Anti-War or Anti-People's Ideas About War? Reflections on The Dirty Dozen

Where two of the tallest men in Hollywood and Telly
Savalas walked towards a tank.
I recently watched Kelly's Heroes. It came with The Dirty Dozen, so I watched that too.

Kelly's Heroes is a heist romp with tanks (there are few things in life as satisfying as watching tanks roll over stuff).

The Dirty Dozen left me nonplussed. I'm still trying to figure out what I think. I completely disagree, however, with the reviews that claim it is an anti-war movie. Despite being the most intensely iconoclastic film on record, its message (if it has one) seems more Kipling-esque than anything.

Kipling believed that  (1) the British Empire was worth saving; (2) it would only be saved by mavericks like Stalky, not Eton-breed boys who dressed up in uniforms and ran war according to accepted "rules." He foresaw--and sadly endured--the utter destruction of World War I that was largely caused by the Eton-breed, boy mentality (for an excellent movie on the stupid yet practically inevitable series of events that preceded WWI, check out 37 Days). In Kim, he created the ultimate maverick--just civilized enough to be trustworthy yet not enough to undermine his usefulness.

Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) becomes Reisman's 
second in command. Here they are infiltrating
a Nazi-occupied chateau.
Hence The Dirty Dozen with John Cassavetes (Franko) as the Kim figure. The convicts with the most military training, such as Wladislaw (played flawlessly by Charles Bronson), are the most trustworthy. Except all the convicts consider the U.S. Army to be their enemy as much, if not more, than the Germans (in fact, the convicts show more empathy for the enemy in the end sequence than does Reisman, all of them balking slightly at their final orders). Yet they are absolutely loyal (except for Maggott) to each other and, in the end, to Reisman (or is he absolutely loyal to them?). They also quickly adjust to change; their killings (except for Maggott's) are specific, localized, and reluctant. Although they are temperamentally hostile and anti-authoritarian, the violence of their criminal acts is essentially unlike the violence of soldiering (not better or worse, simply unlike). Everybody's violence is unlike Maggott's, and Posey's violence belongs in a separate category altogether (Reisman intelligently places him on demolition duty rather than in the house).

There is no X marks the spot. Out of all the movies I've seen in the last two years, The Dirty Dozen reminded me most of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As I mention in the linked post, The Rocky Horror Picture Show presents its alternative culture completely indifferent to whether its audience approves or not. The Dirty Dozen feels like that. If there is a theme (and there probably isn't) it would be, "This is what war is. What, you think it's pretty? You think people don't do stuff like this?" To say this is "anti-war" doesn't seem to capture the narrative's detachment that lasts right up to Wladislaw's final indifferent response to the generals.

With less detachment and more joie de vivre, Kelly's Heroes carries a not totally dissimilar attitude. The most remarkable thing to me about Kelly's Heroes is the honest (and true) appraisal that as a motivator, money is more moral than ideology.

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