Yes, it's a classic, but the first time I saw 'The Dirty Dozen' was just last year when it was released on HD DVD. Going into that review blind, I expected another rah-rah action movie, typical of the period after World War II, but before Vietnam, when the heroes still wore white, rode in on horses and the battle lines between good and evil were clearly drawn. 'The Dirty Dozen' obliterated my preconceptions, mixing up the cliches and conventions of the "war movie" with great ambiguity, unsettling violence and a group of anti-heroes as likable as they are morally repulsive.
It is 1944, and the Allied Armies stand ready for a major invasion of Germany from bases in England. As a prelude to D-Day, US Army Intelligence orders a top secret mission where convicted criminals will be offered a pardon in return for parachuting into Germany on a suicide mission. The task of "Train them! Excite them! Arm them! Then turn them on the Nazis!" falls to major John Reisman (Lee Marvin), who must whip this band of amoral criminals and killers into shape, knowing full well whatever redemption they may see will be no match for the insanity of a mass assassination mission against the Germans.
It's funny to me that it's usually conservatives who are criticized for being misguided and stubborn in their heartfelt beliefs, when liberals can be just as narrow-minded and stubborn. I say this from the safety of being a registered independent, of course. Perhaps that is why I enjoy being left uncomfortable by movies like 'The Dirty Dozen.' I suspect both sides of the political fence likely find something in here to be offended by. I, however, could only enjoy the incongruity of it all.
There are no easy lines in the sand to draw here. The dirty dozen of the title is more than just a bunch of rakish misfits who stole a candy bar -- they are as morally ambiguous a bunch as you're going to find in a mainstream movie. All twelve have committed crimes -- some truly horrible -- yet they are charming, affable, witty and endearing. We begin to root for them, slowly forgetting their backstories. Granted, 'The Dirty Dozen' is not a character study, but it is insidious in how it gets us to flip-flop our allegiances so easily. Right from the first scene, as Reisman coldly witnesses a hanging, I thought I hated the guy. But by movies end, I was cheering him on as he picks up a machine gun to mow down some Nazis.
This is not to say that the 'The Dirty Dozen' is an 'Apocalypse Now.' Though it has a far-from-subtle anti-war message pulsing through its veins, it is essentially an action film, and one that makes no bones about exploiting typical pro-war movie conventions. The violence is attractive in its staging, and because we spend so much time with the dirty dozen before they go off to battle, we are clearly on their side, whatever moral reservations we may have. And what a grand cast -- in addition to the irrepressible Marvin, the rest of the roll call reads like a who's-who of A-list male actors of the period, including Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavettes, Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel. Who doesn't want to see this bunch kick some ass, especially those nasty Nazis?
Maybe that is why 'The Dirty Dozen' feels so gleefully subversive. It is hard to not have internal conflicts watching a scene like the one where the dirty dozen torches a roomful of half-innocent Germans as they scream for their lives, knowing where our sympathies have laid for the past two hours. What remains so compelling -- and challenging -- about 'The Dirty Dozen is that it understands this but doesn't take a heavy-handed stance either way. Even the film's ending is far from expected. Unromanticized, even cynical, right down to the last shot 'The Dirty Dozen' resists classification. I'm honestly not sure how I ultimately feel about it, but for once a Hollywood war film made me revel in its ambiguities, rather than lament the lack of them.
Warner presents 'The Dirty Dozen' in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but there has been some controversy online about just what the proper aspect ratio of the film is supposed to be. Photographed in 35mm for projection at 1.85 aspect ratio, the film was blown up to 70mm for some theatrical showings, including a Roadshow version that was formatted to 2.20:1. The high-def master (used for both this Blu-ray and the earlier HD DVD) is an "open matte" version of the 35mm print, so no image area is lost (instead we actually get more picture information on the top and bottom of the frame) compared the original intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Aspect ratio preferences aside, my overall impressions of this 1080p transfer are the same I expressed in as my earlier review of the HD DVD (both utilize an identical VC-1 encode). As I said then, this one is a mixed bag visually, largely due to the original source material. Like other films of its era, any moment featuring optical work -- such as credits, dissolves or other visual effects -- suffers from noticeable film grain, dirt and wavering color saturation. The film makes such extensive use of dissolves that after a while, the noticeable degradation preceding such effects becomes comical. I almost starting a drinking game by myself when I first wrote this review. The shot gets soft, cue dissolve, have a drink. By the end of the film's 179 minutes, I'm thoroughly toasted. Woo-hoo!
