Sunday, June 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Just a short musing on "The Dirty Dozen", a Robert Aldrich war film from 1967. In the film, twelve life-sentence or death-row WWII soldiers are pulled out of military prison to train for a mass-assassination mission, in which they are to kill numerous Nazi commanders vacationing in a lavish countryside chateau. Of course, the film's final act is the mission itself, and here are some interesting details (so if you haven't seen the film yet, but are planning to, save this musing for later). Things (of course) go awry, and most of the Nazi commanders seem to escape to their underground bomb shelter. The team, of course, has other plans for them. Above ground, their commander, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), instructs the soldiers to find the bomb shelter's air shafts, and to drop gasoline and grenades down at the trapped Nazis below. They do this, and for a short while, the Nazis suffer the agony of knowing that they're trapped, and that death is being dropped down on them through holes in their ceiling. Then they are blown up.

The imagery is striking. Hollywood's first overt post-war depiction of concentration camps did not hit the screens until Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker, in 1964, three short years before "The Dirty Dozen", and even then, the images were fairly brief, just flashes of memory. Dogs, fences, cattle cars... It would be a very long time before a Hollywood film would venture in to the gas chambers themselves (this is something even Spielberg avoided in "Schindler's List" (1993)). But here, we have a clear visual parallel -- people jammed together in a concrete tomb with death being poured down on them (the same way that Zyklon-B canisters were dropped in to the gas chambers through vents in the ceilings). I do not know who in the production of "The Dirty Dozen" might have had the experience to know these details, but the scenes do seem like a dark fantasy of revenge. I don't think it's completely coincidental, either, that the perpetrators of this reversal are themselves criminals in this story. As nice as it can be sometimes to fantasize about exterminating the Nazis, even the imagination will not allow the 'good old boys' to do the deed.

When Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" hits theaters in a short while, I imagine that similar themes will present themselves (and I wouldn't be surprised if "The Dirty Dozen" is heavily cited as a thematic and narrative predecessor to "Basterds" in reviews and critiques of the newer film)


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