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From 12 To 1
by Jon Schuller

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The movies have dramatized literally dozens of stories about (mostly) men in prison. However they wound up there either by their own design or mistake what happens to men who are suddenly locked up after years of freedom is endlessly fascinating. The Shawshank Redemption, Birdman of Alcatraz, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, House of Numbers, Brute Force, Midnight Express, The Longest Yard, Stir Crazy, Cool Hand Luke, Castle on the Hudson, Papillon, White Heat, The Last Mile, and Brubaker - to name just a few are examples of the wide ranging visions of what prisons represent and what they do to the people there. In June, 1967, a film about World War II and a small group of American military convicts, incarcerated in England, was released. The Dirty Dozen was based on the E.M. Nathanson 1965 novel of the same title (from a true World War II story called The Filthy Thirteen). It had an all-star cast headed by Lee Marvin and featured Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker and Robert Webber. The plot was relatively simple: 12
U.S. Army prisoners are to be molded into a commando- style fighting group for a secret operation into France just before the D-Day invasion. They are to assault a chateau in Brittany where a large gathering of senior Werhmacht and SS officers is being held. The team is there to kill as many as they can. If they somehow survive what probably is a suicide mission, they will be immediately paroled and returned to active duty, their records expunged.

Major John Reisman, an OSS officer (Marvin) meets the 12 men and begins their training, hoping but doubting they'll become a fighting force. They learn hand-to-hand combat and Reisman begins to understand what each man's crimes were and what their attitudes are towards the Army and him.

The Dirty Dozen (as they've become) are sent to another camp to learn parachute training, under the command of the no-nonsense, by-the-book Col. Everett Dasher Breed (Ryan). Breed doesn't like Reisman and wants to learn what his secret mission is. Pinkley (Sutherland) pretends he's a general, inspecting Breed's troops and Wladislaw (Bronson) gets attacked by 2 of Breed's men. They are in turn beaten up by
Posey (Walker) and Jefferson (Brown) in a latrine.

The attacks and beatings get back to General Worden (Borgnine) and he orders Reisman and Breed to settle their differences for the sake of the mission. Major Armbruster (Kennedy) suggests that a war game be set up to test Reisman's men versus General Breed's crack troops. The Dirty Dozen must capture Breed's command post and take the general prisoner. If they do it, the mission to France will be allowed to happen. The Dozen don't play by the rules and infiltrate Breed's command post and capture him. The embarrassment alone convinces all the officers that these men, though convicts, can make the mission work.

They parachute into France and reach the chateau. Pretending to be officers, Reisman and Wladislaw infiltrate the party at the chateau but are observed and considered suspicious. Upstairs, Maggot (Savalas)goes insane, gives the game away by murdering a woman and then everything falls apart. The German officers shepherd everyone at the party into a large basement bomb shelter. Reisman locks the door and the men begin to throw grenades and gasoline into the shelter. Outside a fierce
battle ensues between the men and German soldiers, protecting the chateau. Most of the Dirty Dozen are killed and one, Wladislaw, survives and is exonerated upon returning to England.

The Dirty Dozen, while panned by the critics for its impossible plot and unlikely characters, was a box-office bombshell and made a lot of money in 1967. It spawned some sequels and received several of AFI's "100 Years" awards. The "Filthy Thirteen" of World War II was a real airborne demolition unit that used unusual methods to do their work behind enemy lines.

I think that one point of the film is important and realistic. The 12 men, all different and all dangerous, still overcame their obvious personality defects and bonded together (even if roughly) and became a unit, depending on each other when the going got tough - as was expected. 12 men with nothing to lose saw a slim chance to exonerate themselves and accomplish something larger than they were; to save themselves from mortal mistakes and maybe help others win the war. So, despite the bad reviews, I'd like to think that 50 years later, the film has redeeming qualities. And, of course, one hell of a great cast.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

A Different Perspective on War

Some Movie Scenes Still Make Me Emotional

Another Sign That the Times Were Changing

Two Different Neighborhoods, Yet So Alike

I Know About This Type of Friendship

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for over 26 years.I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 47 years (as of December 22, 2015) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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