I almost never watch movies on TCM. First of all, most of what they play is garbage, except during the channel's annual respite when they celebrate the Academy Awards charade and actually put on some fine movies. Over the next thirty-one days, they'll be going wild with some of the best commercial films made in America and elsewhere, such as I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Key Largo, Public Enemy, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wait Until Dark, Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, The Wild Bunch, Papillon, Lolita, Night of the Iguana, The Rains Came, Grapes of Wrath, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata, Three Faces of Eve, Norma Rae, The Informer, Suspicion, Notorious, Spellbound, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Singin' in the Rain, North by Northwest, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blow-Up, Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Stagecoach, A place in the Sun, Seven Days in May, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, The Caine Mutiny, Easy Rider, The Last Detail, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Third Man and Carnal Knowledge, among many others. These movies truly are classics and the next month promises to be a good one for fans and enthusiasts of excellent cinema.
The other reason I otherwise shy away from Turner Classic Movies is that frequent host Robert Osbourne appears to know almost nothing about the movies the channel shows. Oh, he can read well, as he did last evening when Turner Classic Movies broadcast The Dirty Dozen (1967). Gee, the movie featured a whole bunch of formerly big names in the entertainment field and golly Lee Marvin's career sure did take a spin upwards when this macho flick came out. He was so obviously reading these words--words which for all I know he believes or even may have written for himself--that I settled into a supine position across my love seat and anticipated a very long movie that I was going to hate.
I was not disappointed.
Robert Aldrich directed this World War II movie set in England in 1944. Now let's stop there for a moment. The movie was made and released in 1967, a time when not everyone in America thought that war was necessarily a grand thing to be doing. Oh, I must have forgotten that World War II, like the so-called Civil War, was one of those wars that was secretly moral and basically justified. Okay. For a moment there I felt anachronistic. The movie begins with a hanging. Some young American fellow is in a prison, gets escorted to the gallows, waits while Lee Marvin is brought in to observe, has the noose plopped over his head and around his neck, listens while the priest mumbles Latin, and drops through the trap door to his death. Hold everything. I thought 1967 was the summer of love. Beads and babes and bongs and beautiful love-stuff. How the hell could Aldrich begin his movie in such a sadistic manner? Dang it, I again forgot about the setting of the film: 1944 when we were dammit at war. Right.
Marvin plays a Major John Reisman, someone we quickly learn is a loose cannon who has had a successful military career, yet that career has been punctuated with all kinds of disrespect for authority, all in the name of getting the job done, the job in question being that of winning the damn war. Oh, hey, now I'm beginning to catch on. Lee Marvin is just a short-haired rebel in disguise! Cool. This might be fun after all.
Reisman wonders why he's been brought to this military base by his friend Major Armbruster (George Kennedy). The two men are drinking buddies, that's true. But why the heck is Reisman here to hang out with the hoi polloi of military brass? Enter Ernest Borgnine as Major General Sam Worden, one tough son of a bitch with a mission from God. Worden tells Reisman that the job is to round up twelve really rancid, disgusting convicts at the military prison, guys who've been found guilty of rape or murder, and train them to blow up a Nazi-occupied chateau in Brittany. The mission is very hush-hush. Theme music from "Mission Impossible" dances through our heads. In exchange for their cooperation, the twelve men, should they survive, will receive a well-deserved amnesty and be released from captivity. Screw up and they will be returned to prison to be hanged or serve out their sentences, whichever comes first.
So Reisman gathers up a truly despicable cadre of characters, including John Cassavetes as Franko, Jim Brown as Jefferson, Donald Sutherland as Pinkley, Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, and Telly Savalas as Maggot and with the help of Military Police Sergeant Clyde Bowren (Richard Jaeckel, who actually is the most sympathetic actor in the movie, and a much underrated performer), Reisman whips the boyos into shape. Their training is funny and occasionally dramatic. It is also clear that these guys--as with Reisman himself, or so we have been led to believe--have a bit of trouble handling authority. Oddly enough, Reisman seems to take well to orders as long as he's the one giving them. Hey, maybe this was a hint to Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment! Or do I think too much?
Marvin and crew do a fantastic job of making us cringe and laugh and cheer. There's no disputing that. The acting here is stellar and anyone who says otherwise should take a second look. Sutherland's performance where he impersonates a general inspecting the troops is so hilarious we can almost forgive everything else in this otherwise sadistic foreplay.
The problem--and it's a big one--is one of historical context, and possibly of intent, although when we get into assuming a director's motives we are treading on some frighteningly thin ice. We learn soon enough that these twelve men are bad seeds, but most of them get whipped into being fairly good and loyal seeds by the arm-twisting the military offers. We also see that the regular army guys are just a bunch of glorified thugs who couldn't win a tug of war with the Girl Scouts were it not for the guts of the abounding misfits. Okay, the misfits-as-heroes-theme feels appropriate to the time, that's cool. Ah, but here's the problem: who are the misfits fighting? This movie came out thirty-two years after the end of World War II. Bad as our American history classes are, I imagine that most of the kids dragged through the American and English school systems had at least heard of the fascists. Certainly their parents had mentioned the subject. All the same, there's no visible or even implied sense of outrage that we can muster against the Nazis and that's because we never get anything in this movie about why the bloody hell we were at war with them in the first place. This movie runs more than two and a half hours. One might expect some suggestion that these cretins were planning to take over the world, kill millions of Jews, gypsies, and others, and turn the planet into one big slave labor camp. All we see is that some of the officers take their whores to the chateau for some civilized party time. So when Reisman and the boys trap the Nazis in the underground repository, lob in hand grenades and set the place on fire, the thrill, if that's what you want to call it, is all about watching some well-dressed German officers getting burned alive. And since all but one of the dirty dozen get killed in the process--Reisman makes it out alive, too, and there was never much doubt he would--our sense of "victory" is connected to nothing more Reasonable than the idea that it takes a good guy with a gun to defeat a bad guy with a gun, something the leaders of the National Rifle Association apparently believe but which the rest of us, I hope, have enough sense to reject.
As the pre-game kick-off to thirty-one days and nights of excellent programming, The Dirty Dozen does a huge disservice to all the films that follow.
It may just be a coincidence, but when I got up from the love seat immediately following this movie, I began a bout of violent coughing that resulted in me turning chalk white and nearly passing out. I have no idea why that might have happened.