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In Robert Aldrich’s World War II film, The Dirty Dozen, the bad guys are the heroes—an the sentiment is pure 1967.

In the mid-1960s, film director Robert Aldrich discovered an as-yet unpublished novel, The Dirty Dozen. In some ways it was just another tale of a World War II commando raid, a plot that by then had become droningly familiar. But one aspect intrigued Aldrich: the “commandos” were 12 American soldiers whom the army had convicted of crimes that carried either the death penalty or long prison terms. In exchange for commutation of their sentences, they had been “volunteered” for an almost-suicidal assault behind enemy lines. Aldrich liked the twist—in this story the good guys were bad guys—and made The Dirty Dozen into a film starring a number of famous and soon-to-be famous actors—most notably Lee Marvin as Major Reisman, the officer assigned to train and lead this unlikely crew into battle; John Cassavetes, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as one of the convicts; and Jim Brown, one of the NFL’s all-time great running backs. Released in 1967, the film became a classic that frequently appears on lists of favorite World War II movies.

That would have horrified Bosley Crowther, the venerable New York Times film critic, who condemned the film as “a raw and preposterous glorification of a group of criminal soldiers who are trained to kill and then go about this business with a hot, sadistic zeal.” Crowther was particularly offended by the movie’s climactic sequence, in which the criminal band ruthlessly assaults a French chateau frequented by high-ranking Nazi officers and high-end prostitutes and kills one and all indiscriminately, primarily by pouring gallons of gasoline into a chamber where the Germans and their concubines have been trapped, and burning them alive. Dismayed that The Dirty Dozen attracted flocks of moviegoers and garnered praise from other critics, Crowther wrote two follow-up articles in which the film became “Exhibit A” in his indictment of an America newly seduced by violence. “It is a blatant and obvious appeal to the latent aggressiveness and sadism in undiscriminating viewers,” he fumed, guessing that the majority of them “are taking it for kicks and thrills and coming away from it palpitating with a vicarious sense of enjoyment in war.”

That was scarcely Aldrich’s intent. In addition to the novelty of bad guys as heroes, he liked the idea that the officers who devised the suicide mission were, in effect, the villains: callous men who either blithely consigned the dozen to their doom or simply wanted them returned to prison to be hanged. Indeed, the training scenes that comprise much of the film are capped by a war game in which the 12 men capture the headquarters of their nemesis, a despised martinet. But more than that, Aldrich saw the convicts as being offered a chance at redemption, and he relished the opportunity to show the ambiguity of heroism: in combat, the dirty dozen behave no differently than ordinary American soldiers. The scene in which the Nazis and their women are roasted alive, for example, was intended as a commentary on the use of napalm in Vietnam.

Yet few moviegoers picked up on the themes that Aldrich tried to advance. The level of violence—relatively tame by present-day standards but shocking in 1967—was not the primary draw, as Crowther feared. But neither was the would-be tale of redemption or the analogy to Vietnam. What drew audiences to The Dirty Dozen was the same thing that attracted them to Bonnie and Clyde, released two months later. Kevin Thomas, the critic for the Los Angeles Times, put his finger on it: “The Dirty Dozen is surely one of the most…antiestablishment movies ever to come out of a major studio.” Like Bonnie and Clyde, which romanticizes the Clyde Barrow gang as it robbed and murdered its way across the Depression-era Midwest, The Dirty Dozen celebrates rebellion against authority. Thomas congratulated Aldrich for reading “public sentiment just right. The time of the story may be 1944, but the sentiment is strictly 1967.”

Aldrich, of course, had done no such thing, and years later confessed as much to an interviewer. “[Screenwriter Lukas] Heller and I stumbled on the dissatisfaction, particularly on the part of the younger public, with the establishment,” he said. “I’d like to say we anticipated that kind of success; but we didn’t really. If you read the book, however, that kind of anti-authoritarian attitude, that point of view, isn’t there; and Heller did an excellent screenplay. So we got on a wave that we never knew was coming; not a wave, a tidal wave. But we didn’t see it forming.” In that sense, The Dirty Dozen’s notorious climax reflected nothing so much as the anti-establishment poem composed by Marvin X in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riot: “Burn, Baby! Burn!” ✯


This column was originally published in the June 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.