From Novel to Film pt. 13: The Dirty Dozen

Novel (1965) written by E.M. Nathanson.
Film (1967) directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller.

“Don’t ask for an ID card, Franko. Kill anybody who gets in your way as quietly and quickly as you can.”

First things first - this really isn't a war novel. It's a psychological drama with a military setting. If like most people you're only familiar with the film, this will be something of a surprise. The novel is 90% training and psychological exploration and 10% action.

Second, it's quite a bit different from the movie. The basic plot - a Major trains a dozen death row inmates for a suicide mission - is the same, but the characters, pacing, and tone are altered considerably from page to screen.

Third, it's quite good. The psychological drama is a tad dated in spots, sure. But overall the perspective is fairly enlightened - I hesitate to use the word "progressive," given the corruption of that term nowadays. More importantly, Nathanson handles the large cast effectively and individuates everyone quite well.

If I have one complaint, it's that the epilogue - written in the style of a post-operation report by a military adjutant, with the Dirty Dozen still "missing," i.e. as if we the reader have intercepted a classified report on the mission only a week out of D-Day - is a missed opportunity. The reader spends 600+ in the minds of these characters, and the mission to which everything has built is relayed second-hand. (Third-hand, really, since the adjutant making the report is only reporting what others have told him.) An ending written in the style of the rest of the book would have been more effective.  

Let's have a look at the characters.


MAJOR REISMAN: The main character. Much of the novel deals with his trying to reconcile his present situation as a leader of violent men with an act of violence from his youth that forced him to leave Chicago. This ties into his conflicted feelings about his Jewish father and Catholic mother (deceased) and the uncle-figure (Leon Osterman) who tracks him down in England. He receives a letter from his father at novel's beginning and finally responds at end.

Played in the film by Lee Marvin.
Changes: There is no Jewish/Catholic inner turmoil in the Reisman of the film, nor is there Osterman (the uncle-figure,) nor any relationship with his father. You'd figure that would make for a poor transition from page to screen, but Marvin gives such a "taut and pugnacious" performance (as the New York Times wrote at the time) that Reisman remains a memorable character. 

The director (Aldrich) seemed to stamp his own perspective and personality onto Reisman. As Time Out London noted: "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."

All of which is considerably visible in Marvin's performance.

COLONEL BOWREN: Reisman's right-hand man. He's more or less the same in the novel as he is in the movie.

Played in the film by Richard Jaeckel.
CAPTAIN KINDER: The Army psychologist who turns out to be Reisman's biggest supporter once the project begins to come under fire from the brass who authorized it. He is unflatteringly characterized by Napoleon (one of the prisoners - we'll get to them in a second) as "a type – the social service agency man (whose) most self-supportive and justifying function (was) to gather up the people and problems of his race for professional probing, picking, tearing, and rendering.”

As portrayed in the film by Ralph Meeker.
Kinder's conversations with Reisman about both the men and the criminal mentality provide for some of the novel's most memorable passages. “Do you know what you have in this bunch?” he asks Reisman after administering a Rorshach ink-blot test to the men. “The perfect Nazi mentality … chronic delinquent adolescents… an identification with the sufferings of some slick Hollywood gangster hero on the way to the electric chair with the whole world against him.” 

Reisman angers at this: “Adolescent gesture, hell! (A revenge murder) is the reasoned and necessary act of a man. It was an act of vengeance and purification. It has to be. Otherwise how can you justify what we’re doing here… what we’re going to do… the entire meaning of the Invasion and the war for that matter.”

The Dirty Dozen was published in 1965; it's a controversial statement to make only 20 years after the anti-Nazi effort, perhaps even 70+. And especially interesting in light of Reisman's own violent transgressions as a youth and the success of his military career after it. He sees himself reflected in the men even while he holds himself apart from them. 

MAJOR ARMBRUSTER: Another of Reisman's sympathetic superiors, though he is merged with Kinder, somewhat, for the film.

“Max Armbruster (had) an impressive mustache he had nurtured to lush fullness since landing in England, in the virile style affected by stalwarts of the local forces, and which was the pride of his personal life.” 

Something missing from George Kennedy's portrayal in the film.
COLONEL BREED: Reisman's nemesis. They have bad blood left over from a previous mission. Breed almost succeeds in getting the mission cancelled and Reisman court-martialed, but a combination of Reisman's men besting his in a wargame and other factors (excised for the film) removes him as an obstacle.

As portrayed by Robert Ryan in the film.
Breed makes use of MASTER SARGENT MORGAN as a mole within Reisman's men. The character does not appear in the film, unless he is one of the men at the gallows at the beginning. The former hangmen at Marston-Tyne Military Prison, Morgan is liked neither by the officers or the prisoners. He hates Reisman, as Reisman got the girl at The Butcher's Arms (the pub near the prison) that he coveted himself.

