Brett Sherris’ Summer Camp Cinema
Lee Marvin in
THE DIRTY DOZEN
Brad Pitt in
Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” Accepting that axiom, it stands to reason that at best, most grade school history students are only getting half the story. In the case of this week’s Summer Camp Cinema double-bill, neither of our World War II era features are telling true tales. Throughout the past half-century of pulp film fiction – from mainstream domestic adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark to Norway’s snowbound horror flick Dead Snow – Nazis have frequently been cast as made-to-order villains. Slice, dice and burn ‘em, they just keep coming. In short, Hollywood has perverted historical reality into fictional cannon-fodder.
Although sold to audiences as historical drama, Robert Aldrich’s 1967 adventure film The Dirty Dozen, is only loosely based on a WWII era airborne demolition team known as “Filthy Thirteen.” There were many instances during the war where frequently disciplined enlisted men and convicts were pressed into service for high risk operations, and fictionalized adventures of the “Thirteen” were employed by author E.M. Nathanson in producing the source material for Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Lee Marvin (in a role that was originally fashioned for John Wayne) headlines as OSS Major Reisman, an insubordinate Army officer facing a court-martial who is given one last shot at redemption; select twelve Army miscreants and train them for a covert suicide mission behind German lines to blow up a German officers resort on the eve of D-Day. No patently preposterous concoction such as this would be much fun without a colorful collection of psychological inpatients. According to critic Bosley Crowther, “John Cassavetes is wormy and noxious as a psychopath condemned to death, and Telly Savalas is swinish and maniacal as a religious fanatic and sex degenerate, Charles Bronson as an alienated murderer, Richard Jaeckel as a hard-boiled military policeman, and Jim Brown as a white-hating Negro stand out in the animalistic group.” Aldrich is having such a good time with this wholly improbable over the top concept, directing a cast unabashedly chewing the scenery, and going for broke, it hardly matters that none of this ever happened. (USA, 1967, 150 min., color, Not Rated, Blu-ray)
During an interview on the Charlie Rose Show, director Quentin Tarantino described the original premise of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds as his “bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission film. [It's] my Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone kind of thing.” Operatic in tone, tense yet disarmingly playful, Basterds is told from the vantage point of the leaders of two wholly unconnected assassination plots against Hitler; American first lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and a young French-Jewish cinema owner Shoanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), Tarantino’s narrative plays more like an “alternate” or historical “variant” than a complete fabrication. While Aldrich’s film managed to offend more than its share of critics (most particularly a young Roger Ebert) with its utterly cavalier, ethical correctness be damned attitude, Tarantino’s no holds barred, take no prisoners posture proves just how ahead of its time The Dirty Dozen actually was. A master of merging intense violence with sardonically combustible humor, Tarantino virtually gags the audience with diametrically opposed explosions of wit and gore; allowing the audience mere milliseconds to decide how to react. Featuring standout performances by Pitt, Laurent, and Christoph Waltz (who took home a Supporting Oscar for his lip-curling, skin-crawling portrayal of German officer Hans Landa), Basterds is incisive and utterly compelling historical revisionism. (USA, 2009, 153 min., color, Rated R, 35mm)