Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen would be a lot more entertaining if I didn’t speak some German. Totally ruins it. In English only it’s action flick. In English and German it’s about a particularly brutal war crime.

I was never a big fan of the flick but the wife loves it. I like some of the training stuff–Sutherland’s general bit is by far my favorite scene–but once they knife those two German soldiers it starts creeping me out. The guy is talking about looking forward to seeing his family on his leave (Urlaub) and then gack. A really awful gack too. I especially hate the bit where Telly knifes the poor German lady. In English you assume she’s a whore, in German she could be a lover or wife or girlfriend. Then when they prepare to slaughter the people trapped in the basement their frantic talk and pleas are really hard to take if you can understand what they are actually saying. This is where it becomes a war crime. The dead sentry, well, that was war. The dead blonde, well, Telly’s character is a homicidal maniac. But the operation itself is the kind of thing we hung Nazis for at Nuremberg. You’ll notice that almost all the prisoners they lock in the basement are Wehrmacht, that is regular army, and not SS. And almost all are staff and support personnel, not generals. Notice how many are women–wives even. They are not even prisoners, soldiers are prisoners. Civilians are hostages. You’ll notice too that when the Dirty Dozen (or what was left of them) let the French help go they murder the German help–cooks, bell boys, whatever–in cold blood. That was killing prisoners. It was a more grisly Malmedy, except even the German army thought the SS who murdered the American prisoners in the snow were war criminals. The Dirty Dozen instead are heroes. The good guys. They were certainly on the good side, but I don’t know about being good guys. Think about what Jim Brown was doing when he died. That beautiful broken field run, plopping grenades down air shafts and murdering scores of prisoners and hostages.

That whole scene would have really bothered Americans in WW2, and as a matter of fact the whole flick would have been banned for the duration. That kind of stuff, in the European theater of operations anyway, was not OK. It usually meant a court martial, it certainly was hushed up. They were seen as incidents not to be bragged about. The fact that no one had second thoughts about it twenty five years later says volumes. Certainly the outright massacre of an entire village with fire arms and grenades as happened at My Lai would have been impossible in WW2, or had it happened the perpetrators would have been tried by the American army for war crimes. We did just that. We tried American soldiers who deliberately murdered civilians. We even tried soldiers in Europe who murdered prisoners. Though there’s a racial element here. We took no quarter (nor were we given any) in the war with the Japanese (something made worse by Japanese prisoners killing their captors with hidden grenades). It had happened before–during the Philippine Insurrection in the early 1900’s an entire village of Moros was annihilated in a nasty preview of My Lai–and would happen again, as in 1950 panicky American draftees under panicky officers could not tell the difference between South Korean refugees and North Korean soldiers at No Gun Ri and hundreds of innocent people were killed. But during World War Two there were no massacres of Japanese civilians by American troops on Saipan or Okinawa or in Japan. It was the Japanese Army who regularly gunned down civilians (or lopped off their heads or buried them alive or used them for bayonet practice), not the U.S. But by the time we were in Viet Nam only a generation after the Second World War, shooting civilians was not only acceptable behavior, but the perpetrators of a slaughter of an entire village were viewed overwhelmingly as heroes. Lieutenant William Calley was a beloved, lionized figure by a majority of the American populace apparently quite off its moral rocker.

Robert Bales, the U.S. Army staff sergeant who carried out that grisly calculated massacre in Afghanistan in 2012 was also seen as a hero by much of the American pubic. Not most, certainly, but by far too many. There was a huge change in American attitudes towards slaughtering unarmed civilians and prisoners by the 1960’s and it still lingers. Yet had The Dirty Dozen been a film made in Germany in World War II it would be held up as an example of Nazi depravity.

I’m not saying it’s not well made, exciting, well cast and even funny, I just find it really disturbing to watch once they start massacring all their hostages. And the scene where Telly kills the German woman is really disturbing. Notice how the camera has no pity for her. Pity is pointless, as she was to be killed anyway in the cellar with gasoline and grenades. She’s beautiful, she’s blonde, she’s looking for sex and gets a knife instead. That’s too much for me. Something is wrong with this picture.

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Lobby cards for U.S. release (above) and U.K. (below). Perhaps English test screenings had revealed some misgivings. Damn them or praise them, their tagline warns. American audiences seemed to have had no such problems. The film was released in June of 1967, smack dab in the Summer of Love.

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One thought on “Dirty Dozen

  1. We saw this some time ago (my better half has a thing for Clint Walker, who plays one of the “good” criminals) and I was appalled by the war crime at the end. I think I heard once that a certain percentage of GI’s were willing to fire their weapons at the enemy during WWII, and that the percentage went way up in later wars. The number of people who think that torture is a good thing, as long as it’s the bad guys, is pretty depressing, too.

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