Cinema: A Private Affair

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The Dirty Dozen is the definitive enlisted man's picture. In its view, World War II was a private affair in which officers were hypocritical, stupid or German, and only the dogfaced soldier was gutsy enough to be great. In this film, the lopsided interpretation works largely because of a fine cast and a taut plot that closes the credibility gap.

A few months before Dday, the U.S. Army decides to send a suicide squad behind enemy lines to blow up a Nazi officers' quarters. Leading the mission is a misfit major (Lee Marvin). His twelve "volunteers" are a random selection of criminals and psychopaths from the camp stockade including a Bible-quoting sex maniac (Telly Savalas), a Negro murderer (Jim Brown) and a small-time hood (John Cassavetes). Discipline to them is as foreign as freedom, and when Marvin tries to shape them up, they try to shake him down. In reply, he shovels on sarcasm and overtrains them until they drop with fatigue. When they refuse to shave with cold water, he takes away their razors and soap, an order which puts them in a bad odor and wins them the barracks sobriquet of "The Dirty Dozen."

Marvin eventually wins respect from them and from his superiors, but only after the mission has been accomplished—at a terrible cost. The first of the twelve dies as they parachute into occupied France. The other eleven stay alive long enough to enter the target, a huge château staffed and stuffed with German brass. Abruptly the place begins to chatter with crossfire and exploding grenades. One by one, the dirty dozen get knocked off as they kill most of the officers and blow the building to bits in some of the loudest, bloodiest battle scenes since Darryl Zanuck made his armies work The Longest Day. In the end, Marvin makes it back to a base hospital with the sole remnant of the patrol. There, a general praises them for a job well done and fatuously commutes the sentences of the prisoners—posthumously.

Director Robert Aldrich (Flight of the Phoenix) gets convincingly raw, tough performances in even the smallest roles. Marvin comes off best with his customary abrasive humor, but he is given strong support, especially by Cassavetes and Brown, the retired Cleveland fullback who seems to be running toward a promising new career. Thanks to them, The Dirty Dozen proves that Hollywood does best by World War II when it does it straight.