Throughout the 1960s, most male moviegoers would have been unlikely to question that World War II had been a “good war”.

It had passed into history as a patriotic war that defeated the evils of Fascism and the Japanese imperial expansion in Asia and the Pacific. WWII appeared to have none of the ambiguities and controversies that had plagued the Korean conflict and the then escalating Vietnam war.

Consequently, Hollywood felt safe and comfortable with the subject and for over two decades following the end of the war, released a plethora of popular money-making WWII-themed motion pictures. The films of this period in general celebrated the courage and teamwork exhibited by the officers and men of the Western Alliance against an evil enemy.

But in 1956, a movie was released which had an extremely controversial storyline instead of the usual jingoism then attached to the genre.

Directed by maverick filmmaker, Robert Aldrich, the film was simply titled Attack. It depicted an incompetent US army captain named Clooney, played by Eddie Albert, whose cowardice under fire during the Battle of the Bulge causes the death of a number of soldiers under his command. The surviving lieutenant, memorably portrayed by Jack Palance, vows “Clooney, if I lose another man on account of you, I’ll shove this grenade down your throat and pull the pin”.

Robert Aldrich’s 1956 film Attack!

After Palance’s character dies following another attack, unsupported by the cowardly captain, the remnants of his platoon, now led by Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers), confront Clooney. Captain Clooney insists that they must all surrender to the advancing Germans but Woodruff, rather than surrender to the enemy, shoots and kills Clooney. Each of the other men in the platoon then pump a bullet into Clooney’s corpse claiming that they killed him.An outraged US Department of Defense found the movie incendiary and downright offensive, as did most of the US film critics. The film inevitably lost money but today it is viewed as a minor classic and a precursor of films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon. 

Some ten years later, with America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam intensifying almost daily, Aldrich directed yet another controversial WWII movie. This time, however, it reflected the social climate of the time and became the biggest box-office hit of the year.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) featured Lee Marvin as maverick Major John Reisman, who is chosen to train a group of violent and condemned military prisoners for a suicide mission behind enemy lines, the night before the D-Day invasion.

MGM had bought the rights to the novel written by E.M. Nathanson, who had based part of his story on the famous group of WWII 101st Airborne paratroopers and demolition experts nicknamed “The Filthy Thirteen”. These men earned their nickname by not bathing or shaving during the long training period prior to the Normandy invasion. The property was purchased as a potential starring vehicle for John Wayne, but he passed on the project to concentrate on his “Vietnam debacle” The Green Berets (1968). Aldrich was relieved as he didn’t want The Dirty Dozen to be just another “Wayne movie”.

The director preferred a less idealised hero and vigorously campaigned for the actor who had portrayed an unprincipled and opportunistic army colonel in Attack. WWII Marine veteran, Lee Marvin, was a perfect fit for the Reisman character, who is very short of discipline and has a record of total disdain for backroom generals. With Marvin’s star value having recently been enhanced by his Academy Award for Cat Ballou (1965), MGM signed him to the production.

Veteran movie actors Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Richard Jaeckel were subsequently cast as Marvin’s military allies and adversaries. Of the dozen actors who portray the condemned prisoners, only seven of them dominate the screen-time. John Cassavetes (who would receive an Oscar nomination for his role as the volatile Victor Franco); sullen Charles Bronson; TV stars Clint Walker and Telly Savalas; NFL football legend Jim Brown; popular singer Trini Lopez; and the then unknown Canadian jobbing actor Donald Sutherland, whose landmark role in the film as the dopey but loyal Vernon Pinkley directly led to his starring role in M.A.S.H. (1970). The other five actors were just fillers to make up the dozen.

Following the prologue of Major Reisman witnessing the military execution – by hanging – of an American soldier, the movie is then essentially divided into three sections. The first begins with the introduction of Reisman meeting the top brass, who brief him on his assignment. General Worden (Borgnine) asks Reisman what he thinks of the plan. He replies, “I think it stinks but it confirms a suspicion that I’ve had for some time now.” “And what’s that, major?” asks Worden. “That one of the officers in command of this operation is a raving lunatic,” retorts Reisman. He continues telling the brass that not only is the plan preposterous but the condemned men won’t go for the deal unless they receive a pardon – that is if any of them survive, which he very much doubts.

Reisman begins the dozen’s rigorous training

Worden agrees with granting the men pardons if they undertake the mission. There then follows the introduction of the twelve undisciplined prisoners and Reisman breaking them down one by one through gruelling training and sheer physical exhaustion. The second section is the transformation of the dozen malcontents into a cohesive team. Working together – during a war games training exercise – they violate every rule in the book, and by doing so manage to capture the opposition’s colonel (played by Robert Ryan) and his entire staff. The final section is the climactic attack on a French chateau where the German High Command are quartered. The dozen’s mission is to kill as many of the German officers as possible to pave the way for a successful D-Day operation.

The film’s controversy arose from scenes of the German officers and their non-combatant lady companions who, having taken refuge in the chateau’s basement following the initial attack, are locked in by one of the team. Reisman then orders gasoline poured through air vents of the shelter, which is then ignited with hand grenades. Aldrich filmed various angles of the German victims scrambling like caged animals moments before the basement explodes into a mass of flame. The imagery aptly recalls the Nazi death camps.

Many movie critics were appalled by the violence being carried out by “American” soldiers in the final 30 minutes of the film.

Aldrich countered those critics with, “I wanted to make the point that violence is just as disagreeable when it comes from Americans as it does from Germans. War is hell and it needs to be portrayed as such”.

Audiences ignored the controversial critiques and flocked to see the movie, making it the highest grossing film of the year and the sixth highest in MGM’s history. Aldrich’s action-packed film would spawn many “men on a deadly mission” imitators, but some 50 years after its initial release, The Dirty Dozen remains a perennial favourite.

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