Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. United Kingdom/USA, 1967. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MKH, Seven Arts Productions. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson. Cinematography by Edward Scaife. Produced by Kenneth Hyman. Music by Frank De Vol. Production Design by William Hutchinson. Film Editing by Michael Luciano. Academy Awards 1967. Golden Globe Awards 1967.
It’s 1944 and Lee Marvin is approached by army brass to take on a magnificent task: he is to aid the Allied effort by training twelve military prisoners and leading them in a dangerous operation. The army is preparing for D-Day and, to help shore things up on their side, wants to send Marvin and his “dirty dozen” to a French chateau that is used as a retreat by Nazi soldiers, killing as many of them as possible and taking out the communications tower in operation there. Getting this motley crew to agree to the task and then submit to training after they’ve been given lengthy or life-long sentences for some pretty heinous crimes (including murder) seems tough enough, let alone pulling this crazy stunt off. The era is presented much in the same near-jokey way that World War II is often portrayed in late sixties movies, mostly filtered through the controversy of Vietnam; it’s more a precursor to MASH than Saving Private Ryan, but the direction is smart and bright and the weighty running time never feels its full length. The ensemble cast is a wonderful bunch of actors, including a standout John Cassavetes as the most rebellious and charismatic of the dozen, and Charles Bronson as the most taciturn.