Finally, there's GENERAL WORDEN, your garden variety "Your ass is on the line!" authority figure.

As portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in the film.
That Borgnine is equally convincing as a General as he is as the head of a Satanic cult in The Devil's Rain or as as a simpleton lunatic cab driver in Escape from New York is either a testament to his abilities as an actor or the unheralded similarities between these positions.


I've included the results of Kinder's inkblot tests in each description.

NAPOLEON WHITE: The squad's only African-American soldier and outside Reisman, the novel's other main character. Reisman spends a lot of time with Napoleon. Both bring out the officer in one another (White was a lieutenant before going to the stockade) and both have different sides of their past vying for control.

Crime: Murder. Sentence: Death by hanging. Ink-blot: Knowing a little something about Rorshach tests, he simply gives answers that mess with Kinder.  

Napoleon's past - college athlete in New York, attending basic training and officer school in the Deep South during the early 40s, which gives rise to his crime, i.e. stabbing to death one of the men who attacked him when Napoleon recognizes him during the crossing, his impressions of England, his many comments on books, Freud, and other topics -  is dropped from the film. 

Portrayed by Jim Brown in the film.
Also, his last name is changed to "Jefferson." Someone, presumably - and somewhat understandably- thought "Jim Brown plays N. White" was too problematic. It's too bad the Napoleon of the novel isn't really in the film, but Jim Brown's in it, and that fits the Mount Rushmore A-Team quality of it all.

The Dirty Dozen famously ended Jim Brown's NFL career. At the time the running back for the Cleveland Browns, owner Art Modell demanded Brown choose football or acting. Brown chose acting. He hasn't the kind of career say Robert DeNiro has, but he transferred his football icon status to the silver screen and kicked a lot of ass along the way.

Still the Browns' all-time leading rusher.
Napoleon is referred to only as "a white-hating Negro" in that New York Times review. Which was funny to me - not just as SMH description on the reviewer's part, but because Napoleon is so much less a white-hating black man in the movie. Good thing Bosley Crowther, the NYT reviewer, didn't read the book. 

SAMSON POSEY: Also quite a bit different in the book. Posey is an illiterate Ute Indian who flashbacks frequently to life with his tribe and to his wife. As with Napoleon, it is admirable that - with one very notable exception, keep reading - Nathanson doesn't write Posey as just an Indian in with the whites (and Napoleon) but as a living, breathing three-dimensional character. 

As portrayed by Clint Walker in the film. (With Brown.)
Crime: Murder. Killed a pimp who pulled a knife on him, as well as two other murders on his record for people who cheated at cards. Posey really doesn't like people cheating at cards. Sentence: Death by hanging. Ink-blot: It conjures up memories of the Bear Dance and his life at home. But he doesn't know how to write, so we never learn what he puts for his answers.

I've seen the film a few dozen times and I'll be honest - I didn't realize the character was supposed to be a Native American until I read the book. 

Sure, Reisman tells him to show off a little of his "Apache know-how" in this scene.
But that's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it line of dialogue. Whereas in the novel, his Ute identity is identified throughout, and at the end, while manning the machine-gun at the sentry post, he switches into full-on Indian War Paint and regalia that he brought for that purpose. (I kid you not.) Understandable, I guess, why they left this out of the film. 

VICTOR FRANKO: Ah, Franko. The oppositional defiant disorder grown to manhood. 

As memorably portrayed by John Cassavettes in the film.
More or less the same from novel to film, except for his final fate. In the film, he is the last victim - the 191st, if you're keeping track - shot moments after cheering his improbable escape. In the book, Franko plans to defect to the Germans, and he is shot and killed by Colonel Bowren when he pulls a gun on Reisman to achieve this. 

Cassavettes's performance is described as "wormy and noxious" by Crowther. And it's certainly that. Among the actor's finest, even if he didn't think much of his own performance. 

Crime: Robbery and subsequent murder. Sentence: Death by hanging. Inkblot: a ghost behind a window.

ARCHER MAGGOT: The sadist among the sadists. The author's stand-in for the whole racist apparatus of the era. 

As portrayed by Telly Savalas in the film.
His dialogue is virtually unreadable. (“Hell no, Cap’m, ah doan wahna lead no mahch.”) But for what it's worth, Nathanson did a pretty good job rendering a Georgia dialect 

Crime: Rape, assault and battery. Sentence: Death by hanging. Inkblot: Maggot is obsessed with two things: rape and racism. So when faced with the inkblot, Nathanson gives us this: “(Maggot) didn’t think he ought to write down anything about a woman’s black crotch or a black woman’s crotch, so he wrote down “a big black n**ger cat.” 

