The Dirty Dozen

This article is about the film. For other uses, see Dirty Dozen (disambiguation).
The Dirty Dozen

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Produced by Kenneth Hyman
Written by Nunnally Johnson
Lukas Heller
Based on The Dirty Dozen
by E. M. Nathanson
Starring Lee Marvin
Ernest Borgnine
Charles Bronson
Jim Brown
John Cassavetes
Richard Jaeckel
George Kennedy
Trini Lopez
Ralph Meeker
Robert Ryan
Telly Savalas
Donald Sutherland
Clint Walker
Robert Webber
Music by Frank De Vol
Cinematography Edward Scaife
Edited by Michael Luciano
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • June 15, 1967 (1967-06-15)
Running time
150 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5.4 million[1]
Box office $45.3 million[2]

The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 American war film directed by Robert Aldrich,[3] released by MGM, and starring Lee Marvin. The picture was filmed in the United Kingdom and features an ensemble supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Robert Webber, and Donald Sutherland. The film is based on E. M. Nathanson's novel of the same name that was inspired by a real-life group called the "Filthy Thirteen".[4][5] In 2001, the American Film Institute placed the film at number 65 on their 100 Years... 100 Thrills list.


In Britain, in the spring of 1944, Allied forces are preparing for the D-Day invasion. Among them are Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin), an OSS officer; his commander, Regular Army Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine); and his former commander Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). Early in the film, the personalities of the three men are shown to clash and the characters of the individualistic Reisman and the domineering Breed are established. Reisman is aided by his friend, the mild-mannered Major Max Armbruster (George Kennedy).

Major Reisman is assigned an unusual and top-secret mission, code-named Operation Amnesty. He is to select a small band of the Army's worst convicts and turn them into commandos to be sent on a virtual suicide mission, the airborne infiltration and assault on a château near Rennes in Brittany. The chateau will be hosting a meeting of dozens of high-ranking German officers, the elimination of whom will hamper the German military's ability to respond to D-Day by disrupting the chain of command. Those who survive the mission will be pardoned and returned to active duty at their former ranks. However, as Reisman repeatedly tells the men, few of them will be coming back from this one.

Reisman is assigned 12 convicts (the 'Dirty Dozen'), all either serving lengthy sentences or awaiting execution. Notable members include slow-witted Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland); Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown), an African American soldier convicted of killing a man in self defense; Samson Posey (Clint Walker), a gentle giant who becomes enraged when pushed, convicted of accidentally killing a man who purposely shoved him; Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) a taciturn coal miner recruited for his ability to speak German, a battlefield-commissioned former officer convicted of shooting his platoon's medic; A.J. Maggot (Telly Savalas), a misogynist, religious fanatic, and probably insane soldier convicted of raping and beating a woman to death; and Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), a former member of the Chicago organized-crime syndicate who has extreme problems with authority, convicted of robbing and killing an elderly man for two pounds and ten shillings (ten dollars in US money).

Under the supervision of Reisman and MP Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), the group begins training. After being forced to construct their own living quarters, the 12 men are trained in combat by Reisman and gradually learn how to operate as a group. For parachute training, they are sent to the base operated by Colonel Breed. Under strict orders to keep their mission secret, Reisman's men run afoul of Breed and his troops, especially after Pinkley poses as a general and inspects Breed's troops. Angered at the usurpation of his authority, Breed attempts to discover Reisman's mission by having two of his men attack Wladislaw in the latrine, but they are both knocked out by Posey and Jefferson.

The 12 men think Reisman sent them until Breed and his men investigate the Dirty Dozen's camp, and recognize the two men who jumped Wladislaw in the latrine. Reisman, who had been away when Breed and his paratroopers arrived, infiltrates his own post and opens fire on the paratroops as the convicts jump them. They disarm the paratroops, Colonel Breed is ordered to take his men and leave, and Major Reisman is called on the carpet by General Worden and his chief of staff, Brigadier General Denton.

Denton, siding with Breed, insists that Reisman has exceeded his authority and urges General Worden to terminate Operation Amnesty. Reisman rises ferociously to the defense of his men, pointing out they had crammed six months of training into as many weeks and deserved a chance to prove themselves. Major Armbruster suggests a test that would show whether Reisman's men are ready. During practice maneuvers in which Breed will be taking part, the "Dirty Dozen" will attempt to capture the Colonel's headquarters. During the maneuvers, the men use various unorthodox tactics, including theft, impersonation, and rule-breaking, to infiltrate Breed's headquarters and hold his men and him at gunpoint. This proves to General Worden that Reisman's men can be used for the mission and that the operation is a go.

