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Mission Almost Impossible: “The Dirty Dozen”

Dirtydozen If you’re currently a General in the US Army, you probably caught The Dirty Dozen in theaters—over and over again—when you were a teenager. The movie hustles you through boot camp, then introduces you to a sampler of convicted rapists and murderers offered a chance at amnesty if they complete (and survive) a dangerous mission. From the first five minutes, it’s clear to even the Major-in-charge (Lee Marvin) that this set-up is pathologically senseless.  But you’re in the Army now and an order’s an order, so this gang of bad seeds is basically predestined to its fate.

Regarded in its day as explicitly violent, director Robert Aldrich’s war pic shocks now more because of a lighthearted moral ambivalence in which the line between soldier and prisoner is blurred, and the concerned warnings of a psychologist are presented as comic relief. This is a time when a truck full of prostitutes could be driven out into the woods and offered to an encampment of killers as a reward for good behavior. Still, by the time the Major’s boys have been whipped into shape, you far prefer their blatantly corrupt dysfunctional family to the “respectable” regiments  with their by-the-book brutality. And by the time you reach the notorious climax, you can’t help but wonder whether war is about slaying the enemies or our own personal demons.

The ensemble is dazzling with John Cassavete’s queasy, knowing smile stealing every scene, and Telly Savalas raising hackles as an irredeemable serial killer.  War movies don’t get much grittier than this one; nobody, including the viewer, gets out clean.

The Dirty Dozen airs tonight, Wednesday, December 26th at 8 p.m.  EST | 7 C.

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