Don't shoot the messenger, folks.
One of the odder things in the novel's epilogue is that Maggot and Napoleon both survive the assault on the château, but when Reisman and Bowren go for help, they leave Napoleon under Maggot's care. (Stowed away in a barn provided by the French Resistance.) Are we to believe Maggot had a change of heart as a result of training for the mission and wouldn't - as he explicitly states many times - kill him at the first opportunity? Or is this Nathanson adding layers to the story? I'm not exactly sure, but it stood out to me.

His character is merged, somewhat, with:

MYRON ODELL: Changed to "Bravos" in the movie, as portrayed by:

Al Mancini.
Probably the most changed character from book to film. The novel is concerned with the uninteresting (to me) question of his guilt or innocence, and this is teased out through the whole book, including an odd visit back (with Reisman and Osterman) all the way to Scotland to the scene of the crime, for psychological motivation. This subplot didn’t make much sense to me and was judiciously excised from the film.

Crime: Rape and murder. Did he do it? You don't know until the end. I won't spoil it, but the film grafts Odell's end in the book onto Maggot's actions in the film. Sentence: Death by hanging. Inkblot: a dirty mess.

Both novel and film spend less time with Luis Jimenez (Inkblot: part of a woman,) Roscoe Lever (Inkblot: "It’s nothing,") Kendall Sawyer (Inkblot: a bat,) Glenn Gilpin (Inkblot: also a bat,) and the bible-thumper Calvin Ezra Smith (Inkblot: a butterfly. Someone had to say "a butterfly." Maggot gets Sawyer's bible-thumping in the film.) Reisman's appraisal of these characters as a group is worth reproducing here:

"He had seen them in country roadhouses, village cafes and city taverns across the face of the nation. In the Bible Belt towns where they rejected National Repeal and the bootleg was secretive and dishonest, and they brought their own and ordered mixin's, and the room was always tense. On narrow, wooded, mountain New England roads where they grew up angry at the cities and there wasn't a goddamned thing to do Saturday nights except roar their old jalopies through the hamlets, picking up girls, scaring the tourists. In neighborhood Chicago, where they stepped across the street and were in a foreign country, and the juke box music and small talk were different, and God help them if they were in the wrong place when the natives were feeling mean. On the vast Southwest plains and prairies that fed and fueled an empire that was running ahead of it, where they brought their own loneliness and frustration to share, and, finding no takers, went away meaner than ever.

"They were the men across the face of the great question mark of America who seemed always to be seeking something they never found, always ready to argue or fight, or join some scheme to make a quick buck. (...) They might have girlfriends or wives - good women who whimpered for them or slatterns who bled them. They might have children whom they patted or punished as their inclinations dictated. But this was really their lives, this sitting around, waiting for excitement, for stimulation, enthusiasm, for someone stronger to point the way to the next lot of trouble."

Pretty evocative description of what I can only assume was a great swath of men in mid-20th-century America. (Describes most of my former customers at the VFW, as well.)

And the film expands the roles of the two remaining:

JOSEPH WLADISLAW, as portrayed by Charles Bronson. In the novel he sees an x-ray in the inkblot, whereas in the film, he gets the "just messing around with Kinder" exchange that is Napoleon's in the novel. 

And VERNON PINKLEY, as portrayed by Donald Sutherland.

Inkblot: A bat.
His impersonation of the General is probably the film's best comedic scene, thanks in part to how Sutherland plays it, but also thanks to the enthusiastic band leader who keeps misreading his cue to start the fanfare. 


I've referred to Crowther's NYT review a few times. I should mention he thought the film was morally repugnant, a "raw and preposterous glorification of criminal behavior." He even saw the innovative tactics employed by Reisman's men during the wargames sequence as "so loaded in favor of the felons and their deceitful tactics that it proves nothing but the meretriciousness of the film." This seems very wrong-headed to me, but I'm sure it made sense to him. Crowther also takes issue with what he perceives as the film's misogyny:

"The only women who appear, incidentally, are the German concubines at the château and a group of seven sleazy prostitutes with which the major generously rewards his raunchy mob of commandos after their exhausting training course. This little touch of "realism" is but another manifestation of the deliberate endeavor to make this a sadistic film."

He is correct in that there aren't really any parts for women in this film. Not counting Ann Lancaster's "They're filthy" line during the prostitutes scene, I think Dora Reisser -

(the German Officer girl that Maggot terrorizes) 
is the only non-male with a speaking part. Speaking of the prostitutes scene, this is a bit different from the novel, when it's only a single lady shows up at the camp to (ahem) service the men. (Individually, of course, in 15 minute intervals.) Except Posey (who tells Reisman no thanks, he's married), Odell (who runs away, indignant), Smith (the bible-thumper), Napoleon (who insists on a black woman), and Maggot, who tries to kill her once he learns Napoleon was in with her before him, even though they never touched one another.

