|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.|
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.|
|As portrayed in the film by Ralph Meeker.|
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.|
|As portrayed by Robert Ryan in the film.|
Finally, there's GENERAL WORDEN, your garden variety "Your ass is on the line!" authority figure.
|As portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in the film.|
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.|
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.|
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.)|
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.|
VICTOR FRANKO: Ah, Franko. The oppositional defiant disorder grown to manhood.
|As memorably portrayed by John Cassavettes in the film.|
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.|
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.|
His character is merged, somewhat, with:
MYRON ODELL: Changed to "Bravos" in the movie, as portrayed by:
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.|
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)|
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.