I want to say that “The Dirty Dozen” fits in the same vein as “The Great Escape,” except where “The Great Escape” had a certain likable charm to it, where even the sour and down moments were undeniably optimistic, “The Dirty Dozen” is cynical, hardened, and fits in more with the action clichés one would expect from a war movie. “The Dirty Dozen” is the proto-typical war film that would inspire the films of today, like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Fury” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” trading in charm and wit for realism and big action sequences.
The film follows Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) being given the impossible task of penetrating an impregnable Nazi fortress with only the help of twelve prisoners condemned to either death row or life in prison, that way if anything goes wrong the military can put the blame on a bunch of criminals. The majority of the film is Reisman establishing trust and honor among these men who have been locked up for years, the prisoners learning to be productive members of society again, and the military watching over Reisman’s operation like a hawk.
The best scene in the movie is when Reisman’s commanding officer, Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) makes a deal with Reisman to see if his men could infiltrate Breed’s command and capture him without being detected. It shows these men were always more than just hardened criminals, but intelligent soldiers who are quick on their feet. What makes this scene enjoyable is that it comes across like the dozen are truly enjoying themselves, like they take joy in messing their own army’s heads, fooling them at every turn.
Still, I only ever felt like I got to know about half of the dozen characters, with the rest filling the role of cannon fodder for the final sequence. It is the typical war movie cliché of building up a straw man character just to knock him down in a storm of bullets.
Overall, “The Dirty Dozen” is a fine war movie, if a bit predictable and cliché nowadays. There are some charming moments, but for the most part this is a cold and sterile look at World War II. Not the best WWII film out there, but certainly not the worst either.
Final Grade: C+