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): ****/****

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The Scalphunters

the_scalphunters_posterIn a legendary career that spanned parts of 6 different decades, Burt Lancaster was always at home in the western genre. There are more than a few classics in the bunch — The Professionals, Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid — but one that always seems to slip through the cracks is 1968’s The Scalphunters. Not a classic but a highly entertaining venture with a fun cast.

After a busy season trapping and with a pack horse full of pelts and furs, fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is heading to the nearest town to sell his haul. Well, that’s the plan anyways. He’s stopped by a Kiowa war party who “trade” him for the furs, giving him a captured slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), for his season’s work. Joseph Lee had previously been a captive of Comanches. Now, Joe Bass is on the trail to get his furs back, but there are more problems. The Kiowas are attacked by a gang of scalphunters led by outlaw Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who in the process also captures Joseph Lee. Howie’s gang is on the run and heading for Mexico, now with Joseph Lee in tow. Trailing not too far behind is Bass, just waiting for his chance to strike.

The first of three efforts Lancaster and director Sydney Pollack did together, ‘Scalphunters’ is an interesting western. Reading the plot synopsis, you wouldn’t think it had some heavy comedic — even slapstick — undertones. They are there though, giving the final product a kind of helter-skelter feel. Oh, Bass and Lee comedically beating the crap out of each other? Ah, a massacre of Indians! The tonal shifts provide some odd moments for sure, but the movie is still entertaining. When everything about westerns was changing in the late 1960’s, Pollack’s western seems like a bit of a throwback…that still’s trying to be violent and dark and unsettling at times.

What holds things together despite the oddness? I’d give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one. Lancaster, Davis, Savalas and Shelley Winters. There are other speaking parts, but this movie rides (or derails) on the shoulders of this quartet. It is definitely an ensemble too with each cast member given their chance to star. Lancaster is off-screen for large stretches of the 102-minute running time. When he’s on-screen, he’s a scene-stealer. It’s a bigger, showier performance but he doesn’t chew the scenery like several of his most iconic parts.

Sometimes chemistry is just spot-on, and that’s the case with Lancaster’s Bass and Davis’ Lee. Bass is the grizzled fur trapper, uneducated but not dumb, able to survive in the wilderness while quoting the Bible. Lee is an educated, intelligent slave who can talk his way in and out of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Throw them together, and you’ve got some great dialogue and a great back and forth dynamic. The story pulls the duo apart, but what’s there is excellent. Savalas gets to ham it up a bit as outlaw Jim Howie with Winters playing Kate, a prostitute and Jim’s woman who’s apparently also on the run for some past misdeeds.

As for the gang of scalphunters, look for Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Nick Cravat, Dan Vadis and Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stunt double and a familiar face). Armando Silvestre plays Two Crows, a Kiowa chief who gets along with Joe Bass but always seems to come out with the upper hand.

Nothing groundbreaking here, but an enjoyable western. ‘Scalphunters’ was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico in similar locales as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, The Sons of Katie Elder and others, but it’s definitely a good-looking western. Composer Elmer Bernstein is on-hand to provide the score, and even if it’s not a hugely memorable score, a Bernstein score isn’t something to shake your head at. A good western with some excellent lead performances, especially Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

The Scalphunters (1968): ***/****