The night of the raid, the men are flown to France, and practice a rhyme they have learned which details their roles in the operation. A slight snag occurs, when upon landing in a tree, one of the dozen, Jiminez (Trini Lopez), breaks his neck and dies, but as trained, the others proceed with the mission. Wladislaw and Reisman infiltrate the meeting disguised as German officers, while Jefferson and Maggott sneak onto the top floor of the building. The others set up in various locations around the chateau.

The plan falls apart when Maggott sees one of the women who had accompanied the officers, abducts her at knifepoint, and orders her to scream. The German officers downstairs ignore her, thinking she is just having sex. Maggott stabs her and begins shooting wildly at enemy and ally alike, alerting the German officers. Jefferson kills Maggott because he has compromised the mission and evidently gone mad.

As the officers and their companions retreat to an underground bomb shelter, a firefight ensues between the Dirty Dozen and the chateau's guard force. As planned, Wladislaw and Reisman lock the Germans in the bomb shelter, then pry open the ventilation ducts to the shelter, drop unprimed grenades down, then pour gasoline inside. Jefferson throws a live grenade down each shaft and sprints for the stolen half-track the team has "liberated," but is shot down as the grenades explode. Reisman, Bowren, Wladislaw and Franko, the remaining survivors of the assault team, are making their escape when Franko, shouting triumphantly that he has survived, is shot by a stray round. Only Reisman, Bowren and Wladislaw manage to get out alive.

A voiceover from Armbruster confirms that General Worden exonerated the surviving members of the Dirty Dozen, and communicated to the next of kin of the rest that "they died in the line of duty".

The film unfolds in three major acts.

Act One – Identification and "Recruiting" the Prisoners

After witnessing a hanging in a military prison in London, Major Reisman is briefed on the mission at General Worden's headquarters. As the credits to the film are rolling, he walks along the line of 12 prisoners and stares at each of them as Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel) reads out their sentences.

Name Portrayed by Sentence
Franko, V. R. John Cassavetes Death by hanging
Vladek, M. Tom Busby 30 years' hard labor
Jefferson, R. T. Jim Brown Death by hanging
Pinkley, V. L. Donald Sutherland 30 years' imprisonment
Gilpin, S. Ben Carruthers 30 years' hard labor
Posey, S. Clint Walker Death by hanging
Wladislaw, T. Charles Bronson Death by hanging
Sawyer, S. K. Colin Maitland 20 years' hard labor
Lever, R. Stuart Cooper 20 years' imprisonment
Bravos, T. R. Al Mancini 20 years' hard labor
Jiminez, J. P. Trini Lopez 20 years' hard labor
Maggott, A. J. Telly Savalas Death by hanging

On March 19, Reisman visits Franko, Wladislaw, Maggott, Posey and Jefferson in their cells. Some details of their crimes are revealed and he uses a different approach with each in an effort to gain their cooperation.

Act Two – Training

Depicting the unit building their own compound and training for the mission, it highlights the interpersonal conflicts between the men, some of whom see the mission as a chance for redemption and others as a chance for escape. The second act places the mission, and the characters, in jeopardy when a breach of military regulations on Reisman's part forces General Worden, at Breed's urging, to have the men — now dubbed the "Dirty Dozen" by Sergeant Bowren because of their refusal to shave or bathe as a protest against their living conditions — prove their worth as soldiers at 'divisional maneuvers', a wargame in "Devonshire". With respect to the time period of the training, Reisman indicates before the wargames his men have trained for six weeks.

Act Three – The Mission

The final act, which was a mere footnote in the novel, is an action sequence detailing the attack on the chateau on the night of June 5, just before the D-Day invasion on June 6. The men recite the details of the attack in a rhyming chant to help them remember their roles:

  1. Down to the road block, we've just begun.
  2. The guards are through.
  3. The Major's men are on a spree.
  4. Major and Wladislaw go through the door.
  5. Pinkley stays out in the drive.
  6. The Major gives the rope a fix.
  7. Wladislaw throws the hook to heaven.
  8. Jiminez has got a date.
  9. The other guys go up the line.
  10. Sawyer and Gilpen are in the pen.
  11. Posey guards Points Five and Seven.
  12. Wladislaw and the Major go down to delve.
  13. Franko goes up without being seen.
  14. Zero Hour: Jimenez cuts the cable; Franko cuts the phone.
  15. Franko goes in where the others have been.
  16. We all come out like it's Halloween.

