John Wayne dropped out of the lead role in The Dirty Dozen, choosing instead to direct and star in his own war film, The Green Berets. That paved the way for Lee Marvin, and fate could not have worked out any better.
Marvin owns his role as a rebellious Major, assigned to a squad filled with death row inmates or other vagrants sentenced to hard labor. Marvin is Maj. John Reisman convincingly, so much so that John Wayne, despite his iconic status, simply would never have fit. The tough, grizzled vet, Reisman is focused and determined, turning this squad of misfits into a team, one the audience can care for despite their past transgressions.
That is a hard turn-around, considering these men have been convicted of murder and rape, plus are borderline insane as diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Dirty Dozen is smart, building its protagonists from the jail cells, training grounds, into field exercises, and then the assault on the German chateau. Each of those steps is crucial in their development not only as a team, but as individuals.
This script uses every minute of its two-and-a-half hour runtime brilliantly, inserting sly, subtle humor such as a war games sequence that is played for laughs and to establish how the squad has pulled together. It also shows their ability to adapt on the fly, react, and execute a plan, a perfect setup for the iconic finale.
Despite its occasional light tone, Dirty Dozen’s nearly 30-minute, tension filled masterpiece of an ending is quite gruesome despite the lack of gore. Director Robert Aldrich refused to delete a key scene showing Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown) dropping grenades onto German troops and innocent woman to secure an Oscar nod for best director.
Despite his hesitation, Jefferson makes the decision to proceed, knowingly slaughtering the German high command despite the civilian casualties. Shots looking up from below as the grenades drop are eerie, frantic German hands struggling to remove them from the grate they have landed on. It is a radical departure from the propaganda-fueled war films that were still prevalent in the era, and that is oddly enough what John Wayne would produce just a year later in Green Berets. That’s why Dirty Dozen has stood the test of time, willing to show a side of war so many were scared of.
When Warner’s VC-1 encode for this Blu-ray debut, when at its best, it can rival countless other modern films. In terms of depth and natural color saturation, Dirty Dozen can be brilliant. A bright contrast breathes new life into these images, bringing out full facial and uniform textures that are completely defined. Sharpness can be high, delivering that modern quality to the images. Environmental detail, from the grass of the newly built training compound to the concrete of the chateau, are typically surprising.
Mild print damage is never excessive, limited to some unobtrusive white specks. Grain can spike, but the usually low bitrate encode manages to keep up, ensuring the grain structure is never distracting. Black levels are superb, with no noticeable crush or loss of detail in the shadows.
Sadly, there is another side to this transfer, some of it unavoidable. Dissolve shots are immediately apparent, making each transition easy to spot long before they happen. The video takes on a notably softer, fuzzier quality that is simply a limitation of the era. Edge enhancement and ringing, while dominant early on, is still noted late into the film despite a decrease in frequency.
Certain shots seem to be taken from entirely different prints even within the same scene, losing that crispness and texture for a flat, soft appearance. Colors sometimes shift or become over saturated. It is important to note that these transitions are not rare, but usually evident in each scene of the film, enough to create a distraction when being wowed by other parts of the presentation. In total, maybe 35% of the movie is stuck on the extreme low-end.
Warner delivers a compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 option, generally limited to the center channel. Mild surround use, including the artillery shells during war games, and some ambient gunfire during the finale, barely warrant any mention.
The power of this track comes from the score of Frank De Vol, which hits those high notes beautifully. The fullness and richness of the music is impressive, making one wish for uncompressed audio for a small additional push. The low end, while deep, tends to muddy up, lacking distinction between notes.
There are also some rather aggressive LFE effects during the explosions featured in the finale, likewise lacking a crispness, but still delivering a forceful blow. Dialogue, while understandably not up to modern fidelity standards, is consistent and clean.
A rather crowded commentary track includes novelist E.M. Nathanson, film historian David J. Schow, producer Kenneth Hyman, military advisor Dale Dye, along with cast members Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Stuart Cooper, and Colin Maitland. A nice introduction by Ernest Borgnine is brief but informative.
The first feature is Armed and Dangerous, a fine look at the origins of the story and the making of the film, running 31-minutes. Operation Dirty Dozen is a vintage featurette from the late ‘60s, while the Filthy Thirteen tells the real stories that inspired the novel and film. The latter runs 47-minutes. Combat Leadership Skills runs for 29 minutes, a military training video which was the final film Lee Marvin did before his death in 1987.
Besides a trailer, one bonus remains, the first of three made-for-TV sequels titled The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission. While certainly low on quality in terms of presentation and the film itself, it serves as a fine little bonus piece.