The Big Picture
- Charles Bronson’s performance in The Dirty Dozen is one of his most memorable, showcasing his calm and collected behavior as prisoner #9.
- The cast of The Dirty Dozen is strong, featuring recognizable names like Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Robert Ryan, along with talented actors playing the inmates.
- The action in The Dirty Dozen is well-executed, with old-school practical effects and a storyline that follows a perfectly structured three-act format. The film pushed boundaries with its violence at the time of its release.
Charles Bronson was an immensely popular American movie star, beginning his career as an actor in the 1950s before achieving significant fame in the 1960s. He was most celebrated for his tough guy persona, his stoic characters who tended to speak more with their actions than their words, and his unique physicality on-screen. Thanks to his attributes as an actor, he often shined the brightest in genres that were typically thought of as being masculine. After all, the best movie he ever appeared in might well be Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, which is something of a Western deconstruction that still allows Bronson the chance to play a mysterious and cool character. Then of course, he had a popular action/thriller series that began in the 1970s: Death Wish, and also found success within the war genre. The Great Escape might be more of a prison film than a traditional war movie, but it is set during World War II and features the always reliably villainous Nazis as the bad guys. Several years later, Bronson also starred in another World War II film that had an ensemble cast, with this one feeling a little more like a war movie. That film in question was the 1967 classic The Dirty Dozen.
What Is ‘The Dirty Dozen’ About?
The premise of this fantastic war movie is wonderfully simple, and effectively told over a lengthy 2.5 hours that honestly doesn’t feel its length. Things kick off when Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is asked to assemble a team for a top secret – and highly dangerous – mission that will involve assassinating a group of high-ranking German officers in France shortly before the D-Day invasion in the hopes it’ll throw the German command into chaos. The catch is that the team is to be made up of various convicts who’ve all been imprisoned for serious crimes, and all have either death sentences or lengthy prison terms ahead of them. They’re told their sentences will be reduced if they survive the mission they’ve been assigned, and so begins the lengthy process of training before the mission itself is undertaken. Charles Bronson shines in a great cast, giving one of his most memorable performances while the film also benefits from a well-told story and exciting action. The Dirty Dozen’s influence – and the fact it still holds up – makes it arguably the greatest World War II movie that’s more than half a century old.
What Makes ‘The Dirty Dozen’s Cast So Strong?
So with a dozen titular characters, casting is always going to make or break a movie like The Dirty Dozen. Additionally, there are obviously more than just 12 characters, given the need for various actors playing U.S. Army personnel, mainly during the film’s first two acts. What results is a large movie with a suitably large cast, and said cast has some very recognizable names in it. Well-known actors outside the titular Dirty Dozen include Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Robert Ryan, and those playing the inmates include John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, and Donald Sutherland. Further, the cast also almost featured John Wayne in the closest thing the film has to a main character: Major Reisman, who Lee Marvin ended up playing. Charles Bronson plays Joseph Wladislaw (Prisoner #9), whose calm and collected behavior distinguishes him from some of the rowdier members of the squad that’s formed for the dangerous assassination mission.
Charles Bronson further stands out in the final act, as his character’s used principally to get both himself and Major Reisman within the chateau they infiltrate, thanks to his ability to speak German. The scenes of him speaking German as best he can are tense and even a little funny, likely influencing the way Brad Pitt‘s character (and others) speak limited Italian while undercover at a German movie premiere in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The tension and eventual explosive outcome of The Dirty Dozen’s final act also may have influenced the similarly bombastic finale in Inglourious Basterds, more generally. But to touch upon the cast, all the actors do a great job at being roguish and not always sympathetic, yet easy to root for. The 2.5-hour runtime allows plenty of them to be humanized and made surprisingly likable, leading to the deaths in the final act sometimes feeling surprisingly tragic. It helps, of course, that the villains are undeniably evil, with the film using Nazi Germany as a way to have an automatic unsympathetic villainous force that doesn’t need character development, thankfully allowing The Dirty Dozen to focus on the titular 12.
‘The Dirty Dozen’ Is a Perfectly Structured Action Movie
There might be some trepidation, on the part of modern movie viewers, whether older action films can really deliver on the action. Something made as far back as The Dirty Dozen, for example, wasn’t able to utilize nearly as much technology as modern-day action movie directors can use. And make no mistake: despite being set during World War II, The Dirty Dozen is easy to classify as an action movie, particularly when one-third of the movie is devoted to building up and then delivering action. It’s the well-executed premise and the expert utilization of old-school practical effects that make the action here work as well as it does. Also helping is the aforementioned cast, who you can really buy as soldiers and guys who can take a no-nonsense ruthlessness to the violent mission at hand, with few being quite as intimidating and physically imposing here as Charles Bronson, in particular.
He brought a similar dynamic to his role in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, which was an action-packed Western that also centered on the formation of a team that’d be able to handle an intense physical mission. That film was a remake of Seven Samurai, which was a samurai movie about defending a town from bandits, as opposed to a Western about more or less the same thing. It’s not possible to argue that The Dirty Dozen remakes either film by any means, but it approaches its story similarly, has comparable stakes, and also features the same kind of structure. In all three films, there’s a specific purpose for each of the three acts: one act is about forming a team, the next act is about preparing for a mission, and the final act is all about conflict and sacrifice. The story and structure are therefore familiar, but when this approach works, it can ultimately create a near-perfect action/adventure movie. The Dirty Dozen takes the action beats and structure popularized by the classics that came before it and adds some additional edge and grit, also transporting it into the realm of a war movie. In the process, The Dirty Dozen becomes a remarkably gripping action/war film.
Boundaries Were Pushed by ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ Especially Regarding Violence
1967 was a radical year for Hollywood, given it saw the release of boundary-pushing films like The Graduate (which was very racy and adult for its time) and Bonnie and Clyde, which was graphically violent by 1960s standards, and notable for making bank robbers into anti-heroes. Released the same year, The Dirty Dozen takes a comparable approach to the latter of those two films, as far as showing violence and anti-heroes goes, but doesn’t push quite as hard as that film did. Still, considering the American film industry at the time (with its soon-to-be dismantled Hays Code, officially replaced in 1968), the bluntness of the film’s violence and the moral questionability of some of its characters did prove shocking. A young Roger Ebert struggled with parts of the film in this regard, liking the movie overall while noting that its violence wasn’t as censored as much as sexual content often was in other films of the time. The critic for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther, was more shocked and critical, claiming that the film depicted “sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words.”
But showing the ugliness of violence is more honest than shying away from it, and in the end, the protagonists here may be flawed, but the Nazis they target are worse. Additionally, the violence doesn’t feel as graphic by today’s standards, given many movies (especially war films) have become noticeably more graphic than anything that was coming out in the late 1960s. The intensity has allowed The Dirty Dozen to not feel as neutered with time, as the visceral nature of its violent final act still packs enough of a punch. It may well have been that said punch was too forceful for certain viewers back in the day, but it’s not 1967 anymore, and watching the film today, it’s easier to appreciate how it doesn’t mess around or sugarcoat anything. Returning to Charles Bronson, he’s naturally part of the viciousness of it all, looking and acting the part of a brutal man on a brutal mission, using his capacity for violence to fight in World War II against a larger enemy: Nazi Germany. He’s one great part of a great cast, with The Dirty Dozen’s structure, pace, and action also being instrumental in making the film as superb as it is; indeed, one of the very best war films of its time.