Dirty Dozen, The (1967): Aldrich’s Blockbuster WWII Actioner



Directed by Robert Aldrich, “The Dirty Dozen” is an action-packed World War II thriller, with an all-star macho cast, including Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Trini Lopez, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, George Kennedy, Clint Walker and John Cassavetes (nominated for a supporting actor Oscar).


Nominated for four Oscars Awards, “The Dirty Dozen” remains a milestone among ensemble action flicks. A mega-blockbuster when it was released theatrically, in 1967, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the movie won one Oscar (Best Sound Effects) and became MGM’s biggest moneymaker of the year.  Since then it has gone on to sell more than 2 million video units to date. 


The screenplay is penned by Nunally Johnson and Lukas Heller, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson.  Lee Marvin portrays tough-as-nails, nonconformist Major John Reisman, assigned to command a squad of misfits and felons (murderers, rapist, thieves) on a suicide mission against Nazi brass on the eve of D-Day.  The target is to infiltrate and destroy a chateau in occupied France in which top Nazis congregate.


Aided by his assistant (Richard Jaeckel), Reisman assembles 12 men, ranging from the dim-witted to the utterly psychotic.  With no other chance for redemption, this group of convicts, psychos, and losers are promised their freedom if they can survive. 


To bring the Dirty Dozen into shape, he subjects them to brutal training, resulting in their molding into an efficient and ruthless fighting force.  The training session climaxes in a war game, pitting Reiseman’s troops against a crack unit, after which they parachute into France to begin a mission most of them will not survive.


Intermittently funny and extremely violent by standards of its times, this box-office hit became even more popular with repeated showings on TV and led to two Made-for-TV sequels in the 1980s.


Boasting excellent performances from stellar cast, this is the ultimate macho actioner.  The guys are depicted baddies and heavies, with no background stories, or any other rationalization.  We are asked to take at face value the notion that criminals and psychos could be transformed into responsible men capable of “heroic” conduct.  (The few women in the picture are German prostitutes).


Cynical and amoral in outlook, “Dirty Dozen” calls into question the morals of the Americans, not the Germans.  The instigators are depicted sipping sherry and smoking cigars, content that the mission was accomplished even if some of their comrades had paid wit their lives for its success.  The filmmakers’ intent might have been to critique the hideous and morbid side of war, but most viewers just enjoyed the nasty, sadistic, and animalistic zeal of the soldiers during the action set-pieces.


Conservative critics at the time, such as the New York Times Bosley Crowther dismissed the film as being based on “a fictional supposition that is silly and irresponsible,” viewing it as “a raw and preposterous glorification of criminal soldiers.”


The versatile Robert Aldrich is known for his work in Westerns (“Apache,” “Vera Cruz”), sci-fi and noir (“Kiss Me Deadly’), horror (“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” both with Bette Davis), and other genres (“The Longest Yard”), but this picture is his most entertaining and commercial outing, enabling him to buy his own studio, which he kept until 1973.


Filled with explosive excitement, military grit and anti-authority gibes,

Dirty Dozen” has become a cult classic of the war-movie genre, earning a place on the AFI list of “100 Years…100 Thrills.”


Oscar Alert


Oscar Nominations: 4


Supporting Actor: John Cassavetes

Film Editing: Michael Luciano

Sound: MGM

Sound Effects: John Poyner


Oscar Awards: 1


Sound Effects


Oscar Context


The winner of the supporting actor Oscar was




Major Reisman (Lee Marvin)

Gen. Warden (Ernest Borgnine)

Jospeh Wladislaw (Charles Bronson)

Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown)

Victor Frank (John Cassavetes)

Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel)

Maj. Max Armbruster (George Kennedy)

Pedro Jiminez (Trini Lopez)

Capt. Stuart Kinder (Ralph Meeker)

Col. Everett Dasher-Breed (Robert Ryan)

Archer Maggott (Telly Savals)

Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland)




Produced by Kenneth Hyman

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Screenplay: Lukas Heller, based on the novel by E. M. Nathanson

Camera: Ted Scaife

Editing: Michael Luciano

Mucis: Frank DeVol

Art direction: William Hutchinson

Special effects: Cliff Richardson


Running Time: 149 Minutes