But the novel offered a few choice parts for women that the film could have used. There's Tess Simmons – the girl at the Butcher’s Arms. She and Reisman form a connection that goes beyond carnality, and some of the novel's most effective characterization of Reisman manifests during his scenes with Tess. And there's also Lady Margot Strathallen, the combative mistress of the estate on which Reisman and his men train. She feeds information to Colonel Breed and turns out to be a German spy (of sorts.)  

"This war was not started for your private gratification, and you can be damned sure it's not being run for your personal convenience, either."

FINAL VERDICT: A pretty solid book - like I say, a tad dated, but it approaches the brutality of war from an interesting angle. While not the most faithful adaptation, it's a carefully-culled one, especially for 1967. The film is a standalone classic.


  1. In in this day and age of shoddy sequels and pointless remakes, this review has done the impossible. It's actually made me wonder what a direct remake would be like!

    I especially wonder how a remake would go if you kept in all the major character traits from the novel. Perhaps, with any luck, audiences are more ready for a film like this than the were back in the late 60s - early 70s.

    For my part, I was actually amazed to discover Poesy's character was Native American. That's not a blink and miss it situation, that's a situation that's barely in the film at all. Har! That said, I always felt at least a bit sorry for Franko at the very end.

    Speaking of remakes, would you believe me if said there was a one man film made out of First Blood!



    1. Holy moley - I've heard of that movie but have never read much about it. I have to carve out 96 minutes, stat. Thanks for the link.

      An adaptation that put back in all the stuff they took out would certainly be interesting. The Dirty Dozen as it is is such a specific entry in the Bad-Ass Movie Canon that I can certainly understand resistance to it. That and memory of the various TV sequels they made. But a faithful adaptation of the novel has never been tried and would be interesting to see. Would it "top" the Lee Marvin version? I hate questions like that. Well, "hate." But why the competition? One's an adaptation of the book from the 60s; one would be an adaptation from now. Is the latter a threat to the former? Could I ask myself more questions? Can the Muad'dib suppress the jihad that is his destiny? (Sorry, just finished Dune. The spice has seeped into anything.)

      Anyway, I for one would love to see it. If done well. I say dumb and obvious things sometimes such as "Sure, if it was good," but what can I say? It could be a Kubrick's Shining/ Shining mini-series situation. But I'm all for the attempt.

      Sorry, just finished reading Dune.

    2. I'll admit, if anything gives me pause in considering the idea of a "Dozen" remake (and I didn't know about those TV specials at all, really) is that they might do one of two things that could totally ruin it; one would be to mistake the material for just another "Expendables" knock-off and film and market it as such, the other would just be to turn the source material itself into another "Expendables" entry.

      Also, as someone whose tended lately toward favoring the conserving old Hollywood, I can see how it would be a question of whether today's filmmaker's have the kind of work ethic that they had back in Marvin's day.


    3. I seem to have apologized one time too many for reading Dune in my original comment. Did not mean to be redundant.

      Re-dune-dant. Oh no he didn't!

      But, sadly, he did.

      Now, as to the question to contemporary work ethic vs. Aldrich's and Marvin's day, it's a good question. Some do, certainly, but have things changed so much that the kind of approach in that era wouldn't be feasible nowadays? Or even understandable?

    4. "Re-dune-dant" -- where is my like button?!? Rarely have I needed it more than I need it now!

  2. "That Borgnine is equally convincing as a General as he is as the head of a Satanic cult in The Devil's Rain or as as a simpleton lunatic cab driver in Escape from New York is either a testament to his abilities as an actor or the unheralded similarities between these positions."

    I've never seen Devil's Rain and haven't seen Dirty Dozen in years, but my take on this given my (admittedly slim) knowledge is that Borgnine specialized in seeming to feel he was in charge of his own little corner of the world. And that's a quality you would certainly need as a cult leader, a General, OR a cab driver.

    Somebody else mentioned the idea of a remake, so I'll weigh in on that. I say, why not? A movie like this one seems custom-designed to be great no matter how many times you retell it, because so much of it depends on the cast and the ways in which they interact with each other. Similar to "The Magnificent Seven" in that regard (which is, you guessed it, being remade). But then again, remakes don't chap my ass the way they do so many people's, so maybe I'm a bit too lax on the subject.

    This was a lot of fun to read! I had no idea there was a novel.

    1. Thanks, glad to hear it! I have my buddy Jim for bringing my attention to this being fodder for a From Novel to Film entry. Despite seeing the film dozens of times since childhood, it completely slipped my mind. I may never even have noticed, which makes me wonder how many other things I'm going to discover about things I'm supposedly familiar with.