The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 American war film starring Lee Marvin and featuring an ensemble supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Robert Webber and Donald Sutherland. The film, which was directed by Robert Aldrich,[3] was filmed in the UK at MGM-British Studios and released by MGM. It was a box office success and won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing at the 40th Academy Awards in 1968. In 2001, the American Film Institute placed the film at number 65 on their 100 Years... 100 Thrills list.

The Dirty Dozen
Directed byRobert Aldrich
Produced byKenneth Hyman
Screenplay byNunnally Johnson
Lukas Heller
Based onThe Dirty Dozen
by E. M. Nathanson
StarringLee Marvin
Ernest Borgnine
Charles Bronson
Jim Brown
John Cassavetes
Richard Jaeckel
George Kennedy
Trini Lopez
Ralph Meeker
Robert Ryan
Telly Savalas
Clint Walker
Robert Webber
Donald Sutherland
Music byFrank De Vol
CinematographyEdward Scaife
Edited byMichael Luciano
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • June 15, 1967 (1967-06-15)
Running time
150 minutes
CountryUnited States
United Kingdom
Budget$5.4 million[1]
Box office$45.3 million[2]

The screenplay is based on the 1965 bestseller by E. M. Nathanson which was inspired by a real-life WWII unit of behind-the-lines demolition specialists from the 101st Airborne Division named the "Filthy Thirteen".[4][5]


In March 1944, OSS officer Major John Reisman is ordered by the commander of ADSEC in Britain, Major General Sam Worden, to undertake Project Amnesty. It is a top-secret mission to train some of the US Army's worst prisoners and turn them into commandos to be sent on a virtual suicide mission just before D-Day. The target is a château near Rennes in Brittany where dozens of high-ranking German officers will be eliminated in order to disrupt the chain of command of the Wehrmacht in Northern France before the Allied invasion. Reisman is told he can tell the prisoners that those who survive the mission will receive pardons for their crimes.

Reisman meets the twelve convicts at a prison under the control of the US Army's MPs. Five are condemned to death while the others face lengthy sentences which include hard labor. Reisman establishes his authority by stamping on the face of one prisoner who attacked him. With a detachment of MPs led by Sgt. Bowren acting as guards, the prisoners gradually learn how to operate together when they are forced to build their own training camp. However, when an act of insubordination is instigated by the rebellious Franko, all shaving and wash kits are withheld as punishment which leads to their nickname "The Dirty Dozen." During their training the prisoners are psychoanalyzed by Capt. Kinder who warns Reisman that they would all quite likely kill him if given the chance; and rapist/killer Maggott is by far the most dangerous.

With their commando training almost complete, the "Dirty Dozen" are sent for parachute training at a facility commanded by Reisman's nemesis Colonel Everett Dasher Breed of the 101st Airborne Division. When Reisman's men run afoul of Breed, especially after Pinkley – under Reisman's orders – poses as a general to inspect Breed's best troops, the Airborne colonel attempts to discover Reisman's mission by having two of his men beat a confession out of one of the prisoners. The convicts blame Reisman for the attack but realize later it was mistake after Breed and his men arrive at their base looking for answers. Reisman infiltrates his own camp and gets the convicts to disarm Breed's paratroops forcing the colonel to leave in humiliation.

However, after Reisman gets prostitutes for the men to celebrate the completion of their training, General Worden and his chief of staff, Brigadier General Denton throw the book at him. Denton, who sides with Breed's testimony, urges General Worden to terminate Project Amnesty and send the men back to prison for execution of their sentences. Reisman defends the prisoners ferociously saying each one is worth ten of Breed's best troops. Reisman's friend, Major Max Armbruster, suggests a test. During upcoming military maneuvers in southwest England, the "Dirty Dozen" will attempt to capture Colonel Breed's headquarters. The unit does indeed infiltrate and captures Breed's headquarters using various unorthodox tactics including deception, theft, and impersonation. General Worden is impressed and green-lights Reisman's mission.

The men are flown to northern France but one man dies breaking his neck during the parachute drop. With a man down, the mission proceeds with German-speaking Wladislaw and Reisman infiltrating the chateau disguised as German officers. However, all surprise is lost when the psychopathic Maggott begins shooting at anyone (friend or foe) before he is killed. With the sound of gunfire, the Wehrmacht officers and companions retreat to an underground bomb shelter/cellar. After the entrance is barred, they are killed by grenades and gasoline which has been poured in down ventilation shafts. In the end, only Reisman, Sgt Bowren and Wladislaw escape alive. Back in England, a voiceover from Armbruster confirms that General Worden exonerated the sole surviving member of the Dirty Dozen and communicated to the next of kin of the rest that "they lost their lives in the line of duty".




Although Robert Aldrich had failed 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. On publication the novel became a best-seller in 1965. It was adapted to the screen by veteran scriptwriter and producer, Nunnally Johnson, and Lukas Heller. A repeated rhyme was written into the script where the twelve actors verbally recite the details of the attack in a rhyming chant to help them remember their roles while approaching the mission target:

  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.


The cast included many World War II US veterans, including Lee Marvin, 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 knife 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.[6] 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.[7]

Six of the dozen were experienced American stars, while the "Back Six" were actors resident in the UK, Englishman Colin Maitland, Canadian 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[8] (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.[9] 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.[10]

Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns running back, announced his retirement from American football at age 29 during the making of the film. 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 retirement from football more than 50 years ago, Brown remains the league's 10th all-time leading rusher,[11] 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".


