Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon ---Part One
Official date for the Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon is Monday, October 16, but Mondays are for Glamour Starters here at Greenbriar, so I’m jumping the gun with Part One of my Aldrich contribution today. Part Two will publish on Tuesday. In the meantime, Blog-A-Thon headquarters is at Dennis Cozzalio’s excellent webpage, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (HERE). Go there and check out his links to all the other Aldrich contributors. There’s sure to be some great reading there …
A lot of well-intentioned critics feel a certain shame in their enjoyment of The Dirty Dozen. Some recent DVD reviews I’ve read firmly state that Robert Aldrich was there to expose the true ugliness of war, seizing upon violent images as a means of showing his abhorrence for man’s inhumanity to man. The director has no interest in macho platitudes or conventional heroics, they say. How can a twenty-first century dweller with all the right liberal sensibilities embrace such wanton carnage as this? Surely Aldrich was revolted by battlefields he depicted. Otherwise, we couldn’t permit ourselves to celebrate The Dirty Dozen. So is it anti-war? The better question might be, aren’t they all? Has anyone seen a serious war movie that wasn’t anti-war? I don’t consider Keep ‘Em Flying or Caught In The Draft anti-war, and for obvious reason, but I wouldn’t call The Green Berets pro-war either. The thing that makes The Dirty Dozen such a dangerous narcotic is the fact that it’s so much fun. If you had to single out a pro-war specimen, this one might be it. Other Aldrich shows railed against military abuses with as much efficiency, but something like Attack left no doubt as to its sour disapproval of high-ranking cowards and undeserving heroes. Kubrick's Paths Of Glory, great as it is, marches relentlessly toward a foregone conclusion we’ve divined within the first ten minutes. The Dirty Dozen is a lot more insidious. I saw it in 1967 and was flattered by Aldrich’s in-the-know cynicism he imparted to a theatre full of thirteen-year-old boys who wanted to get the real inside stuff about war. His willingness to kick his audience in the face (Look, you little bastard …) really woke us up to joyous potential in military hangings, casual indifference to protocol (you let somebody see you do it …), and even mass slaughter of enemy officers and their women. The You Are There sensation of pouring gasoline over helpless Nazis before setting them ablaze was a guilt-free incursion into bloodthirsty adulthood for a lot of us who’d grown tired of all those noble depictions of reluctant warriors. Did our fathers do stuff like this when they fought? If so, then at least some of it looked to be pretty cool. Oliver Stone missed the boat when he had Born On The Fourth Of July’s Tom Cruise watching Sands Of Iwo Jima before rushing off to enlist. If he’d substituted The Dirty Dozen, I might have found the scene more convincing. John Wayne makes a softer target for post-60’s filmmakers scoring political points, but the truly insidious pied piper might well have been Robert Aldrich. No wonder viewers still have to make excuses for liking this movie.
Everybody dismisses Bosley Crowther as a hopelessly out-of-touch fuddy-duddy. His review in The New York Times deriding Bonnie and Clyde stands at the precipice of that enlightened new age where youth took over and it was good riddance to repressed old men like Bosley (and the Times' dismissal of him soon after would confirm it). The Dirty Dozen was something Crowther particularly hated. A brazenly anti-social film, he said, and I do agree with him --- only, he missed one essential point. A lot of us were primed for anti-social films, especially those that revealed the Greatest Generation as a lot of psychotics and/or craven incompetents. Crowther’s larger beef lay in the fact that this was his peer group we were talking about, and much of what went on in The Dirty Dozen reflected very badly on the men who’d fought the last good war. Something like The Graduate was at least marginally more palatable to old-line critics. Bad behavior among youthful leads was more what they expected, but certain restraints had to be observed when you dealt with American men at war, and The Dirty Dozen violated them. Writer Nunnally Johnson submitted a script that played by the rules, which is precisely why Aldrich brought in Lukas Heller to rewrite him. Pictures like Attack differed by assailing the command with a narrower brush. Yes, there were venal officers, but men in the field understood a few rotten apples need not contaminate the whole barrel, and besides, Attack was a serious examination of war and worthy of respect for all that. The Dirty Dozen was a gauntlet laid before a then-large segment of the population, including Crowther and others of his generation, who still regarded themselves as having been essentially decent and humane, even in combat. Adolescent boys like me cared not a lick about such. We were just a lot of disrespectful brats cheering Up Yours! along with Lee Marvin and the dozen as they stuck it to corrupt Army brass.
Which brings me to Lee Marvin. Talk about your thirteen-year-old’s role model! The man’s career blossomed at precisely the right moment for me. The Dirty Dozen and The Professionals came along within months of each other. Lee was the unflappable leader of men in both. Even Robert Ryan seemed impotent beside him. Professionals co-star Burt Lancaster was for once upstaged, and everyone else just carried Lee's bags. Marvin gained more authority with age. In the fifties, he was too lean and just mean, menacing Randy Scott and slinging coffee at Gloria Grahame. Sometimes he clawed at scenery in the sixties. His Liberty Valance always seemed a little overstated, and a freak turn in The Comancheros was the best thing about that western, but still he seemed to be straining for effect. Donovan’s Reef was an excess of drunk scenes and bar fights, while Cat Ballou suggested a future wasted in (too) broad comedy. The Dirty Dozen came to the rescue and finally gave us the Marvin we’d waited for. He’d been a marine during WWII, island hopping and shot up for real while taking one of them. Lee’s qualification to lead the Dozen was absolute. We’ll not get another Dirty Dozen because there are no more Lee Marvins, and events are not likely to provide us with adequate substitutes for him. His steely gaze is mimicked today with smirks borne of immaturity and inexperience. Since when have contemporary actors taken knocks that would entitle them to stand beside him? Should we impose compulsory military service for all aspiring players in the hopes of developing future Lee Marvins?
The Dirty Dozen had a negative cost of 5.3 million. This was one of the year’s bigger expenditures for Metro. Grand Prix had been more, at 9.8 million, but lost 1.5. Aldrich’s show brought an astounding 20 million in domestic rentals, with 11.1 more from foreign. The final profit was 10.1 million. We had The Dirty Dozen going in and out of drive-ins for years to come. I saw it combo’ed with Point Blank in 1968, and you had to wade through 400 cars just to get a corn-dog. My friend Robert (Thornhill Entertainment) Cline was an exhibitor with the ABC theatre chain in the early seventies, and they picked up a double-bill of The Dirty Dozen with True Grit for a Summer 1972 outdoor saturation booking. The drive-ins paid twenty-five dollars flat for each feature and played them to capacity business for most of the engagement. When the MGM booking office got wind of the grosses, they instituted a new policy for all Metro prints --- no more flat rentals. An evergreen like The Dirty Dozen just couldn’t help making money, and that continued into television. The syndicated version had minor cuts. These were actually made in the negative, so each station running the picture had a sanitized print. We saw Lee Marvin kick John Cassevetes in the face, but Look, you little bastard was removed. This and other snippets were years getting back into television presentations of the film. The recently released HD-DVD offers the best looking Dirty Dozen yet, and is, of course, fully complete. We’ve come a long way from those tanned eastman 16 and 35mm copies that circulated on this title for so many years.