Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Dirty Dozen

This film begins with a hanging. Not exactly the most subtle way to begin a movie, but it does get your attention, no question about that. Unfortunately, it needs to grab your attention, because said hanging is immediately followed by what can only be described as a crapload of exposition. Turns out that Lee Marvin is a Major who plays by his own rules, and is given an impossible mission. Turns out, he needs to assemble a team of convicts sentenced to death or really long imprisonment, and blow some crap up.

Which, oddly, can wait. I'm not sure if this is the first military film that does this - there have been a lot of them - but we dive headfirst into training, which is slightly more wacky than you might expect. The whole rag tag team of soldiers starts out as not really connecting, and then they slowly gel as a team, a wacky, poorly disciplined team. For the majority of the film, it's all about the troubles in training, and having the 12 characters define themselves.

Not everyone does. Charles Bronson and Jim Brown generally appear as tough and important, Clint Walker is big and dumb, John Cassavetes is the most insubordinate but is also fairly likable, Donald Sutherland is frequently amusing and Telly Savalas is transparently evil and conniving. Oh, and there's a guy with a mustache. He has a mustache. I can see why it's the dirty dozen as opposed to the dirty six plus a mustache - alliteration rules - and really you need expendable characters anyway. As a plus, they're all generally likable, and eventually you hope for their success.

A particular highlight is a scene where Donald Sutherland pretends to be a general inspecting the troops. Initially nervous, he eventually playfully mocks various soldiers, showing off a kind of cocky charisma. Supposedly, this scene lead to him being cast in M*A*S*H, making him a star. Hell, I'd cast him after seeing that, he's a genius.

The final battle, is a sudden jolt back to being a serious movie. And it's actually fairly good, fraught with tension and quite well staged. While it seems like a dramatic shift in tone, it seems strangely appropriate. And if it wasn't for the scene at the gallows in the beginning, it might have seemed wildly out of place. However, by setting the tone with imminent death, the movie become something of a piece about gallows humor. The sense of imminent doom allows the humor and the violence to co-exist, since there's a feeling that not everyone's going to make it, and that they have to make the best of the moments they have left. The hanging is a reminder of what everyone in the crew has to lose, and it, oddly, lets everyone be loose and enjoy themselves. They kind of earn the right.

I won't say this is the best war movie ever made, but it is often entertaining, and has an obvious influence over the films to come. It's often amusing and often violent, though never at the same time, and for a film to do that and work is something of an achievement. Even for just playing a role in Donald Sutherland becoming a star, it's worthwhile.

Full disclosure time: I didn't have my usual lead time on this one, so I might be highly dissatisfied with this review later. I already don't like the last paragraph. The beauty of scheduling these things is I usually have a lead time, so I can often change lots of stuff before I put it out. This one is being hastily written the night before. Oh, and the transfer on the DVD I got was crap.

1 comment:

  1. I don't remember ever seeing this movie, but I do remember a movie opening up with a hanging... I think it was a Western, however.

    Telly Savalas put out an album of music once! I have heard one song from it and it is ridiculous and also hilarious. I really want that album and Leonard Nimoy's album while I'm at it.