It is 1944 and the Allied Armies stand ready for a major invasion of Germany from bases in England. As a prelude to D-Day, US Army Intelligence orders a top secret mission where convicted criminals will be offered a pardon in return for parachuting into the Reich on a suicide mission.
Dirty Dozen director Robert Aldrich once commented, "I wouldn't win the Academy Award if I filmed the Second Coming." Of course, what he failed to mention was that any Aldrich-directed religious event would doubtless have featured more shooting, fighting and all-round machismo-fuelled mayhem than even the most apocalyptic of doomsayers could predict. For, although Aldrich did direct a handful of movies which focused on women (not least Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), he is best remembered for such testosterone-infused ventures as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Flight Of The Phoenix (1965), The Longest Yard (1974) and The Dirty Dozen.
"If my films have any central theme it is that a man is bigger than the things around him," Aldrich explained towards the end of his career. "You can measure him not by his success but by the way he struggles." Certainly The Dirty Dozen featured its fair share of struggles, both on-screen and off. What on paper looked like pure gold — the tale of an American major who convinces 12 army prisoners to join him on what is virtually a suicide mission behind enemy lines, with pretty much every member of the cast a star in his own right — often threatened to deteriorate into trash as those stars came into conflict with each other during the shoot in Borehamwood.
Notably fractious was the relationship between Charles Bronson and notorious hell-raiser Lee Marvin. "Bronson was in the sequence where he and Lee, in a giant weapons carrier, go across the bridge after the big explosion," producer Kenneth Hyman later recalled. "Well, Lee didn't show up. I drove to London, straight to the Star Tavern in Belgravia. Lee was hanging on at the end of the bar apparently as drunk as a skunk. Now he is the man who has to drive that vehicle across the bridge. I get him into the car and feed him like a child from a flask of coffee. We arrived on the set and got out of the car. Bronson was standing at the back of the chateau where he'd been waiting for Marvin to show. We pulled in and Lee sort of fell out of the car. Charlie says, "I'm going to fucking kill you, Lee!" And I go through my routine: "Don't hit him Charlie — don't punch him."
Remarkably, according to Hyman, once Bronson had been mollified, Marvin did drive the weapons carrier across the bridge: "He always came through. There were several moments in the production when he probably couldn't have articulated his own name. But you'd never know it from the sure way in which he moved."
Further problems were caused by the sheer volume of sound coming from the production. Eventually, Aldrich was given 14 days notice to make less noise after Borehamwood resident Mrs Helen James complained, "For three weeks we've been kept awake by machine-gun fire, explosions and I don't know what." Over three decades after the event it has to be said that Mrs James' inconvenience seems like a small price to pay.
It is here that we learn to recognise, if not necessarily identify with, such characters as John Cassavetes' surly Franko, or Telly Savalas' downright psychotic Maggott as they outwit again and again Marvin's arch enemy, the by-the-book Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan). There is no doubt, though, that The Dirty Dozen belongs to the granite-faced Marvin himself who, although often very funny, never looks anything other than the WWII vet that he actually was. The Dirty Dozen would not win an Academy Award for Aldrich, who died in 1983. But it remains a high watermark for movies about tough-guys-being-tough-together, as director Joe Dante recognised when he recruited surviving cast members Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, Jim Brown and George Kennedy to voice characters in his tough-toys-being-tough-together movie Small Soldiers (1998).
Such recognition would doubtless have pleased Aldrich, although not as much as the fact that his film proved to be one of MGM's most successful movies of all time. For, as the director pointed out after its release in typically hard-nosed style, "My first duty is to those who put up the money. Everyone would like an artistic triumph. But it doesn't do a director any good to be arty as hell and wind up with a product that's not much more than a damned expensive home movie."
Unarguably one of the great war movies of all time. Moreover, while the film does feature more than its fair share of ear-lacerating action as its heroes attempt to blow up a chateau-full of Nazi generals, the real pleasure is to be found in the lengthy training sequence which finds Marvin turning his ramshackle outfit of thugs and murderers into crack troops.