The Dirty Dozen is a fictional story about a clandestine American military mission during WW II. Disgraced Army Major John Reisman, played by Lee Marvin, is ordered by Gen. Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine) to select twelve court martialed Americans whose sentences vary from 20 years at hard labor up to hanging and train them up for a mission behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied France. If they survive and complete the mission honorably their sentences may be commuted. If not, they will be returned to serve their sentences.
The beginning of the movie is our introduction to the prisoners. Each man has an aversion to authority, several are hardened killers and one man (Archer Maggott played by Telly Savalas) is a delusional psychotic. The most sympathetic characters are played by Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and Clint Walker. Each has been convicted of murder but in each case, extenuating circumstances have been ignored by the military court that decided the case. Probably the least sympathetic convict (other than Maggott) is V. R. Franko played by John Cassavetes. He is a Chicago gangster who murdered a British civilian for less than ten dollars-worth of money. But he is also the everyman of the outfit whose defiance of authority becomes the rallying point for the prisoners to gel into a functional team.
The movie progresses from the team being trained by Reisman, then to a confrontation with a hostile base commander, Col. Everett Dasher Breed, played by Robert Ryan, then to a test of their competence in a War Game against Breed’s elite troop and finally to their mission.
This mission is a night time parachute drop into occupied France where the team will infiltrate a château where the German High Command are assembled and kill as many of the high-ranking officers as possible in the hope that it will disrupt the command and control of the Nazi military response to D-Day which is scheduled the morning after the raid.
The action goes according to their very detailed plan until Maggott finds himself in a room with a young German woman and proceeds to sadistically murder her before running amok with his machine gun thus prematurely alerting the Germans to their peril. The climax of the attack is James Brown tossing a series of grenades into the gasoline soaked and explosives filled ventilation lines for the bomb shelter where the Germans have taken cover. The whole château goes up in pyrotechnic splendor and only Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and one supporting cast member live to return home from the mission.
The full list of the actors who played the twelve prisoners is John Cassavetes, Tom Busby, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Ben Carruthers, Clint Walker, Charles Bronson, Colin Maitland, Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini, Trini Lopez and Telly Savalas.
As absurd as this whole mission sounds, and it is absurd, the movie, especially the mission in France, is exciting, interesting and very well done. Telly Savalas is a little over the top in his psycho characterization but he sells it well and it isn’t hard to see it coming.
Bronson and Marvin impersonating German officers in the château is fun to watch and the amount of gun play and other diverting activities is sure to keep a male audience’s attention. I highly recommend this movie for its entertainment value. It isn’t an actual war movie. It’s more of a caper movie but a very exciting one.