Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has just attended a hanging ordered by a military court, and he is not happy about having been made to go there by his superior officers, not shy about commenting as such when he follows the occasion up by seeing General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) for news about what his next mission shall be. He soon discovers there is a connection, for what Worden tells him to do is take a group of twelve prisoners who are either being held on life sentences or death sentences, and whip them into shape. Can he do it?
If you've seen this one, and odds are you have as it's a favourite with television schedulers and was the biggest movie of 1967 as well, then you'll know what kind of mettle Marvin shows in this, being among one of his most celebrated tough guy roles, not that he played much of anything else during his career. Although he appreciated The Dirty Dozen on a popcorn level, he apparently never took it seriously having seen genuine and harrowing combat in World War II, where he was injured in battle, and you could argue that his response to this was the correct one, treat it as a piece of entertainment rather than any sombre statement on the nature of actual warfare.
However, that went against a tone that started out jokey, and then made to have a graver take on the conflict, as these twelve unlovely ne'erdowells gained a shot at redemption for their crimes essentially by living up to the lawbreaking attitude that had landed them behind bars in the first place, and not only that but positively revel in the bloodshed as ordered to by the authorities they despise so much. At the point this was made the Vietnam War was dragging on already and was starting to replace the general view of the public about what war was really like, rather than the more noble, heroic, "we were in the right" actions of World War II, so it's not much of a bombshell to learn that many of the audience were having mixed feelings about the military.
By mixing the basic anti-Nazi heroics with the contemporary anti-establishment mood director Robert Aldrich once again proved himself a canny creator of manly entertainments, even if here the results were far more cartoonish than anything he had tried before. The cast, practically all male aside for the odd female bit part, he handled well, playing to their strengths and making them individual enough to allow us to follow what was going on in those later, crucial sequences where the fists and bullets started to fly. We were made to understand that not all of the Dozen were behind bars with justification, as some had been victims of circumstance, a view that rendered this even more cynical than it already was, so Jim Brown's character had saved himself from a lynching, and Charles Bronson's had shot dead a soldier escaping with valuable medical supplies during battle.
Nevertheless, this willingness to take life was what was encouraged, as if to tell us the best military man was not some benign peacekeeper but not much different from a raging psychopath, and indeed one of the Dozen is just that in Telly Savalas's deeply disturbed religious fanatic Maggot. He was there to show that yes, these killers should be as bloodthirsty as possible if they're going to get the job done, but hey, even they have to draw the line somewhere, and Maggot is the man who careers over it at a great rate of knots once they reach the climactic engagement with the enemy at the glorified whorehouse for Nazi officers. Watching the way this concludes, you can see why The Dirty Dozen was controversial at the time, and continues to divide viewers today, as its perception of a lack of morals as what is needed to win in war is not something that appeals to everyone. If you think anyone turned off by such coldblooded tenets is a namby-pamby, then this is the movie for you. Music by De Vol.