Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

I just watched The Dirty Dozen, a 1967 war film with an ensemble cast headlined by Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, and Telly Savalas. The premise is simple, if a bit implausible: Marvin is hard-as-nails Major with guts and an attitude who’s tasked with leading a team on a Very Important Mission, one that’s also risky and likely to kill most of the team. His team consists of men convicted of capital offenses and sentenced either to long prison terms or to die. The mission is to destroy a chateau that serves as a rest and conference center for high-level German officers.

Most of this two-and-a-half hour film is devoted to training and a dry run at some war games. The actual mission only takes the last 45 minutes of the film. Of course the mission is a success, and most of the men die. There’s a fairly well-known scene in which Jim Brown, recently retired from a spectacular football career, does some broken field running while stuffing hand grenades down ventilation shafts for a large underground bunker, which was filled with German officers and their women, mostly prostitutes and mistresses I’d guess. As Marvin and his team had already poured gasoline down those shafts we assume that the officers and women were incinerated, though we don’t see and fire in the bunker.

That implied immolation scene was mentioned in one of the DVD extras, perhaps the voice-over commentary, perhaps Ernest Borgnine’s intro, I forget which, as possibly costing the director, Robert Aldrich, an Oscar; otherwise the film was nominated in four categories (supporting actor, editing, sound, and sound effects) and it won for sound effects. It was the top money-maker of 1967. All things considered, it was a BIG DEAL.

Now, between what I saw in the film itself, and what I heard in the voice-over commentary, this was a very mid-60s film, though it was set at the end of World War II. What made it a 60s film was that it had an almost anti-authoritarian streak, something that nodded in the direction of the unrest that was brewing in the 60s. Though a major, Marvin had a record as being unorthodox and something of a discipline problem. His superiors could have been those guys in the trailer in Apocalypse Now who tasked Martin Sheen with assassinating Marvin Brando; the high command was, in general, treated like those four star clowns Sheen talked about in his voice-overs. If you take the Marvin character and tweak him one way you get Robert Duval as Kilgore; tweak him another way and you get Sheen as Willard; tweak him yet another way and crank it up to eleven and you get Brando as Kurtz.

That is to say, with the deceptive clarity of hindsight, one can see the seeds of Apocalypse Now in The Dirty Dozen (and no doubt in other films as well). It doesn’t have either the moral or aesthetic weight of Apocalypse Now, but there is nonetheless some kinship. We’re a long way from a film where the central plot-driving objective is for one of the ostensible Guys on Our Side, Willard, is tasked with assassinating another of the Guys on Our Side. But, the major action IS on Our Side, the process through which a bunch of convicted criminals is transformed into a team.

Where this is leading is to an analysis of the themes and motifs of war movies, which is certainly beyond a blog post, but it’s also well beyond my knowledge of the genre.

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