, ‘Cruz’ is the better for it. You feel like you’re part of the revolution itself with the worn-down ruins, the dusty streets, and the mountains in the background. Filming even took place at Teotihuacan, at its time one of the largest cities in the world and a beautiful backdrop, even if it is only for a scene. The final battle is the same location as the finale in The Wrath of God (one of my favorites too). The locations go a long way toward the realism, adding a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s also a cool triple- or quadruple-feature with The Treasure of Pancho Villa, Bandido, The Wonderful Country and others.

A western that is ahead of time and incredibly entertaining. There is plenty of action, and even having seen it before, the story keeps you guessing until the end with betrayals and double-crosses galore. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are excellent together, a pairing of two of Hollywood’s all-time greats living up to expectations.

The historical setting is also familiar among westerns, with the French involvement in Mexico also in Major Dundee, The Undefeated, Two Mules for Sister Sara, El Condor and Adios, Sabata. An interesting time in history that isn’t necessarily well-known.

Vera Cruz (1954): *** 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): ***/****