War movies are a funny thing, because no matter what war they are about, what they are really about is the war most on the minds of the audience. A lot of the time, the war on the screen is meant to be a direct examination of a particular war and its place in a country’s collective psyche. But sometimes, a war movie explores that other half of war that we don’t like to talk about, the half that reminds us that for every person who is repelled by war, there is another who is thrilled by it. And not just kids at home who don’t know what war is really like. No, we’re talking about people who have seen the worst parts of war and still can go to the theater pay a couple of bucks and enjoy themselves watching an fanciful and amped up version of what they themselves went through at some point in their lives. Not every war movie is like this. The Dirty Dozen most definitely is.
The plot takes place in the spring of 1944, shortly before the fateful D-Day invasion to Normandy that would spell the beginning of the end of Hitler’s reign in Western Europe. The top brass has learned that a gaggle of senior Nazi officers and their retinues will be gathering at a French chateau, and if something terrible were to happen to them, it would throw the Nazi defenses in disarray when the Higgins boats hit the beaches. But the chateau is heavily fortified and in enemy territory; a virtual suicide mission. To get the job done, OSS officer Major John Reisman is tasked with assembling a dozen of the worst thieves, murderers, rogues and rascals in military prison and give them a choice: take on an impossible job for getting a clean slate—and for some, that means a ticket off death row. Reisman pulls his group of miscreants together and slowly finds the carrots and sticks that can turn them into something approaching a cohesive unit. With a newfound sense of purpose, the Dirty Dozen parachute behind enemy lines on a date with destiny, just them against ten times as many of the hardest troops Nazi Germany has to offer. The world might be on the line in this one, but for the Dirty Dozen, all they care about is their own necks. The question is, will any of them live long enough to cash in on Reisman’s promise?
This is a WWII barnstormer released in 1967, at a time when gung-ho war action movies were fairly standard fare; if it wasn’t a Western, it was a WWII movie. And at a time when the nation needed all the gung-ho teenagers it could get to be happy about going off to fight in Vietnam, movies like The Dirty Dozen were practically recruiting material. But even by those standards, this movie stands out, in large part because of its relentlessly cynical attitude to all things institutional, and to the notion that war might be hell, but that hell burns hotter for some, and there are those who don’t mind the flames.
Much of the movie is a fish out of water story as we see a gang of folks—some more deserving of their harsh sentences than for others—all given a chance to buck the system one last time. Yeah, they might get a chance to win their freedom with wartime heroics, but for all of our protagonists, succeeding in Operation Amnesty isn’t about serving one’s country or even getting in some shots at the Reich. It’s about giving a huge middle finger to any big institution that would tell the little guy what they can do. And in this case, that institution is the United States military. Never mind that there’s a war on. Never mind that genocidal villains are torching Europe. For 75% of this movie’s runtime, the biggest bad guys in the room are anybody with a uniform, clean public standing, and the authority to tell somebody else what to do. As we grow to like many of Reisman’s rogues, we find ourselves sympathizing with their complete disdain for the social contract, and coming to the realization that being a good guy and being a hero can be two different things.
But where does this all come from? Throughout the movie, we see ample examples of what appears to be a general misanthropy towards everyone and everything on the part of the writer and director—there is no genuine joy to be had by any of our characters that doesn’t ultimately come at the expense of somebody else. And then, at the movie’s climax, we see it: the thing that puts it all into perspective. The thing that makes it more than just a shoot ‘em up in olive drab.
It’s during the chateau raid, when our antiheroes’ plan has driven their quarry—dozens of Nazi officers, their wives and their servants—into underground bunkers seeking safety. But that’s where the Dozen want them, and they pop open the bunker ventilation shafts and drop unexploded grenades and gallons of gasoline on their trapped enemies. The moment of truth comes then, as we see these terrified Nazis screaming in panic, knowing how doomed they are. They reach through the ventilation grates to try to defuse the grenades lying centimeters out of reach, and they know—and we know—that pretty soon these people are all going to die horribly. When the end comes, it’s not easy viewing. And that’s the point. For a movie made by WWII veterans and their kid brothers, there is no love lost on the idea of killing the worst people in the worst way imaginable. Sometimes in war, you have to do horrible things. Sometimes, if you get the right people at the right time under the right circumstances, horrible things become their own form of reward. And for a whole generation, this was not such a hard thing to watch.