Note: When Jimenez dies, his duties are performed by Gilpin. In turn, Gilpin's duties are performed by Lever. In the field, the poem is modified to read, "8. Gilpin's got a date," and "14. Zero Hour: Gilpin cuts the cable; Franko cuts the phone."


Six members of the Dirty Dozen are deceased.


Aldbury – scene of the wargame
Bradenham Manor – Wargames HQ

Although Robert Aldrich had tried to buy the rights to E.M. Nathanson's novel The Dirty Dozen while it was just an outline, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer succeeded in May 1963. The novel was a best-seller upon publication in 1965.

Filming took place at the MGM British Studios, Borehamwood and the British prison camp location scenes were filmed at Ashridge in Hertfordshire. Wargame scenes were filmed at the village of Aldbury and Bradenham Manor in Buckinghamshire featured as 'Wargames Headquarters'. Beechwood Park School in Markyate was also used as a location during the school's summer term, where the training camp and tower were built and shot in the grounds and the village itself as parts of "Devonshire". The main house was also used, appearing in the film as a military hospital.[6]

The château (which never existed) was built especially for the production, by art director William Hutchinson. It was 720 yards wide and 50 ft high, surrounded with 5,400 yd2 of heather, 400 ferns, 450 shrubs, 30 spruce trees and six weeping willows. Construction of the faux château proved problematic. The script required its explosion, but it was so solid, 70 tons of explosives would have been required for the effect. Instead, a cork and plastic section was destroyed.

The film is remembered for being the one during which Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown announced his retirement from football at age 29. The owner of the Browns, Art Modell, demanded Brown choose between football and acting. With Brown's considerable accomplishments in the sport (he was already the NFL's all-time leading rusher, was well ahead statistically of the second-leading rusher, and his team had won the 1964 NFL Championship), he chose acting. Despite his early retirement from football, Brown remains the league's ninth all-time leading rusher,[7] the Cleveland Browns' all-time leading rusher, and the only player in league history to have a career average 100 yards per game. In some form of tribute, Art Modell himself said in Spike Lee's Jim Brown: All American documentary, that he made a huge mistake in forcing Jim Brown to choose between football and Hollywood, and if he had it to do over again, he would never have made such a demand. Modell fined Jim Brown the equivalent of over $100 per day, a fine which Brown said that "today wouldn't even buy the doughnuts for a team".


The cast included many World War II US veterans, including Robert Webber and Robert Ryan (US Marines), Telly Savalas (US Army) and Charles Bronson (Army Air Forces), Ernest Borgnine (Navy), and Clint Walker (Merchant Marine). Marvin served as a private first class in the Marines in the Pacific War and provided technical assistance with uniforms and weapons to create realistic portrayals of combat, yet bitterly complained about the falsity of some scenes. He thought Reisman's wrestling the bayonet from the enraged Posey to be particularly phony. Aldrich replied that the plot was preposterous, and that by the time the audience had left the cinema, they would have been so overwhelmed by action, explosions and killing, that they would have forgotten the lapses.

John Wayne was the original choice for Reisman, but he turned down the role because he objected to the adultery present in the original script, which featured the character having a relationship with an Englishwoman whose husband was fighting on the Continent.[8] Jack Palance refused the "Archer Maggott" role when they would not rewrite the script to make his character lose his racism; Telly Savalas took the role, instead.[9]

Six of the dozen were experienced American stars, while the "Back Six" were actors resident in the UK, Englishman Colin Maitland, Canadians Donald Sutherland and Tom Busby and Americans Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini, and Ben Carruthers. According to commentary on The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition, when Trini López left the film early, the death scene of Lopez's character where he blew himself up with the radio tower was given to Busby[10] (in the film, Ben Carruthers' character Glenn Gilpin is given the task of blowing up the radio tower while Busby's character Milo Vladek is shot in front of the château). Lopez's character dies off-camera during the parachute drop which begins the mission.[11] The same commentary also states that the impersonation of the general scene was to have been done by Clint Walker, who thought the scene was demeaning to his character, who was a Native American. Aldrich picked out Sutherland for the bit.[12]

Reception and criticism

In response to the violence of the film, Roger Ebert, in his first year as a film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote sarcastically:

I'm glad the Chicago Police Censor Board forgot about that part of the local censorship law where it says films shall not depict the burning of the human body. If you have to censor, stick to censoring sex, I say...but leave in the mutilation, leave in the sadism and by all means leave in the human beings burning to death. It's not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on.[13]

In another contemporaneous review, Bosley Crowther called it "an astonishingly wanton war film" and a "studied indulgence of sadism that is morbid and disgusting beyond words"; he also noted:

