Play Dirty

Play Dirty is a 1969 British war film starring Michael Caine,[2] Nigel Davenport, Nigel Green and Harry Andrews. It was director Andre DeToth's last film, based on a screenplay by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin.[3]

Play Dirty
Directed byAndre DeToth
Produced byHarry Saltzman[1]
Screenplay byMelvyn Bragg
Lotte Colin
Story byGeorge Marton
StarringMichael Caine
Nigel Davenport
Nigel Green
Harry Andrews
Aly Ben Ayed
Vivian Pickles
Music byMichel Legrand
CinematographyEdward Scaife
Edited byJack Slade
Alan Osbiston (uncredited)
Lowndes Productions Limited
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
1 January 1969 (UK)
Running time
117 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film's story is inspired by the exploits of units such as the Long Range Desert Group, Popski's Private Army and the SAS in North Africa during the Second World War.


During the North African Campaign in the Second World War, Captain Douglas (Michael Caine) is a British Petroleum employee seconded to the Royal Engineers to oversee incoming fuel supplies for the British Eighth Army. Colonel Masters (Nigel Green) commands a special raiding unit composed of convicted criminals, and after a string of failures he is told by his commander, Brigadier Blore (Harry Andrews), that he must have a regular officer to lead a dangerous last-chance mission to destroy an Afrika Korps fuel depot, otherwise his unit will be disbanded. Despite Douglas's objections, he is chosen for his knowledge of oil pipelines and infrastructure. Douglas is then introduced to Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport), a convicted criminal rescued from prison to lead Masters's operations in the field.

The next day, Douglas and Leech are provided with armed jeeps and lead six other men out into the desert disguised as an Italian Army patrol. They endure a long and arduous trek across the desert: encountering hostile tribesmen, sandstorms and a booby-trapped oasis, among other dangers. While Leech and his men are often insubordinate towards Douglas's command, they eventually reach their objective, only to discover that the depot is fake. They then head to a German-occupied port city, hoping to steal a boat and escape; Douglas sees the fuel depot there and convinces Leech that destroying it would aid their plan. Meanwhile, Masters is confronted by Blore with aerial photographs of the supposed depot intact — confirming the mission's failure. Having lost contact with the men for some time, Masters is ordered to leak intelligence on the team to the Germans; the British Army is now on the offensive, and it wishes to keep any enemy fuel depots intact for capture.

Under the cover of night, the men don German uniforms and sneak into the port depot to plant their explosives, but one of them sets off a trip flare and they are quickly surrounded; an officer on a loudspeaker calls each of them out by name, revealing Masters's betrayal. The men scatter as the depot is detonated; Leech and Douglas manage to slip away, while the rest are caught and killed. After taking shelter, Leech admits to Douglas that he is being kept alive only because Masters is paying him £2000 for his safe return.

The Eighth Army arrives the next morning; Douglas and Leech (still wearing their German uniforms) decide to surrender to the British. Unfortunately, a trigger-happy British soldier opens fire, killing them before they have a chance to speak.


  • Michael Caine as Capt. Douglas – Royal Engineers
  • Nigel Davenport as Capt. Cyril Leech – serving 15 years in prison for sinking his tramp steamer for the insurance
  • Nigel Green as Col. Masters
    Based loosely on Vladimir 'Popski' Peniakoff
  • Harry Andrews as Brigadier Blore
    At the time when the film is based, Lt. Col. Shan Hackett was C.O. Special Forces HQ
  • Patrick Jordan as Major Alan Watkins – Guards Commando Unit
  • Daniel Pilon as Capt. Attwood – Blore's adjutant
  • Bernard Archard as Col. Homerton
  • Aly Ben Ayed as Sadok
  • Takis Emmanouel as Kostas Manou
  • Vivian Pickles as a German Nurse
  • Stanley Caine as a German Officer
  • Martin Burland as Dead Officer
  • George McKeenan as Corporal at Quayside
  • Bridget Espeet as Ann
  • Enrique Avila as Kalarides
  • Mohsen Ben Abdallah as Hassan
  • Mohamed Kouka as Assine
  • Scott Miller as Boudesh
  • Michael Stevens as Capt. Johnson
  • Tony Stamboulieh as Barman in Arab Bar
  • Jose Halufi as Arab
  • Jeremy Child as 2nd Lieutenant
  • Dennis Brennan as Corporal
  • Rafael Albaicín as Chief Arab at Oasis



