The Oscar Project
After a few picks this so far that were a bit of a miss, I was so glad to watch The Dirty Dozen this week for the challenge. This was a movie that I have seen bits and pieces of over the years when it’s on TV, but I had never actually sat down and watched the whole thing beginning to end.
The story is that of a group of army prisoners in WWII that are hand picked for a mission behind enemy lines. They are to parachute into France just before D-Day and locate a chateau where many high-ranking German offices will be, and kill as many as possible. The film is littered with stars of the era including Lee Marvin as Major Reisman, the officer in charge of the operation, Ernest Borgnine as General Worden, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, and a very young-looking Donald Sutherland.
As with many films about a group of misfits that need to come together, the best part of the movie is the middle. Two other movies came to mind when thinking about this, Remember the Titans, and The Breakfast Club. Now, both of these might sound like silly comparisons to a WWII special ops movie made in the 1960s but hear me out. I’ll focus mostly on Titans but bring a few thoughts on The Breakfast Club as well.
The similarities between Titans and The Dirty Dozen are quite interesting when you break them down. The first act of both films really covers the set-up. In The Dirty Dozen, Major Reisman gets his orders from the general about the mission and goes to the military prison in London to pick up the “dozen.” They are salty and unsure about the assignment, but don’t really have a choice and go along. In Titans, the film starts with Yoast as the head coach, and covers a bit of the politics going on around the decision to have Boone take over the team.
The second act of both films is really the “training” section. Boone and his coaching staff put the team on busses to get them away from town and to the seclusion of a nearby college campus where they will conduct their summer training. Not surprisingly, the busses fill along racial lines before Boone orders everyone off the bus and reassigns them as an offence and defense, intentionally mixing things racially to start breaking down the barriers. Similarly, Dozen takes the prisoners to a remote clearing in the countryside, where they build their own encampment. Reisman tells them that they are all in it together and if any one of them fouls up or deserts, the entire squad will be sent back to prison to carry out their sentences.
In both films, the disparate groups initially scoff at the idea of getting to know their opposites, but slowly learn to trust one another. In Titans, there are scuffles between offense and defense at the camp, but soon enough the prejudices start to fade and black and white stand side by side, as long as they’re on the same side of the ball. Similarly, one of the first scuffles in Dozen occurs when Savalas’s asks if they have to eat alongside Brown’s character, using language any black man would find offensive. As the entire group fight over this, Reisman quietly leaves the room and tells the guards outside “Oh, the gentleman from the South had a question about the dining arrangements. He and his comrades are discussing place settings now.” Reisman knows that if they can come to some understanding amongst them, even through physical fighting, they will ultimately become stronger.
This is also something you see in The Breakfast Club, though without the racial undertones. Throughout the middle of the movie, the five detentionees fight about the stereotypes and preconceptions they each have about the others. It’s not until they start talking to each other, and more importantly, listening when others are talking, that they start to realize how much they have in common. While these five don’t have anything pushing them from the outside other than being in the same detention together, the result is the same and by the end of the film, they all seem to come out stronger, or at least more open to different viewpoints, than before.
For any of these three films, the middle section truly feels like the best part, but why is that? I think it’s because this is where we see the most character growth and that makes us as viewers feel like there is hope. If five high school kids can overcome their differences and learn about each other, the T. C. Williams football team can come together and successfully integrate to win a Championship, and a group of 12 condemned men can take out a Nazi stronghold in occupied France, then it should be easy for us to tackle whatever the day throws at us.
Granted, it’s never that easy, and these stories aren’t happy endings. The Breakfast Club kids make it out easiest, finishing their essay and heading home to think about what they learned during detention. In Remember the Titans, the film ends with a return to the funeral that opened it with the entire team mourning the loss of their friend and teammate Gerry Bertier. Yes, they won the championship, and gained lifelong friendships, but they lost their teammate and one of their best leaders.
The Dirty Dozen has the least happy ending of these three films, but then it is a war film after all so the stakes are much higher. The squad makes it to the chateau full of Germans, only losing one member during the parachute jump. Everything seems to be going well until Savalas’s character turns on Brown’s and alerts the Germans to their presence through the resulting gunfire. Ultimately, only Major Reisman and Joseph Wladislaw (Bronson) survive, accompanied by one of the guards, Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel). The rest of the squad is either killed by German gunfire or sacrifices themselves to complete the mission. They did go in knowing it was likely a suicide mission, but I was hopeful that a few more would survive.
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?