I swear, on a stack of whatever religious material you care to name, the placing of 1967's The Dirty Dozen in the twelfth spot on my list is NOT a fix. My favourite dozen movies haven't changed since I added the eighth movie to the list 17 years ago. That's when The Dirty Dozen fell to number #12, where it's stayed ever since.
This movie is a three-act play with an introduction training section, a caper at a war games and then the real caper, invading a Nazi stronghold during World War II. Each section has its own charm. Humour permeates the first two sections before it gets down to the serious business of war in the final section. Because you've grown to care about the Dirty Dozen prior to that assault, when all of them don't make it out to the other side, you feel a sense of loss.
And that's odd, because the Dirty Dozen were all punks, criminals and crooks. Some were insane (Telly Savalas' character). All were hauled out of jail and offered a choice. A suicide mission or life in prison, if not the wrong end of a firing squad.
Savalas, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Donald Sutherland and Trini Lopez were the principals of the Dozen, and there isn't a bad performance in the lot. Cassavetes and Sutherland played weasels who enjoyed killing, while Brown, Bronson and Walker were 'misunderstood' and violent, a bad mix. Lopez was making a detour from his singing career, but plays an ordinary kind of guy caught in bad circumstances. He's memorable for being the first of the dozen to die en route to the German chalet.
Corralling the Dozen were the guy with the plan, Lee Marvin, and his right hand, Sgt. Bowen, played by Richard Jaekel. Jaekel's dead-set against the idea in the first place, but comes around as he eventually comes to respect the crew of criminals chasing death in the future. By the time Marvin's team of misfits wins the war games by playing dirty, everybody sees these guys as more than numbers on a prison uniform. Marvin gets able back-up from Ernie Borgnine and George Kennedy amongst the American star-shouldered set. And let's not forget Robert Ryan as the stick in the mud with no imagination general that opposes all of these shenanigans.
The training and war games that dominate the movie to begin with are filled with gallows humour and downright funny bits. Ryan's surrender at the command post is a great scene. When the movie turns, and it turns nasty in the final act, it does so without regard to human life. It's chilling to see the reverting to form survivors of the Dozen tossing grenades into a bunker, fully aware that civilians amongst the Nazi officers were dying too.
It is hard to believe an outcry wouldn't be raised if that scene showed up in a movie today. It would be alright to have some OTHER side doing it to Americans. Having Americans doing it, as in this movie, would result in some interesting PR difficulties. Still, having killers revert to form, after humanizing them through two hours, doesn't seem to be a stretch.
I only mention this ethical difficulty to viewers who might see the movie and expect something different from my description of the action before the final assault. But please, please rent this one if you haven't seen it. It's a truly great movie.