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Killin’ It With The Dirty Dozen: An Exclusive Excerpt and Rare Behind-the-Scenes Photos


As long as there have been movies there’s been action across all genres, with crime, westerns and war films providing some of the best moments in cinema history. Such action can also provide some strange developments. Actor James Cagney noted that in the memorable gangster films Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), they actually fired real bullets from the machine guns (!) that just barely missed him. The relaxing of censorship rules resulted in violent opuses like Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or even The Wild Bunch (1969) in which the use of small explosive squibs set the silver screen awash in fake blood. The late James Caan once humorously recalled being set up for his death scene in The Godfather (1972) in which the technician told him he’d never put so many squibs on a person all at once.

Caan replied, “You really didn’t need to tell me that.”

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That was then this is now. The advent of CGI (computer-generated imagery) has made the action in contemporary films much more brutal and more violent than ever before. However, some current filmmakers still choose to harken back to the glory days of so-called ‘practical effects’–and with good reason. The director of the John Wick films (2014-2023) and co-creator–Keanu Reeve’s partner in crime–Chas Stahleski has cited The Dirty Dozen (1967) as inspiration: “I grew up watching Bullitt, Clint Eastwood, World War Two movies like The Great Escape (1963), The Dirty Dozen, {The} Guns of Navarone (1961), {The} Battle of the Bulge (1966),” he says. “The level of practical effects was mind-boggling in these movies because the action felt so organic and raw. Tie that together with my background in martial arts, doing things practically has really become my aesthetic.”

One of those films, The Dirty Dozen, has never fallen out of favor with audiences as a highly lauded new book, Killin’ Generals: The Making of The Dirty Dozen, The Most Iconic WWII Movie of All Time can attest. Below, along with exclusive photos from the book, is an excerpt provided by its author, film historian and Hollywood.com contributor Dwayne Epstein.


Eighteen-year-old Pfc. Lee Marvin overseas during WW 2 in the Pacific.  

“It was perfect. I was twelve, thirteen years old; going through puberty. Here was this totally macho, rock ’em–sock ’em, heroic action movie—one of the best ‘mission’ movies ever made. Everything about it, top to bottom, was cool. And it turned me on to the movies. In a lot of ways, it made me want to go to the movies every single week to try to have that kind of experience that would just take you away.”

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—Oscar-winning director Ron Howard

1967 saw the release of such recognized classics as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Cool Hand Luke, and In the Heat of the Night. All these titles were groundbreaking classics. However, the film Ron Howard was referring to was one of the biggest box office successes of the year, The Dirty Dozen.

The two-and-a-half-hour film is set during World War II when renegade Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is assigned to train twelve military prisoners convicted of violent crimes for a suicide mission behind enemy lines. The film is structured in three parts: the recruitment of prisoners, their training, and the climactic mission. The result is an influential classic that still resonates more than fifty years later.

Many myths have been created about The Dirty Dozen, such as its basis in reality, what cast members actually thought of it, and who was meant to star in it and why. There are still ongoing controversies surrounding the film and the reasons for its popularity. Was it anti-war? Antiestablishment? Anti-authority? Its brutal ending shocked audiences and critics at the time of its release, and although the world has changed, it still packs a wallop to this day. The scene showing the incineration of perceived innocent civilians is still debated among movie enthusiasts.

The entire cast of The Dirty Dozen at the initial script reading in England. Clockwise from the bottom left are: Charles Bronson (Joseph Wladislaw), Richard Jaeckel (Sgt. Clyde Bowren), George Kennedy (Maj. Max Armbruster), Trini Lopez (Pedro Jiminez), Al Mancini (Tassos Bravos), Bob Phillips (Cpl. Carl Morgan), Jim Brown (Robert T. Jefferson), Donald Sutherland (Vernon Pinkley), John Cassavetes (Victor Franko), Robert Webber (Gen Francis Denton), director Robert Aldrich), Lee Marvin (Maj. John Reisman), Ernest Borgnine (Gen. Sam Worden), Telly Savalas (Archer Maggot), Robert Ryan (Col. Everett Dasher Breed), Clint Walker (Samson Posey), Colin Maitland (Seth Sawyer), Ben Carruthers (Glenn Gilpin), Stuart Cooper (Roscoe Lever), unidentified, and Tom Busby (Milo Vladek).

The film’s star, WWII combat veteran Lee Marvin, defended it at the time, stating, “Life is a violent situation. Let’s not kid ourselves about that. It’s not just the men n the chalet who were Nazis; the women were part of it too. I liked the idea of the final scene because it was their job to destroy the whole group, and maybe in some way speed the demise of the Third Reich. We glorify the Eighth Air Force for bombing cities when they killed one hundred thousand in one night, but remember, there were a lot of women and children burned up in those raids.”

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Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, there is still an undeniable appeal to the film that echoes through the decades. The nonconformity of the title characters aside, the theme that redemption of even the worst of humanity can still be achieved, or, at the very least, honestly attempted, underpins the film. It’s what drove the novel’s author, E. M. Nathanson, to write the tale. When done believably, with healthy doses of appropriate or bawdy humor, you have something akin to The Dirty Dozen. Created before the advent of CGI, the realistic pyrotechnic action exploding onscreen kept the film memorable.

The original theatrical trailer for The Dirty Dozen, one of the greatest action films ever made. 

The Dirty Dozen has been able to resonate through the decades in many ways. In the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks and Victor Garber tease Rita Wilson and Rosie O’Donnell when they cry as they talk about the ending of An Affair to Remember (1957). The men respond by shedding fake tears over The Dirty Dozen, especially Richard Jaeckel’s helmet.

The website for the popular cable network Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which frequently airs the film, cites several pop culture references, including the use of the title of the film in the name of the popular New Orleans jazz group the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The term “dirty dozen” is now in fairly widespread use, generally referring to a group of undesirables, such as the twelve most contaminated types of produce or the IRS’s list of the most common tax scams. The National Recreation and Park Association also uses the term for the twelve most common playground safety concerns and the League of Conservation Voters groups members of Congress who consistently vote against environmental causes under that title. A book published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, examining the twelve so-called worst Supreme Court cases from the authors’ point of view is called The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom. Most of all, in its style, attitude, and pushing the envelope of violence, The Dirty Dozen, as TCM notes, can be seen as a major precursor to modern-day action films, particularly those that feature a group of unlikely heroes banding together for an impossible mission.

Telly Savalas (left) and producer (Ken Hyman) in the studio.


Charles Bronson and Ken Hymn on location. Bronson signed the photo, “To Ken — Your only friend — Charlie.”

Released at a time of extreme nonconformity, Robert Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen became popular with viewers of all age groups, no matter their point of view, whether pacifist or militarist. The final nose thumb of the film’s last line–“Boy, oh boy. Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”—was the ultimate Bronx cheer. It was delivered sarcastically by actor Charles Bronson at the film’s finale after his character has witnessed the hypocrisy of his superiors. Redemption, loyalty, hypocrisy, competition, brutality, antiauthoritarianism, and nonconformity all played a role in making The Dirty Dozen the classic it has remained.

Dirty Dozen Novelist E.M. “Mick” Nathanson (center) visits the chateau set and poses with Robert Aldrich (left) and Lee Marvin (right).



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