It is not simply that this violent picture of an American military venture is based on a fictional supposition that is silly and irresponsible.... But to have this bunch of felons a totally incorrigible lot, some of them psychopathic, and to try to make us believe that they would be committed by any American general to carry out an exceedingly important raid that a regular commando group could do with equal efficiency – and certainly with greater dependability – is downright preposterous.[14]

Crowther called some of the portrayals "bizarre and bold":

Marvin's taut, pugnacious playing of the major ... is tough and terrifying. John Cassavetes is wormy and noxious as a psychopath condemned to death, and Telly Savalas is swinish and maniacal as a religious fanatic and sex degenerate. Charles Bronson as an alienated murderer, Richard Jaeckel as a hard-boiled military policeman, and Jim Brown as a white-hating Negro stand out in the animalistic group.[14]

Variety was more positive, calling it an "exciting Second World War pre-D-Day drama" based on a "good screenplay" with a "ring of authenticity to it"; they drew particular attention to the performances by Marvin, Cassavetes and Bronson.[15]

The Time Out Film Guide notes that over the years, "The Dirty Dozen has taken its place alongside that other commercial classic, The Magnificent Seven:

The violence which liberal critics found so offensive has survived intact. Aldrich sets up dispensable characters with no past and no future, as Marvin reprieves a bunch of death row prisoners, forges them into a tough fighting unit, and leads them on a suicide mission into Nazi France. Apart from the values of team spirit, cudgeled by Marvin into his dropout group, Aldrich appears to be against everything: anti-military, anti-Establishment, anti-women, anti-religion, anti-culture, anti-life. Overriding such nihilism is the super-crudity of Aldrich's energy and his humour, sufficiently cynical to suggest that the whole thing is a game anyway, a spectacle that demands an audience.[16]

The film currently holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews.[17]


The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in the category Best Sound Effects.[18]

Also, the film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Box office performance

The Dirty Dozen was a massive commercial success. Produced on a budget of $5.4 million, it grossed $45.3 million, earning domestic rentals of $24.2 million in North America.[22] It was the fifth-highest grossing film of 1967 and MGM's highest grossing film of the year.

It was a hit in France, with admissions of 4,672,628.[23]

Basis in fact

The Dirty Dozen is not the story of a real unit. In the prologue to the novel, Nathanson states that, while he heard a legend that such a unit may have existed, he was unable to find any corroboration in the archives of the US Army in Europe.

However, a unit called the "Filthy Thirteen" was an airborne demolition unit documented in the eponymous book,[24] and this unit's exploits inspired the fictional account. Barbara Maloney, the daughter of John Agnew, a private in the Filthy Thirteen, told the American Valor Quarterly that her father felt that 30% of the film's content was historically correct, including a scene where officers are captured. Unlike the Dirty Dozen, the Filthy Thirteen were not convicts; however, they were men prone to drinking and fighting and often spent time in the stockade.[25][26]

Sequels and adaptations

Three years after The Dirty Dozen was released, Too Late the Hero, a film also directed by Aldrich, was described as a "kind of sequel to The Dirty Dozen".[27] The 1969 Michael Caine film Play Dirty follows a similar theme of convicts-recruited-as-soldiers. The 1977 Italian war film, The Inglorious Bastards, is a loose remake of The Dirty Dozen.[28]

Several TV films were produced in the mid-to-late 1980s which capitalized on the popularity of the first film. Lee Marvin, Richard Jaeckel and Ernest Borgnine reprised their roles for The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission in 1985, leading a group of military convicts in a mission to kill a German general who was plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.[29] In The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), Telly Savalas, who had played the role of the psychotic Maggott in the original film, assumed the different role of Major Wright, an officer who leads a group of military convicts to extract a group of German scientists who are being forced to make a deadly nerve gas.[30] Ernest Borgnine again reprised his role of General Worden. The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988) depicts Savalas's Wright character and a group of renegade soldiers attempting to prevent a group of extreme German generals from starting a Fourth Reich, with Erik Estrada co-starring and Ernest Borgnine again playing the role of General Worden.[31] In 1988, FOX aired a short-lived television series, among the cast was John Slattery, who played Private Leeds in eight of the show's 11 episodes.[32] The surviving cast members provided the voices of the toy soldiers in Joe Dante's Small Soldiers.

In 2014, Warner Bros. announced that director David Ayer would be the director of a live-action adaptation of the DC Comics property Suicide Squad, and Ayer has gone on to say that the film is "the Dirty Dozen with super villains", citing the original film as inspiration.

