In Britain, in March 1944, the Advance Section Communications Zone (ADSEC) of the US Army is responsible for planning detail for the D-Day invasion. ADSEC commander Major General Sam Worden has orders for Major John Reisman, an OSS officer, and Reisman's former commander Colonel Everett Dasher Breed of the 101st Airborne Division. 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 ADSEC Major Max Armbruster.
Worden assigns Reisman an unusual and top-secret mission, code-named Project Amnesty. He is to train a small band of the Army's worst convicts (selected for him) 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.
After witnessing a hanging in a military prison, Reisman meets his 12 convicts (the 'Dirty Dozen'), all either serving lengthy sentences or awaiting execution. Military Police (MP) Sergeant Bowren reads out the sentences of each man as Major Reisman walks down the line of prisoners:
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.
Under the leadership of Reisman, supported by Capt. Kinder and supervised by Bowren and a few more MPs, the group begins training. After being forced to construct their own living quarters, the 12 men are trained in close 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 - under Reisman's orders - 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 the attackers 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 101st Airborne Division 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.
Due to the men's nature, and to prepare to backfill in case of someone's death, Reisman makes them memorize by repeated recitation the details of the attack in a rhyming chant to help them remember their roles. The night of the raid, the men are flown to France, and continue to repeat and verbally recite the 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, breaks his neck and dies, but as trained, the others proceed with the mission, Gilpin taking on Jiminez's duties. 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. Over the course of the battle, all but two of the convicts are killed, leaving Reisman, Bowren, Wladislaw and Franko as the remaining survivors of the assault team. As they make their escape Franko, shouting triumphantly that he has survived, is shot by a stray round. Only Reisman, Bowren and Wladislaw (the lone prisoner) manage to get out alive.
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".
As of July 2017, six actors who portrayed members of the Dirty Dozen are deceased.
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:
- Down to the road block, we've just begun.
- The guards are through.
- The Major's men are on a spree.
- Major and Wladislaw go through the door.
- Pinkley stays out in the drive.
- The Major gives the rope a fix.
- Wladislaw throws the hook to heaven.
- Jiminez has got a date.
- The other guys go up the line.
- Sawyer and Gilpen are in the pen.
- Posey guards Points Five and Seven.
- Wladislaw and the Major go down to delve.
- Franko goes up without being seen.
- Zero Hour: Jimenez cuts the cable; Franko cuts the phone.
- Franko goes in where the others have been.
- 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 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. 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.
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 (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. 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.
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, 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 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.
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.
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. 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.
To coincide with its release, Dell Comics published a comic The Dirty Dozen in October 1967.
The film currently holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in the category Best Sound Effects.Actor in a Supporting Role (John Cassavetes)
Film Editing (Michael Luciano)
Sound Effects (John Poyner) (won)
Also, the film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – No. 65
2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
The Dirty Dozen – Nominated Heroes
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
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". 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. Quentin Tarntino's 2009 Inglourious Basterds was later derived from the English-language title of director Enzo G. Castellari's 1977 war film The Inglorious Bastards.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 was unable to find any corroboration in the archives of the US Army in Europe.
A similarly named unit called the "Filthy Thirteen" was an airborne demolition unit documented in the eponymous book, 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.