Interiors and set pieces took place at MGM British Studios, Borehamwood. The château was built especially for the production, by art director William Hutchinson. It was 720 yards (660 m) wide and 50 feet (15 m) high, surrounded with 5,400 square yards (4,500 m2) 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.

Exteriors were shot throughout southeast England. The credit scenes at the American military prison – alluded in the movie to be Shepton Mallett – were shot in the ancillary courtyard of Ashridge House in Hertfordshire. The jump school scene was at the former entrance to RAF Hendon in London. The wargame was filmed in and around the village of Aldbury. Bradenham Manor was the 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.[12] After filming finished the training camp huts were relocated and used as sports equipment storage for the school's playing fields.


Box office

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.[13] 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.[14]

To coincide with its release, Dell Comics published a comic The Dirty Dozen in October 1967.[15][16]


The film currently holds an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews.[17] On release, the film was criticised for its level of violence. Roger Ebert, who was 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.[18]

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.[19]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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 review then states:

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.[21]

Awards and nominations

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in the category Best Sound Effects.[22]

  • Actor in a Supporting Role (John Cassavetes)
  • Film Editing (Michael Luciano)
  • Sound
  • Sound Effects (John Poyner) (won)

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

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".[26] 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.[27] Quentin Tarantino's 2009 Inglourious Basterds was later derived from the English-language title of director Enzo G. Castellari's 1977 war film The Inglorious Bastards.[28][29]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.


In December 2019 it was announced that Warner Brothers are developing a remake with Suicide Squad director David Ayer set to direct. [34]

Historical authenticity

Nathanson states in the prologue to his novel The Dirty Dozen, that while he heard a legend that such a unit may have existed, he incorrectly heard they were convicts. He was unable to find any corroboration in the archives of the US Army in Europe. He instead turned his research of convicted felons into the subsequent novel. While he does not state from where he acquired the name, but Arch Whitehouse coined the name "Dirty Dozen" as the 12 enlisted men of the airborne section that would become the "Filthy Thirteen" after the lieutenant joined their ranks. In Arch Whitehouse's article in True Magazine, he claimed all the enlisted men were full-blood Indians, but in reality only their leader, Jake McNeice was quarter Choctaw. The parts of the Filthy Thirteen story that carried over into Nathanson's book were not bathing until the jump into Normandy, their disrespect for military authority, and the pre-invasion party. The Filthy Thirteen was in actuality a demolitions section with a mission to secure bridges over the Douve on D-Day.

A similarly named unit called the "Filthy Thirteen" was an airborne demolition unit documented in the eponymous book,[35] 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.[36][37]

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. p.537 Roberts, Randy & Olsen, James Stuart John Wayne: American 1997 University of Nebraska Press
  7. Company, Johnson Publishing (March 10, 1966). "Actor Jack Palance Won't Play Racist for $141,000". Jet: 59.
  8. Commentary The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition
  9. Film The Dirty Dozen: 2-Disc Special Edition
  10. Patterson, John (September 3, 2005). "Total recall". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  11. "NFL Career Rushing Yards Leaders –".
  12. "Dirty Dozen film at Beechwood – Local History Questions". Hemel Hempstead Gazette. Retrieved July 27, 2010.
  13. "Big Rental Films of 1967", Variety, 3 January 1968 p. 25. These figures refer to rentals accruing to the distributors.
  14. French box office results for Robert Aldrich films at Box Office Story
  15. Dell Movie Classic: The Dirty Dozen at the Grand Comics Database
  16. Dell Movie Classic: The Dirty Dozen at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)
  17. "The Dirty Dozen".
  18. Roger Ebert (July 26, 1967). "The Dirty Dozen". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
  19. Bosley Crowther (June 16, 1967). "The Dirty Dozen (1967)". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
  20. Variety staff (1967). "The Dirty Dozen". Variety. Archived from the original on February 5, 2013. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
  21. "The Dirty Dozen". Time Out Film Guide. Time Out. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  22. "The 40th Academy Awards (1968) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved August 25, 2011.
  23. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  24. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  25. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  26. "Cinema: Jungle Rot". Time. June 8, 1970. Retrieved March 29, 2010. 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.
  27. "Inglourious Basterds Has Inglorious Beginnings". FlickDirect.
  28. "Inglourious Basterds Review". CBC News. August 21, 2009. Archived from the original on August 26, 2009. Retrieved January 18, 2010.
  29. Wise, Damon (August 15, 2009). "Inglourious Basterds Guide". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on August 17, 2009. Retrieved January 19, 2010.
  30. The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission on IMDb
  31. The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission at the TCM Movie Database
  32. The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission at the TCM Movie Database
  33. Dirty Dozen: The Series on IMDb
  34. "Dirty Dozen Movie Remake Recruits Suicide Squad Director David Ayer". ScreenRant. Retrieved December 17, 2019.
  35. Killblane, Richard; McNiece, Jake (May 19, 2003). The Filthy Thirteen: From the Dustbowl to Hitler's Eagle's Nest: The True Story of the 101st Airborne's Most Legendary Squad of Combat Paratroopers. Casemate. ISBN 978-1-932033-12-0 via Amazon.
  36. Associated Press, April 11, 2010
  37. 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
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