The film was originally titled Written in the Sand;[4] it was announced in October 1967 with Michael Caine to star and René Clément to direct.[5] Caine later said he made the film because of his relationship with producer Harry Saltzman and the fact he wanted to work with Clément.[6]

The film was also known as Deadly Patrol.[7]

In February 1968 Richard Harris and Nigel Davenport signed to co-star, by which time the film had been re-named Play Dirty.[8][9]

According to Andre DeToth, Lotte Colin did hardly any of the screenplay despite being credited. She was Saltzman's mother-in-law.[10]


The film was originally planned by Saltzman to be filmed in Israel. Saltzman asked Andre DeToth to scout the country for locations.[11] De Toth said Clément wanted to film in Morocco or Algeria, but Saltzman refused to go to North Africa, and Clément refused to go to Israel. The film ended up being shot on location near Tabernas in Almería, Spain.[12]

Richard Harris left his home in London for Spain on 16 February 1968. He said he was handed a script which was different from the one he had agreed to do when he signed on. He quit the film and sued the producers for payment of his salary, which was a reported £150,000.[8]

After Nigel Davenport replaced Harris, and Nigel Green replaced Davenport, René Clément resigned as director, and executive producer André DeToth took over directing the film.[13] DeToth said Clément "wanted to make a 'poetry of war'" while Saltzman "wanted blazing guns and roaring tanks".[14]

Several other films were shooting in Almería at the same time, including Shalako. Caine later said, "There are six sand dunes in Almeria... We'd all come round the hill chasing Rommel's tanks - and there's horse shit all over the desert and a stagecoach in the other directions being chased by Indians. The other film units were forever wiping out tank tracks to get their westerns and we were forever shovelling up horse shit and wiping out hoof prints to get our El Alamein." Caine later said he had a clause in his contracts that any film on which he worked could not be made in Almería. "It was that bad".[15]

DeToth later said that in making the film, "I wanted to rub our noses in the mess we have created and how we shy away from our ability to clean it up... I wanted to disturb, to open closed eyes and scramble brains."[16]


A novelization was published by Pan Books. The author used the pen name Zeno.


The film was a box office disappointment.[17]


  1. Matt Green (9 February 2015). Michael Caine - Biography Series. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-1-312-90478-1.
  2. Anne Billson, "Is Michael Caine Britain's most important film star?", The Telegraph, 12 November 2014.
  3. "Play Dirty". review by Fred Camper, Chicago Reader, 23 October 1997.
  4. Some sources mistakenly identify the original title as Written on the Sand.
  5. "MOVIE CALL SHEET: Robert Shaw Cast in 'Party'". Martin, Betty; Los Angeles Times, 17 October 1967: c14.
  6. Caine, Michael (2010). The Elephant to Hollywood. Henry Holt and Co. p. 110.
  7. Slide p 155
  8. "Richard Harris to sue film producers". Our London Staff; The Irish Times, 27 February 1968: 4.
  9. "MOVIE CALL SHEET: Cobb to Produce 'Ceferino'". Martin, Betty; Los Angeles Times, 17 February 1968: 17.
  10. Slide, p 157
  11. Slide, Anthony. de Toth on de Toth, Faber and Faber, 2011; p 152
  12. Robert Cettl (4 July 2015). King of the Turkeys: Michael Caine in America. Wider Screenings TM. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-0-9873785-1-4.
  13. "Play Dirty". Filmfacts. 12: 90.
  14. Slide p 152
  15. Hall, William (1982). Raising Caine: the authorized biography. p. 129.
  16. Slide, p 155
  17. Balio, Tino (1987). United Artists: the company that changed the film industry. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 314.
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