Otherwise, 'The Dirty Dozen' looks fairly good. While blacks are solid, contrast appears a bit overdone with whites suffering from slight blooming. Colors also vary. Fleshtones are an accurate shade of orange, but saturation wobbles and wavers. Detail is generally good, though again the film's extensive opticals wreak havoc with sharpness. Outdoor sequences fare the worst, and with the exception of a few odd shots that look terrific, overall the film is generally two-dimensional in appearance. While this one is a definite step up from the standard-def DVD, picture quality-wise it really can't compare to recent Warner catalog remasters such as 'The Searchers,' 'Blazing Saddles' and 'Grand Prix.'
The most prominent aspect of this Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (at 640kbps) is undoubtedly Frank De Vol's well-known score. Largely percussive, it steamrolls over the rest of the mix, which by comparison is drab and lacking in distinction. Dynamic range is rather flat, with mid-range middling and high-end sometimes hard and unappealing. Dialogue is clear enough and firmly rooted in the center channel, but stereo effects sound muffled in the mix. The score dominates, with the .1 LFE delivering some decent bass, especially on drum sounds and gunfire. Surrounds are utilized primarily for score bleed and a bit of echo, and tonal quality can hardly compare to a modern mix. Discrete rear effects are rare, and tend to stand out rather than feeling seamless in the mix.
I'm being a bit harsh here, as 'The Dirty Dozen' sounds perfectly fine for a film now forty years old. However, having been spoiled by Warner remasters of titles like 'Grand Prix,' this one does sound a bit lackluster.
Warner has again pulled out all the stops for one of their vintage catalog titles, giving 'The Dirty Dozen' the full-on special edition treatment. As was the case with the earlier HD DVD release, all of the extras from the two-disc standard DVD of the film have been crammed on to this Blu-ray, and most of the material is more than mere filler.
Unfortunately, that description does not apply to the woeful 1985 made-for-TV sequel 'The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission,' which is contained on the disc in its entirety. Though Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel all return, this is one of those misguided follow-ups that never should have been made. Though it does have its cheesy charms -- Borgnine certainly overacts fabulously -- this is 97 minutes of your time you will never get back. The only saving grace is that Warner did not also include the two even worse follow-up telefilms, 'The Deadly Mission' and 'The Fatal Mission,' both of which also starred Borgnine. (Seriously, I'm not making this up!)
Luckily, the rest of the extras are well worth watching. An audio commentary assembles new interviews with surviving cast members Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper and Colin Maitland, plus producer Kenneth Hyman, author E.M. Nathanson, film historian David J. Skal, and veteran and frequent movie military advisor Captain Dale Dye. As you would expect with such a diverse lot, the conversation tends to veer all over the place. But I enjoyed it, especially the various cast members' production anecdotes (and their fond memories of Marvin and Jaeckel) plus Nathanson's insight on the changes made to the novel in its transition to the screen. Dye and his harping on the military inaccuracies in the film (who cares?) did far less for me, but then I've always found him a bit of an egotistical and grating presence, especially as he pops up more and more frequently on DVDs these days.
Up next are two documentaries, both quite strong. "Armed and Deadly: The Making of 'The Dirty Dozen'" runs a compact 30 minutes and is like a digest version of the commentary. Many of the same participants appear, and this is far from a fluff piece. The entire process of making the movie is covered in tight fashion, along with heartfelt recollections from the cast on Marvin and director Robert Aldrich. Just as compelling is the 47-minute "The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines." 'The Dirty Dozen' was loosely based on the true story of Jake McNiece, who led a dozen members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment on a similarly-doomed mission. Not all of them were convicts as depicted in the film, but it is a fascinating tale nonetheless. And so is McNiece, who eventually went AWOL and is interviewed at length about his adventures. "The Filthy Thirteen" is a unique doc well worth making the extra time for.
Rounding out the set are some promotional items. Both the vintage 9-minute featurette "Operation 'Dirty Dozen'" and a 30-minute Military Training Film hosted by Lee Marvin are rather hilarious. Painting the cast of the film as he-men of the century, this is the kind of non-ironic film propaganda that gets laughed at in schools across America today. Just as charmingly retro is the film's Theatrical Trailer, presented here in 480p widescreen.
Last but not least, there is also a three-minute introduction to the film by Ernest Borgnine, who manages to get quite a bit of detail in such a short amount of time.
'The Dirty Dozen' is still considered a landmark war film, one that was hard-hitting in its day but now plays even better as oddly endearing, rather silly entertainment. Warner has produced a Blu-ray release that, overall, delivers the goods. Though the transfer suffers from shopworn source material and audio can only do so much with forty year-old elements, the extras are packed to the gills with goodies. Despite a few faults, it's hard not to argue value for money when you get so much for only $28.95.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.