It’s difficult when you approach an old movie to see it for the first time and you have to try and drop all the baggage associated with it from reviews and analysis over the years. The Dirty Dozen is such a movie. I just watched it for the first time last night on TV, clipped though it was for those smaller brained people among us who don’t like to see dark bits at the top and bottom of their screens.
It’s interesting that there are three real character acts to this movie. There’s the dark opening and character introduction, the fun act where the characters meld together into a team, and the closing act where the mission, and the war, become a stark and deadly reality. That last act is dark too, although there a couple of accidental laughs in there for the worst character expression at a death ever, and one particularly bad death scene.
What does strike you about the opening is how really dark it all is. We’re talking about murders who are looking at to be retrained. Indeed one is a rapist with a serious God complex who is bordering on utterly insane. They are about to be hanged for their crimes, but have one last chance. Poor Major John Reisman has no say in the matter, he has his band and has to make them work.
It’s well filmed for the first two character acts, and the acting is very good. John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas are wonderful in their roles. In fact it’s a surprise to see Savalas in such a role and shining so brightly. Donald Sutherland also shows he has some excellent character acting in him. The rest are far from bad, but you can see a lot of typecasting for them.
The movement from the dark opening to the more jovial training act is interesting to watch, as this is exactly how many of the characters are seeing it, as a bit of fun. What they aren’t expecting is the third character act, that of the actual war itself, and for some this proves too much.
The difficulty I had with the final act is only in the filming. There are premature cuts, awkward angles and jumping storytelling. So much is missed by the camera, and it doesn’t feel like it’s there to let your imagination run, it seems like someone has cut the film deliberately, and quite badly. There are quite a few scene transitions that just don’t work at all.
However, where it doesn’t fail is bringing the characters to their ultimate journey, that of redemption and a renewed desire to fight for their Major, and their fellow men. They become soldiers, and indeed heroes.
It’s a good war film to watch, very well structured and reflective of the characters journeys. It’s just that final act for me which spoiled my enjoyment, and purely in the filming of it.