The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Twelve convicted felons

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

"You've got one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near-idiots, and the rest I don't even want to think about!" So barks the captain to the major in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, paraphrasing a psychiatrist's diagnoses of the eponymous convicts plucked from military prison's death row for a top-secret mission. Even if we're fuzzy on the pecking order of the U.S. Army, we know Ralph Meeker's captain is superior because he's the one behind the desk. Before him, in an undersized chair, is Lee Marvin, who not only looks cool, he sits cool, with his tall frame cocked to an angle.

What is the The Dirty Dozen, exactly? It could be an action film, though nearly all the "action" takes place on the body-language level: John Cassavetes refuses to fall in line, Telly Savalas licks his lips, and Marvin – God love him – winks. It's sort of a war movie, but not a proper one; the characters never see actual combat. Their mission, a parachute raid on a French château where high-ranking Nazis are known to cool their heels, plays out more like a heist. The men are chosen, then they plan, and finally they execute, sneaking on tiptoe, hiding in closets, and disguising themselves as guards. The loot they're after is survival itself: If they make it out alive, they're promised a pardon. Nobody's keeping tabs on the rules of engagement.

The shocking ruthlessness of the final scene is well-evoked in Inglourious Basterds, and, like Tarantino's film, Dozen manages to play to both sides of the political divide. Released in June 1967, right in the thick of the Summer of Love, it could either be read as an indictment of the Vietnam War or an affirmation of the rehabilitative power of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Dirty Dozen is whatever you want it to be except nice. Equal-opportunity rage: That's what's so damn American about it.

May 25, Stateside: Saturday, 5:20pm

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