Differences from the novel

The attack on the German chateau, a set-piece action sequence and the climax of the film, is referenced in past tense in the form of an official army report, using the false document technique.

The character of Archer Maggot was in no way a religious fanatic as portrayed on screen, but was a Southern gangster who had preyed on servicemen in the corrupt environment of Phenix City, Alabama.

The characters of Milo Vladek and Tassos Bravos were not in the novel. Instead, the novel featured Myron Odell, a nervous and cowardly medic who claims to be innocent of raping and murdering a girl, and Calvin Ezra Smith, an older and religious soldier.

Sawyer had a much larger role in the novel. Sawyer was the only prisoner out of the dozen that had seen combat.

The African-American prisoner in the novel was named Napoleon White. Throughout the novel, White and Maggot clashed. Ironically, after White was wounded during the mission, it was Maggot who was assigned to care for him and wait for the invading Allies to arrive.

Reisman was much younger in the novel and was a Captain by the time he was assigned to Project Amnesty. Reisman had a sexual relationship with a British tavern girl by the name of Tess Simmons.

In the novel, the majority of the prisoners survived the mission but were listed as Missing in Action. Those who were missing were: White, Pinkley, Posey, Jimenez and Maggott. The rest of the Dirty Dozen was killed in action. Wladislaw and Sawyer were the only prisoners that returned.

Comic book adaption

See also


  1. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Limelight, 1995 p 269
  2. "The Dirty Dozen, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  3. "The Dirty Dozen". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  4. Yardley, William (February 13, 2013). "Jake McNiece, Who Led Incorrigible D-Day Unit, Is Dead at 93". New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2016.
  5. "World War II soldier John (Jack) Agnew, whose unit inspired 'Dirty Dozen,' dies at 88". New York Daily News. Associated Press. April 12, 2010. Retrieved April 8, 2016.
  6. "Dirty Dozen film at Beechwood - Local History Questions". Hemel Hempstead Gazette. Retrieved July 27, 2010.
  7. "NFL Career Rushing Yards Leaders -".
  8. p.537 Roberts, Randy & Olsen, James Stuart John Wayne: American 1997 University of Nebraska Press
  9. "Actor Jack Palance Won't Play Racist for $141,000". Jet: 59. March 10, 1966.
  10. Commentary The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition
  11. Film The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition
  12. Patterson, John (September 3, 2005). "Total recall". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  13. Roger Ebert (1967-07-26). "The Dirty Dozen". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  14. 1 2 Bosley Crowther (1967-06-16). "The Dirty Dozen (1967)". NYT Critics' Pick. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  15. Variety staff (1967). "The Dirty Dozen". Variety. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  16. "The Dirty Dozen". Time Out Film Guide. Time Out. Retrieved 2010-03-29.
  17. "The Dirty Dozen".
  18. "The 40th Academy Awards (1968) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-25.
  19. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-20.
  20. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-20.
  21. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-20.
  22. "Big Rental Films of 1967", Variety, 3 January 1968 p. 25. These figures refer to rentals accruing to the distributors.
  23. French box office results for Robert Aldrich films at Box Office Story
  24. Killblane, Richard; McNiece, Jake (May 19, 2003). "The Filthy Thirteen: From the Dustbowl to Hitler's Eagle's Nest :The True Story of the101st Airborne's Most Legendary Squad of Combat Paratroopers". Casemate via Amazon.
  25. Associated Press, April 11, 2010
  26. The Filthy Thirteen: The U.S. Army's Real "Dirty Dozen" American Valor Quarterly online, Winter 2008-09. Retrieved April 10, 2010 Archived April 7, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  27. "Cinema: Jungle Rot". Time. June 8, 1970. Retrieved 2010-03-29. War may be getting a bad name, but it still pays at the box office. Ask Director Robert Aldrich. His 1967 film The Dirty Dozen made millions by drafting a gang of incorrigible convicts into a mission behind enemy lines. Too Late the Hero is a kind of sequel to The Dirty Dozen, based once again on a World War II suicide mission.
  28. "Inglourious Basterds Has Inglorious Beginnings". FlickDirect.
  29. The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission at the Internet Movie Database
  30. The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission at the TCM Movie Database
  31. The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission at the TCM Movie Database
  32. Dirty Dozen: The Series at the Internet Movie Database
  33. Dell Movie Classic: The Dirty Dozen' at the Grand Comics Database
  34. Dell Movie Classic: The Dirty Dozen' at the Comic Book DB
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